Category Archives: Literature

Diversifying Our Professional Literature

This post is written by member Rose Peterson. 

rosepetersonI cracked the cover of the school’s grammar textbook, frantically hoping to find something I could salvage for the next day’s required weekly grammar lesson. I located the section on capitalization, a skill that had proven to be a struggle for my students. I was stunned by the answers to Section 12:

  1. Arctic
  2. Irish, Norse
  3. Scandinavian, Celtic
  4. Icelandic, pro-Norwegian

Textbook bias was no longer a distant problem when I looked from the brown faces of my students down to the whitewashed answers in my grammar textbook. In today’s public schools, black students represent approximately 26 percent of students, 50 percent of students here in Milwaukee, and 99 percent of students in my classes, but the majority of curricular materials continue to cater to white audiences. I firmly closed the cover, and thus began my journey of creating meaningful work for my kids from scratch.

The next logical step on this journey was turning to professional literature. While there is something to be gained from everything read, I find reading professional literature to be stickier now that I am teaching in an urban setting. I get excited about what teachers elsewhere are doing with their kids, and I leap to implement those ideas in my own classroom, forgetting that my kids are still learning how to “do school,” to write one-paragraph journals in 10 minutes, to be quiet for longer than 15 seconds at a time. Everything requires serious adaptation. It is exhausting enough to be an urban educator at all—to remain patient in the face of serious behavioral issues, to attend countless IEP meetings and expulsion hearings, to withstand district pressure about failure rates—but creating, or at least adapting, appropriate curriculum on top of the unique everyday strain is the added weight that drives urban teachers back into the comprehension questions in textbooks.

Nonetheless, my frustration is just a glimpse of the reality my kids experience daily when they try to reconcile their experiences in black communities with the white world that dominates the media. They, too, must adapt everything. Nothing is ready-made for young black kids other than the way of the streets.

As the critically conscious, culturally compassionate NCTE members we are, we have done a great job of advocating for adding diverse texts to our classroom libraries, for offering kids alternative realities to those the world may project. What we sometimes forget, though, is that while we fill gaps in young adult literature, many cultural gaps are ever widening in professional literature. We have authors like Sharon Draper, Kwame Alexander, Jason Reynolds, and Jacqueline Woodson bringing diverse experiences to classroom libraries across the country. Where are equivalent champions of diversity in the realm of professional literature? There are no Penny Kittles or Kelly Gallaghers or Jeff Wilhelms or Donalyn Millers of the hood.

There may be the occasional book—For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood, or classics by authors like Lisa Delpit and Gloria Ladson-Billings—but other than that, the genre is sparsely populated. We see a handful of rotated lessons, the most popular of which relies upon Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly. While the album is truly brilliant, this heavily used lesson concept is not enough. First, as any other teacher, urban teachers have dozens of weeks to fill, and a single album is not enough material to engage students for an entire school year. We need more ideas and inspiration for relevant, culturally responsive curriculum than a single album. Secondly, while this lesson is intended to be relevant to urban students’ lives, my kids do not even listen to Kendrick Lamar. They listen to Lud Foe and Bless Team and Lil Boosie. Well-intentioned as it may be, this “social justice lesson plan” ends up being yet another thing urban teachers have to adapt.

I am not in search of a copy-and-paste curriculum; I am in search of inspiration and ideas that come from a place of understanding about black urban students to help me teach them in ways that help them reach their potential instead of assuming they’re already there.

I want to know it can happen. I want to know I am not crazy for believing in my kids. I want to believe that independent reading and writing workshop and multigenre research projects and self-guided learning can work with my urban, black kids. I want to know I am not the only one struggling to figure out how. In order for this to happen, we must diversify our professional literature just as we have diversified our classroom libraries to reflect the experiences of teachers in diverse environments.

Black kids already know that this world is not kind to them. As their teachers, the least we can do is ensure that our professional literature helps us make our English classrooms welcoming and relevant to their lives.

Rose Peterson is a first-year English teacher at an urban high school in Milwaukee. Follow her @therosepeterson.

Making a Deep Connection

This post is written by member Aaron McNabb. 

aaronmcnabbAs an educator, selecting a book to read for class can be a difficult task. There are so many questions to answer: is it a good fit for my students? What themes do I want to teach? Will my students connect with the story? This barely scratches the surface, and of course there are many other questions that a special education teacher must ask.

Getting struggling readers interested is challenge number one. I wanted a book that students would connect with, that has a strong protagonist, and that is ultimately an interesting story. Fortunately, I found a book that meets many of the criteria I had in mind: The Other Side of the Sky, a memoir by Farah Ahmedi.

the-other-side-of-the-sky-150x150

Ahmedi experiences unimaginable challenges that many of us in the western world would never encounter. She becomes disabled after stepping on a landmine, and then lives under Taliban rule. During the war between the Mujahideen and Taliban, she loses her family in a mortar attack. To save her life she seeks refuge in Pakistan, but unfortunately, living in a United Nations refugee camp is nearly as dangerous as living in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Ultimately, she comes to the United States, but that brings on a host of other challenges.

I prefaced our study of the book by making sure that students in my class had a solid background on the history and culture of Afghanistan and Pakistan. An understanding of the Taliban, Sharia law, the September 11th terrorist attacks, and UN refugee camps was going to be necessary to understand the book. To become acquainted with the setting and historical context, we read articles about these topics, looked at maps, watched video clips, and examined pictures.

It was eye opening for my students to learn about Sharia law, particularly about how women are treated under such circumstances. According to Ahmedi, after the Taliban took control of Kabul in 1996, women were required to wear chadaris (or burqas) while in public. The students were shaken to learn that women were denied education, were not allowed to drive, and were not allowed to leave the house without a male escort.

After class one day a student expressed to me how lucky she felt to have access to an education. This wasn’t just a comment to appease me; this struck a deep nerve in her. It’s these exchanges in a classroom that make teaching so worthwhile.

While reading the book, my students marveled at Farah Ahmedi’s resilience and connected to her struggle. One student was a childhood cancer survivor who missed critical years of literacy development in kindergarten and first grade. She was a struggling reader, but Farah’s story brought out a confidence I had not yet seen. She started participating in readings and discussions for the first time all year.

On January 28, President Trump signed an executive order that banned refugees from entering the Unites States. The following Monday students came back to school and were shocked by the news. Coincidentally, we were reading about the vetting process that Farah was experiencing while trying to seek refugee status in America. We discussed how people like Farah were being barred from entering the United States. Emotions ran high in my class, but it was a pleasure watching the passion and connection these students were making between the real world and the memoir they were reading.

We finished the book several days later. Over the course of the reading, students formed a strong emotional attachment to Farah and her story. They wanted to know more and more about her and started asking me questions I could not answer. We looked her up on the Internet and found her website. Ultimately we discovered that she does motivational speeches to students across the country. This was the beginning of our effort to bring Farah to our school. We are fundraising now and getting closer to the goal.

Aaron McNabb is a seventh-grade special education teacher. He teaches English in a pull-out and inclusive model at the Amesbury Middle School in Amesbury, Massachusetts. This is his ninth year working with students with disabilities.

Read Across America and Dr. Seuss Texts

raa-2017-web-ad_180x150Take part in the largest reading event in the United States on Thursday, March 2! Gather books and readers for NEA’s Read Across America Day, celebrated on or around the birthday of Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. The books of Dr. Seuss are easy to integrate into the classroom:

Hop on Pop provides simple rhymes to help beginner reading, such as a character named Pat who sits on a hat, a cat, a bat and must not sit on that (which is a cactus). Through the contrast of short-vowel patterns and use of Dr. Seuss rhymes, students apply their knowledge of vowel sounds in reading and spelling new words in the lesson plan, “Teaching Short-Vowel Discrimination Using Dr. Seuss Rhymes“.

Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You?: Dr. Seuss’s Book of Wonderful Noises! was written so children would be able to learn about onomatopoeia and the sounds that they hear every day. Boom! Br-r-ring! Cluck! Moo! In the lesson plan, “Dr. Seuss’s Sound Words: Playing with Phonics and Spelling” students use these sounds to write their own poems based on this book.

In Green Eggs and Ham, a character known as “Sam-I-Am” pesters an unnamed character to eat a dish of green eggs and ham. In the lesson plan, “Reading Everywhere with Dr. Seuss” young readers celebrate all the places they can read by creating a classroom book modeled after Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham.

The Lorax chronicles the plight of the environment and the Lorax (a mossy, bossy man-like creature resembling an emperor tamarin), who speaks for the trees against the greedy Once-ler. In “Using Picture Books to Teach Plot Development and Conflict Resolution” students explore the concepts of plot development and conflict resolution through focused experiences with picture books. A great example conflict passage comes from Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax where the Lorax describes the plight of the Brown Bar-ba-loots.

In The Butter Battle Book, the conflict between the Yooks and the Zooks over which side of bread to spread butter on leads to an arms race, each competing to make bigger and nastier weapons to outdo the other, which results in the threat of mutual assured destruction. This lesson plan uses the Dr. Seuss’s The Butter Battle Book as an accessible introduction to satire. Reading, discussing, and researching this picture book paves the way for a deeper understanding of Gulliver’s Travels.

The Cat in the Hat brings his companions, Thing One and Thing Two, to a household of two young children one rainy day. Chaos ensues while the children wonder how they are going to explain what happens to their mother. This book is is used as a primer to teach students how to analyze a literary work using plot, theme, characterization, and psychoanalytical criticism in the lesson plan, “Id, Ego, and Superego in Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat“.

The Zax” is part of The Sneetches and Other Stories in which a North-going Zax and a South-going Zax meet face to face in the Prairie of Prax. They refuse to move out of the way for one another and end up staying there. This story teaches the value of compromise. In this ReadWriteThink.org lesson plan, older students will read “The Zax” and analyze the way social issues are addressed. Students can then discuss how these issues relate to the conflicts and social issues in their own lives.

How do you plan to celebrate Dr. Seuss and Read Across America?

Teaching Resistance in Unjust Times

This post is written by NCTE Historian Jonna Perillo. 

jonnaperrilloLike many of you, I took pleasure in reading the many reports that George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 had risen in sales by 10,000 percent in the weeks following the election. If there was any good news to be found, knowing that many more Americans were reading Orwell’s critique of “newspeak” and authoritarian rule was it.

As someone who spends a lot of time in schools, I wondered how many of those readers were teachers. 1984 has long been canonical high school reading, but even short novels often have been sacrificed in the expediency game of standardized curricula and testing. My not so secret hope is that English teachers are going off the rails, assigning Orwell’s work as a necessary act of resistance against both political “doublethink” and a mindless approach to teaching.

It would mark an important change if so. I have heard from many teachers over the last several months—some I know, many I don’t—that they strive to be apolitical in their work. They see how some of texts they teach respond to world events, but some teachers try not to entertain explicitly political conversations even so. This wasn’t always the way.

During both world wars, teachers were required to politicize their work. In a 1942 document entitled “The Role of the English Teacher in Wartime,” the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) outlined the ways in which English instruction should work as a tool of resistance against the enemy and a means to promote a sense of national unity.

Some of this work was ideological and restrictive. Teachers were expected to assign “patriotic literature” that “proclaimed” and “interpreted” (but did not critique or examine the limitations of) democratic life. Yet they were also expected to be more inclusive and to teach works that recognized “the rights and contributions of minorities in this country . . . and those loyal aliens who may be under suspicion at the moment because of descent from enemy nations.”[1] Textbook adoptions and district curricular plans indicate that this happened less often than it should have, but NCTE’s goal for diversity was important nevertheless.

Recently, I have heard many stories of young students who have asked their teachers why the president hates them. In communities across the nation, students suddenly feel under attack. To this, what do we say? What is the role of the English teacher in unjust times?

We live in a different historical moment from that of the mid-twentieth century, one in which politics in the classroom feels both more complex and riskier. But as the skyrocketing sales of 1984 might indicate, more and more, many find avoiding politics an untenable position to hold.

Reading another classic by Orwell, his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” offers humanities teachers a compelling tool for change. In it, Orwell dissects how language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” “Bad hombres” is not just a juvenile phrase; its linguistic carelessness captures the laziness of the totalizing and inaccurate assumptions it describes.

Orwell shows that language is often used in a “curiously dishonest way” to produce “a reduced state of consciousness . . . [and] political conformity.” Say the phrase “alternative facts” often enough, he would argue, and people just might believe such a thing could exist. Readers and listeners must always be on guard for flat metaphors and empty, recycled phrases that are purposely devoid of meaning. All discourage real thought.

In contrast, Orwell positions the language-conscious writer as a “rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a ‘party line.’” Ours is an especially important time for students to read a rich tradition of rebellious writing in this country—fiction and nonfiction—and to see how both the ideas and the expression of those ideas differ from the status quo.

Orwell implicitly challenges the kind of easy, patriotic sentiment that was central to the politicization of teaching during World War II. But it also reminds of us why NCTE’s push toward inclusion, at a time concurrent with Jim Crow laws and the incarceration of Japanese Americans, was a meaningful statement of resistance. What might such meaningful statements look like now? And to whom should our students be addressing them?

I suspect the return to 1984 is a sign of Americans’ search for a resistance handbook. Teachers, especially, have needed such a thing for a long time. If our current political climate is useful for anything, it might compel us to consider just how much has been lost in a laser focus on standardization that has asked teachers to conform to expedient, simplistic ideas about language, reading, and writing.

No student should feel like their president hates them. But all students should feel like their teachers are their allies. The most important way we can do this is to enable our students to become more adept and aware thinkers and people. Teaching English is all the more meaningful a pursuit in these unjust times.

[1] National Council of Teachers of English Planning Commission, “The Role of the English Teacher in Wartime,” box 1, record series 15/73/803, NCTE Archives, Urbana, IL.

Jonna Perrillo is associate professor of English education at the University of Texas at El Paso and author of Uncivil Rights: Teachers, Unions, and the Battle for School Equity.

What It Was Like: Building Empathy with Historical Fiction

This post is written by member Jessica Tyson. 

jessicatysonJulie Otsuka’s beautiful novel When the Emperor Was Divine begins with a quiet moment. A woman stops on the street in Berkeley, California. She reads a sign posted to a telephone pole. She writes a note to herself on a scrap of paper and heads home.

This quotidian scene doesn’t promise much for some restless ninth graders in my English classes. Reading aloud, as I always do when we begin a novel together, I move around my classroom to ensure that everyone stays with me. But a few more pages in, my vigilance is no longer needed. The story turns, students sit up in their chairs, and by the time the bell rings, the class is arguing heatedly about what they’ve just read: back at her house, the woman beckons an obedient family pet. The dog does what it’s told—and she kills it with one determined stroke of a shovel.

The dominant reaction to this scene in the classroom every year is one of vehement recrimination. Even for those who aren’t animal lovers, the idea of killing one’s family dog is anathema. However, before long a student or two will usually raise a different perspective: what if the woman has no choice but to kill her dog? What if this terrible thing is actually a good thing?

The reasoning behind this seemingly topsy-turvy logic is sound. The students who bring it up are the ones who are first to make the connection between this strange scene and the larger historical context we’ve been studying. Otsuka’s novel is a work of historical fiction set during World War Two. It is about Japanese internment, when the United States government removed more than 110,000 people of Japanese descent, including American citizens, from their homes and sent them to camps and detention centers scattered across the country. By the time I begin reading the novel with my students every year, I have introduced the basic outlines of this history. When we finish reading the first chapter of the book, I pass out a reproduction of a sign much like the one the woman in the book reads on the telephone pole. Students confront the same sign the woman sees, and formulate a new question: Is the woman, in committing this cruel act, being kind?

internmentnotice
Civilian exclusion order #5, posted at First and Front streets, directing removal by April 7 of persons of Japanese ancestry, from the first San Francisco section to be affected by evacuation

Yes, some students begin to argue. Perhaps, they say, the woman kills the family dog because she wants to spare her children some small uncertainty in the face of looming unknowns. The sign on the telephone pole tells her that no pets will be allowed where they’re going. She knows that her children will be upset if they have to consider what to do with the dog. So she gets rid of the dog.

Not all students are convinced. (Couldn’t she just give the dog to a neighbor?) But they are all wrestling with a question whose answer had seemed straightforward but now appears much more complex than they realized. Otsuka’s novel is one of my favorites to teach because it engages my students in precisely this way. It asks the reader to contemplate a moment in history which so distorted people’s lives that killing a dog might have been a kind act. This adjustment of assumptions, and the attendant discomfort of changing one’s mind, is the very mechanism of building empathy. In considering the woman’s action kind and not cruel once we understand its larger context, we put ourselves in the woman’s place, at least for a moment, moving from judgment to empathy.

Last year, I asked my students to reflect on what they had learned from reading When the Emperor Was Divine as part of their study of Japanese internment. Many of their responses used the phrase “what it was like.” “I learned what it was like to be in the internment camps,” one student wrote. Another said, “I learned what it was like for people who experienced incarceration.” Students didn’t just learn what happened; they learned what it was like to live through it.

There are good reasons to teach Julie Otsuka’s novel today. In addition to helping students build historical empathy, I believe there is a chance that reading about distant lives can help us learn empathy for those around us today. When the Emperor Was Divine is a difficult story about difficult history. It can be deeply unsettling to teach and to learn about a moment in our country’s past that was identified at the time and has been rightly described ever since as a source of national shame. It can be hard to reconcile the historical reality of Japanese internment with American ideals, past and present. However, the difficulty of this story does not excuse us from teaching it. Indeed, in our present moment, filled with xenophobic rhetoric, building empathy is more important than ever.

oaklandstorefront
Oakland, Calif., Mar. 1942. A large sign reading “I am an American” placed in the window of a store, at 13th and Franklin streets, on December 8, the day after Pearl Harbor. The store was closed following orders to persons of Japanese descent to evacuate from certain West Coast areas. The owner, a University of California graduate, will be housed with hundreds of evacuees in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration of the war. Photographer: Dorothea Lange

Jessica Tyson is a public high school English and history teacher from Oakland, California. This year she is on sabbatical in Philadelphia, working on projects ranging from assisting student researchers at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to helping Philly teachers implement curriculum from Poetry Inside Out