A necessary conversation

This fall I took a close look at my curriculum in AP Literature, and realized I’d failed. This understanding occurred at a state conference of English teachers, where H. Bernard Hall, assistant professor of English education at West Chester University, spoke to a room full of (mostly white) teachers. He challenged us to re-examine our curriculum with all of our students in mind. Can each student see a representation of themselves in what we read? After teaching James Joyce, William Faulkner and Herman Melville, I realized I needed to make an immediate change.

Thus, students recently completed a unit entitled “Diversifying AP Literature,” where they read and discussed a variety of books, including “The Joy Luck Club,” “To the Lighthouse,” “Tracks” and “The Kite Runner,” among others. We started the unit by talking about representation. Where had they seen themselves in books taught in school? Where could they see themselves in the media? Student responses were passionate and powerful. One student wrote “Representation is extremely important, I remember being younger and there were no Barbies that had my skin tone, my hair, or even my facial features and I remember wondering why other girls in my class looked like Barbie but I didn’t.” Other students remarked how frustrating it was to talk about race because people often equate racism with just black and white — but students of Asian and Indian descent sometimes felt excluded from the conversation.

The authentic responses reminded me I need to always be aware of how what I do in the classroom impacts my students — whether through explicit curricular decisions or the hidden curriculum — what I might do subconsciously. I had unthinkingly chosen works at the beginning of the year that I love to teach, not thinking about what message that might send to students in terms of literary merit, and what comprises the canon.

Because our 10th-grade curriculum teaches world literature, and asks students to consider the “Danger of a Single Story” (see the TED talk of the same title by Chimamanda Adichie) I hadn’t thought about my responsibility as a senior teacher to continue the conversation about race. I realized recently, though, that we — I — need to talk about racism. We need to have a conversation about how our students see themselves represented (or not represented) in our curriculum, in the media, and in the world. Many of my students chose to read TaNehisi Coates’ book “Between the World and Me” as a choice option because they want to continue reading and thinking about race issues. As Nelson Mandela said, “Children are our greatest treasure. They are our future.” Let’s listen to our children, then, because they are ready to talk about race — and we should join them in that conversation.

Kate Walker has been teaching high school English for 18 years, the past 10 at State High. This year she teaches AP Literature and Modern Classics.


What: Let’s Talk About Race — For a Change

When: 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Feb. 27

Where: Easterly Parkway Elementary School, 234 Easterly Parkway, State College

More info: Preregister at www.scasd.org/Page/401