In my seventh year teaching English/language arts, I moved to a new school. As part of the orientation, one of the veteran English teachers kindly provided me the essential reading list for 10th grade students. When I reviewed the list, something just didn’t sit well. The entire list was filled with books either written by men or featuring white, male protagonists. The only exception was the tragic, unlikeable protagonist in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, whose toxic masculine ideals lead to his demise.
I felt like a wall of bricks had fallen on my head. Was I about to subliminally teach my students that no one who looked like them could be a protagonist, or a true hero who models quality attributes? After all, when I looked at my classroom, I saw seats filled mostly with students of color, many of them young women, and some of them from other countries. I was teaching at a Title I school where roughly 70 percent of our population was from diverse backgrounds. Knowing that I would be teaching these “essential pieces” to students left a lump in my throat. The irony of it all. Here I was, an immigrant from Malawi, Africa, who grew up in the United States as an impoverished English-language learner student, now teaching other students in a manner I knew was not beneficial to them. It was all I could take—I had to do something different, not only for my students but also for myself. Other teachers had been teaching these same books because that was the way it had always been. How essential were these books to my students?
I went to my principal and asked if I could choose different books. I had a supportive principal who believed in teacher expertise and instructional freedom. He told me I could teach whatever I wanted—as long as my students showed growth in their content knowledge at the end of the year.
So, I tackled the problem head-on. Here’s what I did:
1. I researched sociocultural perspectives. I read books and scholarly articles. Basically, I got schooled.
According to education professor and author Geneva Gay, “[W]hen academic knowledge and skills are situated within the lived experiences and frames of reference of students, they are more personally meaningful, have higher interest appeal, and are learned more easily and thoroughly.” This stood out to me, and I avoided certain types of activities because they were culturally insensitive.
For instance, when I was in school, one of my teachers had us create family trees as a way to use descriptive language. A cute idea, right? Well, many of my students’ family trees were complicated, with blended or missing information, and this often made family trees a sore topic. So instead of family trees, I had my students ask their relatives about the stories behind how they were named. It gave them an opportunity to research their own unique identities. Then students wrote about their names, using new descriptive techniques they had just learned. My students found this lesson appealing, and it improved their writing by connecting it to their own personal experiences.
Other teachers had been teaching these same books because that was the way it had always been."
2. I chose engaging texts. The classroom literature needed to better represent my students, to inspire them to connect to the texts. I changed the book list, finding works written by female authors or books that had female or minority protagonists. For the poetry unit, I taught Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson. Students created their own poetry journals. Many students told me they hated poetry until they read that book. Some found the sequel to Locomotion and read it on their own. Not only did students’ negative perceptions about poetry change, but they also read another text, on their own, without my prompting.
I also added other culturally relevant texts that were popular with my students, including The Contender by Robert Lipsyte, The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine, Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai, and The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore. These books had diverse protagonists who were openly struggling with issues related to race, poverty, immigration, or behavioral disorders. These are complicated issues that students often face, and they needed to see characters persevering through these same struggles. I paired these new texts with nonfiction articles and had students compare themes between the fiction and nonfiction pieces. My students showed incredible growth on their state mandated end-of-course exams, topping the district in English II scores for two straight years. This growth was in part due to their improved reading skills because they felt connected to the books.
3. I restructured my classroom environment. According to researchers Kathryn M. Edmunds and Kathryn L. Bauserman, “Motivation has frequently made the difference between learning that was temporary and superficial, and learning that was permanent and internalized.” If I wanted my students to continue to learn, they needed to get past simply connecting to the literature. They needed to want to learn.
My classroom atmosphere used to be rigid; students worked quietly. However, they were also restless and disengaged. I needed to build upon the fact that teens were social creatures. So, I made lessons that included partner work. I also reduced the number of homework assignments and created project-based learning units. This meant that the only homework I assigned was connected to real-world, applicable products. These types of experiences helped students find purpose in their learning, and they came to class wanting to learn. Reducing the homework load also relieved some of the students from the stress of finding time to do homework because many of them worked jobs after school or took care of younger siblings.
4. I became more transparent. For many cultures, being transparent is a true sign of respect, so I became as transparent as possible with students and parents. If I was unsure of something, I would tell them. I created calendars of daily agendas and standards, providing copies for students and parents. I emailed parents calendars and classroom updates. For parents without email addresses, I often made phone calls when students seemed to need some extra encouragement from home. Contacting parents when students did well was also just as important as contacting parents for concerns. This communication alleviated confusion, helping parents understand how to best help their children through the learning process. By doing things like this, I earned students’ respect, which helped nurture a positive classroom culture.
When I remember the infamous book “list” that started it all, I am grateful that it pushed my thinking because I learned that a list of texts didn’t help me teach my students; it only helped with teaching texts. To truly embrace culturally responsive teaching—the only way to reach students—I had to move away from an insensitive archaic system and foster a culture of diverse inclusion. By doing so, my students’ knowledge grew exponentially, and in turn, I also stayed true to my own cultural growth.