Today’s high school students are the most racially and ethnically diverse group the U.S. has ever seen, but the English curriculum many study remains rooted in the 19th century.
The “American Classics” that populate curricula nationwide are, for the most part, books written by and filled with characters who are hetero-cisgender white males.
In her dissertation about literacy education, Director of Curriculum for the Maine Department of Education and Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) Coordinator, Anne Miller, argued that the contemporary American high school English curriculum was created in a time that valued the European, white, male experience. This narrow cannon was representative of the people attending schools and the people creating these programs in the 19th century, but as the student population has diversified overtime, the canon has not.
Anne Miller is a supporter of including Young Adult (YA) literature into modern high school English curriculum, so the students will be able to connect to the literature on another level. She formerly taught English and currently is the Director of Curriculum.
“The concept of ‘classic’ has not appreciably changed in today’s English classrooms,” Miller wrote.
Supporters of the canon argue that these books help students on an analytical level. American classics are traditionally complex and written in English that can be hard for young students to comprehend, so these books are taught to help them build skills to think deeply and critically in order to understand intricate literature.
“I know that it is important to read classic literature because it’s complex, and we need to be able to cognitively shuffle through complexity to be able to absorb it, to be able to understand it,” said Katie Bragg, an English teacher at Marcus High School in Flower Mound, Texas, in the Lewisville Independent School District. “We need that type of thinking.”
Additionally, studies claim teaching classics with a more creative approach will help students develop an appreciation and deep regard for literature as a whole and help students develop a drive to learn about and understand these novels that are deemed timeless literary masterpieces.
In her dissertation on literacy education, Miller discussed an approach to teaching in which diverse YA literature can be paired with a classic. This would engage students and give them representation while also teaching the classics that help students understand difficult literature.
“These books are chosen, in part, because they are particularly well suited to teaching the content, skills, and writing needed to excel...,” according to the case study, “Combining Classic Literature with Creative Teaching for Essay Building in an Inclusive Urban High School Classroom,” published in TEACHING Exceptional Children Plus. “While classics and creativity may seem antithetical to the nature of high stakes testing, the engaging yet challenging nature of these novels motivates students as they strive to master the test. Moreover, teaching classics creatively ensures that English class does not become simply a 'test prep' factory."
Because of these positive aspects of teaching the canon, it remains largely unchanged, but the student population in America’s classrooms has seen a dramatic shift. The number of white students enrolled in public schools has been on the decline for years. In 2014 they represented less than half of the student population, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In Texas, white students accounted for just over a quarter of students in the 2018-19 school year, according to the Texas Education Agency:
12.6% of students were African American.
0.4% of students were Native American.
4.5% of students were Asian.
52.6% of students were Hispanic.
0.2% of students were Pacific Isalnder.
2.4% of students were multiracial.
27.4% of students were white.
The growth of the population of students of color in public schools has caused some teachers to argue that a curriculum focused on white American classics can create a feeling of white superiority and a narrative in which white people, goods, services and representation as a whole are a societal norm.
“I think that if white kids are only reading stories where people are white, it’s reenforcing this belief that they are the norm—that they are in some way superior—because this space is being taken with only white people,” said Bragg. “We tell white kids, Black kids and all kids, we tell them, ‘Y’all are the same,’ and we show them this literature that says that they are not.”
The original English canon started with titles that were mainly Eurocentric but, over centuries, has developed to include American based literature, but those titles still remain dominated by white characters and written by white authors. Typically, when teachers attempt to include a diverse set of reading materials for the students to study, they use books such as, “To Kill a Mockingbird,”or “Huckleberry Finn,” but both are written from the point of view of a white protagonist by a white author.
Various scholars, teachers, parents and students have come together, saying a broader reading list would serve students better by being more inclusive to students of color.
“It’s important for children of color to see themselves in literature—for them to see people excel—to know that they have agency over their own life,” Bragg said. “They can write their own stories in the future, and those stories can be successful. It’s important for white kids to know that there is a difference... in culture. There is a difference in the color of people’s skin, but those differences don’t matter when it comes to the humanity of a person.”
Miller argued that because minority students are not seeing themselves in the literature they read in school, they become detached from literature a whole. She suggested that an inability to connect with the materials students are studying could reflect negatively in reading levels and ability to comprehend and analyze literature.
“I think that for many students it's going to be something that really turns them away from literature,” said Miller. “They don’t see themselves in that literature, so it’s much more difficult to engage in it. That’s going to affect their own sense of self as well as quite possibly their reading levels, their ability to read and interpret literature, because they are going to disengage from that literature.”
Books read in public high schools are set by the states. Some states provide local school districts with lists of suitable books to choose from. Others allow districts to develop their own lists that are based on state standards. For example, the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which several states have adopted, encourages districts to select books to develop skills that connect with state mandated goals.
However, for the most part, few states have a mechanism that encourages educators to develop lists that aren’t dominated by white hetero-cisgender characters. According to the ninth and 10th grade English and language arts Common Core standard 10.6, students must “analyze a particular point of view or cultural experience reflected in a work of literature from outside the United States, drawing on a wide reading of world literature.” While this emphasizes studying literature that represents experiences from another country, to meet the standard, school’s can adopt European literature such as “Julius Caesar” or “Antigone.”
Bragg, who teaches freshman pre-AP English, is on the district wide board to assemble a literature list and has made sure to include diverse titles. Although these options are available for all teachers in her district, Bragg said diversifying the curriculum requires extra work and can make people uncomfortable when stories touch on sensitive topics like race, sexuality and gender, so many teachers stick to teaching the classics.
Katie Bragg, who holds the check, received a $2500 grant to diversify literature for her class. She is on the school district level board to select titles for the LISD literature list, and she has helped just put the first LGBTQ+ book on that list.
Implementing a diverse set of reading materials for students requires teachers to learn to teach materials and topics that might be uncomfortable and unfamiliar to them. They also have to be prepared for parent pushback to topics parents might deem inappropriate. In addition, getting these new books is costly. Schools have to purchase or gain access to diverse novels for teachers to integrate into their lesson plans or else the teacher has to find a way to get the books on their own.
Bragg also mentioned that literature circles, which includes students breaking up into groups and studying one of the multiple novels that the teacher provides, are also another way to go about implementing diverse literature because teachers have more liberties in choosing those books. However, this would include teachers creating lesson plans and work catered to each book, which puts upon the teacher more strain. Bragg has explained that LISD has given her all the tools she needs to create a diverse and inclusive environment in her classroom, and there are plenty of opportunities for other teachers to do the same.
It is ultimately up to teachers to find ways to incorporate a more diverse set of literature in their classroom. Minority children grow up never being able to see themselves in the literature they read at school, and that can be detrimental to their own view of who they are, their self confidence and cultural pride. Bragg and Miller as well as countless other teachers, scholars and parents feel that uplifting young minorities and making them feel represented and seen in the classroom through literature is vital.
“So much of what we see is what we become,” Bragg said. “The things that we watch, the people that are around us, the music we listen to, the things that we read. If we wanna raise strong powerful women, if we wanna raise strong powerful children of color, if we wanna raise White kids that are strong and powerful but empathetic to the needs of people around them, they have to see these representations in literature otherwise we are enforcing a broken narrative.”