Tomorrow morning, I'll be flying to Nashville, to attend the NCTE conference in Nashville. I am traveling to Nashville with a colleague I still teach with, and meeting a former colleague (and department head) who has since moved on to St. Paul, and another former colleague who has since moved on to Costa Rica. We're speaking together, and this is the introduction that the St. Paul colleague wrote. I'm excited, and I need to get my s* tonight so my part goes well.
“We could have been teaching this curriculum in 1970.” So said (Mr. Epiphanyinbaltimore), our first speaker today, in response to seeing every single literature selection that was being taught at that time at (our school) High School up on the board in his room, room 237, in the spring of 2003.
My own response was more political. I glanced at the list and said that it resembled the current political thinking with respect to Iraq – there was the U.S., Britain, and the rest of the world.
On that spring day, the seeds of this session: BEYOND DEAD WHITE MEN: HOW AND WHY YOU SHOULD CHANGE YOUR LITERATURE CURRICULUM were planted. Good afternoon, and thank you for coming.
So we began to throw out titles, ranging from the predictable, like A Raisin in the Sun, to the obscure, like The Collector. But a problem quickly emerged. Whenever anyone suggested anything outside of the traditional school room canon, not enough of us had read it to make a compelling case for its inclusion or exclusion. So we were stuck. Stuck teaching the same books we’d always taught and, in many cases, the same books that had been taught to us.
Mr. (Epiphanyinbaltimore), who had the audacity to get through high school without reading The Scarlet Letter, and I were frustrated. We spoke about ways we could make more informed choices about what to include. We came up with the idea of an English Department Book Club. Each month, a member of the English Department would select a book, encourage others to read it, and then we would meet, either during our allotted professional development time or on our own time to discuss the book and to consider whether to include it in our curriculum.
I chose first – a title that had always intrigued me by an author who was (and is) very much alive and is most definitely not white. I chose Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. But our informal rules did not require that we abandon the classics, only look for more neglected ones. This gave rise to later selections like Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men and The Tempest. (In the latter case, the group met in a Baltimore restaurant shaped like a boat.) This became what one colleague called as we discussed Angels in America, “real professional development.” These meetings brought us together as a department and gave us the courage to think about making changes.
Mr. Epiphanyinbaltimore, a long-suffering Detroit Tigers fan, will start us off with what he thinks of as a rather conventional choice to introduce the students to the works of Ernest J. Gaines, notably A Lesson Before Dying. But he will spend the majority of the time talking about his unconventional decision to link Mr. Gaines’ work with the work of James Baldwin – a risky choice for any age group, but especially for the age group that he was then teaching – 9th grade.
Ms. (Colleague) will speak next about her choice to dislodge one classic, The Scarlet Letter, in favor of another, Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Ms. (Colleague) was not able to join us today, so Ms. (Colleague) will speak about how and why both she and Ms. (Colleague) used Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spiderwoman.
After that, Ms. (Colleague), who brought to both her colleagues and her students a whole new world of poetry, will talk about some of the poets she has used in the classroom.
Now comes the second part of the question. Why did we do this? After all, aren’t there certain texts, perhaps even The Scarlet Letter that, to echo deliberately Mr. Hirsch, every high school student needs to know? I am a graduate of the University of Chicago. I was taught that the canon was sacred. (AB), our department head at the time of the meeting I’ve described, emphasized the idea of anchor texts – that every 11th grader should read Frankenstein, for example – but she stressed that we ought to focus our curriculum on skills. She supported the choice of any text that would allow us to teach those skills. So the book club gave us courage and our department head gave us support.
Why else did we do it? The group you see before you was, at that time, the vertical International Baccalaureate team of teachers. Even if our population and current affairs didn’t make it necessary to diversify our literature selections, the International Baccalaureate program required it. The book club gave us the courage, our department head gave us the support, and the IB program gave us the mandate.
As I mentioned, Mr. EpiphanyinBaltimore will speak first, then Ms. (Colleague), then Ms. (Colleague) will wear two different hats. After that, I will moderate a Q & A period with any time remaining. I now introduce Mr. EpiphanyinBaltimore will start us on our journey beyond dead white men.
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