The other night I was in a local bookstore. While perusing the YA section, I happened upon two young ladies looking at books. My guess—from their banter back and forth—is that they were sisters. It sounded much like my sister and I at that age. As I watched them choose books from the shelf, I picked upon a theme: Most of the books they picked up were romance or contemporary fiction books. As I watched them, I was struck by another theme that emerged: Not one of these books they picked had a character on the front who looked like them. You see, these two young women were African American, and every book geared towards teen girls there on the shelf with the cover facing out had a young white female depicted on the cover.
Kate Hart, a YA author, did an analysis of book covers and discovered this is a pervasive trend in publishing. But what does this have to do with our classrooms? Well, when we look at what books are consistently “required reading,” we find a similar trend. Arthur Applebee analyzed the works taught in high school classrooms here and found few by women or minority authors.
In his book, Reading for Their Life: Rebuilding the Textual Lineages of African American Adolescent Males, Alfred Tatum points out the need to create for African American males. I would argue all students of color need a textual lineage that enables and empowers students—instead of disabling and disempowering students. Lisa Delpit, Gloria Ladsen-Billings, Sonia Nieto, Pedro Noguera, and so many others share similar sentiments about the need to create a curriculum which is reflective of the lives of all students.
How exactly do we do that in our classrooms? I’d like to suggest two starting points. First, incorporation of choice reading into the classroom at all levels. Because we serve increasingly diverse student populations, to think we can teach a whole group all of the pieces, which will mirror our students’ lives, is unrealistic. But by allowing students some time to choose their own reading, we offer them the opportunity to explore literature reflective of their lives.
The second piece is to look objectively and critically at our curricular choices. Where and when can we infuse literary works from various authors and poets? Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird cannot be the only African American male character our high school students are exposed to. While many argue he is a noble character, his treatment in the book and eventual fate are disempowering. Where is the space for Walter Dean Myers, Sandra Cisneros, René Saldaña, Jr. or Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve? How do we widen our repertoire of texts we feel we must teach? Our curriculum must be a curriculum that recognizes the contributions of many and provides literature that is empowering and enabling for all of our students.
Reading for Their Life: Rebuilding the Textual Lineages of African American Adolescent Males by Alfred Tatum. Heinemann. 2009.
The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children by Gloria Ladson-Billings, Jossey Bass. 1994.
“Multiplication is For White People” Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children by Lisa Delpit. The New Press. 2012.
Achieving Equity for Latino Students by Frances Contreras. Teacher’s College Press. 2011.