Huckleberry Finn. The Great Gatsby. Of Mice and Men. Lord of the Flies. Catcher in the Rye. 1984. The Heart of Darkness. The Odyssey.
These are the novels that high school students have traditionally read and studied in English classes. The problem? Most of these classics reflect only one point of view: that of a white male author.
But that is starting to change. In recent years, more and more educators have begun to broaden the list of books they teach in class, as well as approach the classics with a more critical eye. They’re challenging their students to ask deep, meaningful questions about the novels they read, including whose stories are included — and whose are left out.
The shift comes in an effort for schools to be more equitable, inclusive, and responsive to students from all backgrounds, particularly with student populations that are more diverse than ever. By updating the traditional high school reading list, students of color finally have an opportunity to read and analyze stories that reflect their lives, histories, and cultures — something that’s historically been missing but can go a long way in engaging them in the classroom.
It’s an important step for students of color, helping to cultivate their identity, develop their language skills, engage their intellect, and hone their ability to think critically, says Gholdy Muhammad, author of Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy.
Research shows that culturally responsive curricula that affirm students’ cultural, gender, and racial identities has positive impacts on student outcomes. One Stanford study, comparing at-risk students who had taken an ethnic studies class and students who hadn’t, found that the grades and attendance for students in the ethnic studies class went up. And in a Marquette University study of culturally relevant texts, researchers found that reading comprehension and word recognition improved more for students who read culturally relevant texts, compared with students who didn’t read them, or only read them occasionally.
“Before getting to literacy skill development, such as decoding, fluency, comprehension, writing, or any other content-learning standards, students must authentically see themselves in the learning,” explains Muhammad.
But students of color aren’t the only ones who benefit. Reading more diverse books opens all students’ eyes to more than one perspective, enabling them to better navigate our global world.
“Literature is a place to practice the issues, questions, and tensions that are present in the real world,” says Tricia Ebarvia, a high school English teacher at Conestoga High School in Berwyn, PA. “How do you deal with people with different experiences and perspectives? Equipping them with the skills to navigate those tensions is such a valuable experience.”
Ebarvia, along with fellow teachers Lorena German, Dr. Kimberly N. Parker, and Julia E. Torres, founded a growing movement called #DisruptTexts. Started on Twitter, and drawing close to 10,000 authors, educators, and parents, #DisruptTexts encourages teachers to think about issues of equity and inclusion in the books they choose to read and teach in school. It includes an ongoing conversation on Twitter, as well as guides for teachers.
Ebarvia has seen her students grow from reading, discussing, and engaging in books such as Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, which explores the inequity in the justice system, and The Marrow Thieves, a dystopian novel by Cherie Dimaline, a member of the Georgian Bay Metis Nation, an Indigenous community in Ontario, Canada. They’ve been able to relate it to current issues in their lives, such as Black Lives Matter, climate change, and the Covid-19 pandemic.
The books that students read can make a profound impact. Rudine Sims Bishop, professor emerita at Ohio State University, famously wrote that books can be windows and sliding doors for children, immersing them into fantastic, imaginative, or simply different worlds. Books can also be a mirror, reflecting their lives and experiences. Students benefit from having both kinds of books, not just one or the other.
Updating reading lists and how the classics are taught
Of course, updating the curriculum is a complex, challenging process, one that isn’t happening overnight. Teachers — of whom about 80 percent are white — must become familiar with new books, embrace new approaches to literature, drop old ones, and self-examine their personal biases and assumptions. Well-meaning teachers may believe that simply adding a novel by an author of color checks off the box, but they also need to think through how and why particular novels are taught and how they fit into the curriculum.
And that is easier said than done. Teachers tend to teach the books they know and studied themselves as students, or have been handed down by other teachers at their school. They may also feel reluctant or uncomfortable addressing their biases. Critics also fear that high school students will no longer study beloved classics, that the classics are being swapped out for “lesser” books or that the curriculum will become less challenging. In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Meghan Cox Gurdon cited a school that chose not to teach Homer’s Odyssey that year. “A sustained effort is under way to deny children access to literature,” she wrote.
That’s a mischaracterization of their efforts, according to Ebarvia. For one, they’re not calling for any books to be banned or taken away from students. In addition, students are still rigorously reading and analyzing the works of John Steinbeck, William Shakespeare, and Nathaniel Hawthorne — but they may be asking different questions and interrogating the text through a more critical lens.
For instance, when Dr. Sarah Zerwin, a high school English teacher in Boulder, CO, teaches F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, she doesn’t just ask them to discuss the novel’s theme of the “American Dream,” as is commonly taught. She also asks her students to examine the characters and narratives represented in the novel. Consider the character of Daisy, the love interest. Is she well represented? What about people of color? Are they included? Why not? Is the novel a complete representation of the American Dream? Whose American Dream?
“We can ask those questions — and we should,” Zerwin says. “It becomes a much more interesting read for them when you do that.”
Rather than worry that students are missing out if they don’t read certain books, one of the questions students, teachers, administrators, and parents should consider is: What do you miss out on when you don’t read and include literature by authors of color? “You don’t know what you don’t know because you haven’t been taught it,” Ebarvia says.
Your children may not read the same books you read as a student — and it’s okay. They’re getting an opportunity to read a more inclusive selection of books, are being challenged to think more critically about literature, and are being exposed to books that not only reflect their experiences, but also opens a window into a variety of perspectives.
If you’re curious whether your child’s teachers are choosing more diverse books, ask for the class reading list. Which books are students reading? How were they selected? Why were they selected? Will they be supplemented by short stories, films, op-eds, or articles? And if all the books on the syllabus are predominantly by white male authors, parents can ask if and when that might change. Parents can start a conversation with the teacher about the learning goals for the students, and the role the chosen books will play.
Through resources such as Gholdy Muhammad’s Cultivating Genius and #DisruptTexts, teachers can explore how they can broaden and diversify the books they teach, as well as teach classics with a more critical eye.
School administrators can support their teachers by giving them the autonomy to select the books they teach in class, as well as space, resources, and support to build a more inclusive curriculum.
This article is part of our Transforming High School series, a collection of stories, videos, and podcasts exploring the practices that prepare students for success in college and beyond.