One of the great benefits of being a self-employed educator is being able to create individualized curricula. Some teachers use standard materials, some exchange resources with other teachers, and some create all the materials from scratch. As long as the curriculum is high quality, the method of acquisition is moot.
However, ELA teachers–and any teacher who incorporates literature into their lessons–must decide what to prioritize in their text and assignment selections. These decisions can result in enormous anxiety and debate, both with the teacher themself, families, administrators, and other teachers. Despite the potential backlash, we as educators must choose to teach diversity to prepare students to make compassionate decisions in their adulthood.
Saying “No” to the Classics
If you are attempting to teach texts based on a Western education, you’re likely to be pushed to teach the “classics”. Some of these texts are “classics” in the traditional sense (e.g. Homer and Shakespeare), some are more modern (e.g. Fitzgerald and Austen), and some are the books that will likely be given that honor this century (e.g. L’Engle and Morrison). The largest problem teaching these books is the lack of diversity. Gabriel García Márquez, Toni Morrison, and Amy Tan appear on these lists, but most authors are White men from the United States and Western Europe.
Parents argue that those books are what help students succeed on the AP Literature exam, college admissions, freshman English composition, and world literature. It’s hard to dismiss that argument; if a student wants to enroll in a Western university, having some knowledge of those texts is likely to help. However, if that’s the argument, here is the rebuttal: Then what?
What happens after the English composition and world literature classes are finished? Will reading “The Great Gatsby” help students love their chosen career? Will studying “War and Peace” make them better parents? Will dissecting “Great Expectations” make them healthy, compassionate adults?
In most cases, the answer is, “No, probably not.”
There’s nothing wrong with students reading these books. If a student wants to read Hemmingway in the summer or on the weekends, that’s fine; I’m thrilled when a student is reading anything. However, should teachers spend precious class time teaching these texts?
No, probably not.
Saying “Yes” to Diversity
I spent months designing my fall curriculum. Even books that I love to read and teach were moved to summer to make way for greater diversity and lessons I felt students could genuinely use. Mary Louisa Alcott’s “Little Women” was replaced by Linda Sue Park’s “A Long Walk to Water,” and Ann Braden’s “The Benefits of Being an Octopus” was replaced with “Listen, Slowly” by Thanhhà Lại.
“Little Women” is fun to teach, and Braden’s book deepens students’ empathy and understanding of peers in difficult situations; in fact, Braden’s novel will remain one of my favorite middle grade books. Nevertheless, Park and Lại wrote stories that create intense discussions, widen perspectives, and will likely stay with students long after we’ve moved to a new unit.
Linda Sue Park is a Korean-American author best known for “A Long Walk to Water,” although she has plenty of other award-winning books. Thanhhà Lại is a Vietnamese-born American author best known for “Inside Out & Back Again,” but her three other books are also highly acclaimed. Both authors write beautiful stories worthy of their success and awards.
The rubric I used to choose these and other texts is a subject for another post. For now, I would like to explain why Thanhhà Lại is a perfect example of an author worthy of precious classroom time.
First, “Listen, Slowly” begins when a Vietnamese-American girl has just finished sixth grade and is blind sighted by her parents when they announce the family will be spending the summer in Vietnam. My seventh graders, just returning from summer break, will be able to relate to this story, at least in part, creating a smoother transition.
Second, the book takes a close look at how we define our identity. Tweens and teens are having these inner monologues already, but the choices they make in the next few years help mold them into the people they will be in adulthood. “Who am I?” and “Who do I want to be?” are questions worth exploring in fiction to help students explore those questions in real life.
Third, the creative writing has an informal style that will resonate well with its intended audience, allowing us to discuss word choice, sentence structure, and all the other difficult English concepts teachers love to explain.
In short, the book is well-written, relatable, and thought-provoking. That could be enough of a reason to teach a book. However, Lại’s life story and accomplishments add another layer, which persuaded me to keep it at the top of the list.
Teachable Lives; Teachable Moments
If I’m honest, my text selection really boils down to me looking for as many “teachable moments” as I can cram into a semester. How many lessons can I turn into advice (without sounding like advice)? How many times can students leave class thinking about something we discussed? “Listen, Slowly” will increase those teachable moments exponentially.
Often, teachers give students information about the author of a book because that’s what we’re supposed to do as a “pre-reading” activity. However, students rarely care when and where an author was born, where they went to college, or what job they had before they published their first book. These facts don’t enhance the story for them; it’s basically the same as learning information about a complete stranger. I try to find a more engaging way to introduce this material–usually after we have started the book.
I won’t need to do that with Lại.
First, Lại’s family fled Vietnam in 1975, shortly after the end of the Vietnam War. Her childhood and adolescence allow us to discuss the Vietnam War (about which students know very little at that age), immigration, and the refugee crisis. It builds empathy, tolerance, and humility.
Second, Lại struggled to learn English properly, and she wrote a scholarly article entitled “From Awkward to Still Awkward, but More Chill” detailing the challenges she faced in learning the language. She tells a story about being exiled from AP English and discusses how one can’t use logic to write English properly. The article is humorous and captivating, and I know my students–especially multilingual students–will appreciate this personal story.
Her experience provides us with the opportunity to talk about the difficulties of English grammar, syntax, and mechanics, and I hope that it will instill optimism. After all, a student who struggled for years to understand the complexities of English became a bestselling author; my students can overcome those difficulties, too.
Third, Lại founded Viet Kids Inc, a nonprofit organization that provides bicycles to Vietnamese students who often walk four hours each day to receive their education. Biking to or from a school can cut a 2-hour commute to a 30-minute trip, giving students more energy to concentrate on learning. Additionally, the nonprofit provides tuition, uniforms, and rice to students; my American students often do not realize that the necessities of education are not available to everyone.
This information allows us to gain a sense of community and interdependence, foster kindness, and learn humility. Additionally, we can tie this noble organization to the information about the Vietnamese culture included in the book.
Students may not remember all of the facts. The story of being kicked out of AP English and the exact name of the nonprofit may escape them. However, the lessons they will learn and the positive character traits they will develop thanks to the book and the author’s story will be with them much longer–and I will feel proud of those teachable moments.
Positive Character Outweighs Classic Knowledge
I do feel it is my responsibility to help prepare students for university, and I’m not sure that “Listen, Slowly” will ever be on the AP Literature test or discussed in a college English class. However, more importantly, it is my responsibility to help prepare them for adulthood–in whatever form that takes for them.
Reading Baum and Dickens is unlikely to help students when they’re facing their biggest decisions.
But the information they discussed while reading Lại just might.