This post was also published at The Paper Graders.
As I’ve articulated already in this blog, our most important conversation about education right now focuses on equity.
I’ve embarked on a bit of a listening tour recently for this topic. I’ve submitted no conference presentation proposals this year, but I’m going to those conferences to focus on listening instead. I’m listening to conversations among educators in Twitter (and retweeting to amplify other voices, too). I’m also reading what I can to learn more–books about teaching, about race in America, books written from marginalized voices.
In my listening tour, I’m grateful for the educators who have launched #DisruptTexts (Tricia Ebarvia, Lorena Germán, Dr. Kimberly N. Parker, and Julia E. Torres–read about them here). I was lucky to get to hear them present at NCTE in Houston, and I’ve definitely lurked at some of their chats on Twitter. They are driving important conversation that has definitely inspired me to think carefully about the texts I put in front of my students.
Disrupt is an important term to pause on here. It’s an active term. When we disrupt something, we do so with intention. This matters because–as Cornelius Minor explained in a talk at CEL in 2017 in St. Louis–we will go along with the current if we don’t actively work not to. It’s easy to just keep doing what we’ve always done, teaching the same books we always have. With intention, we can do something different that accomplishes two important goals: 1) enabling our students of color to see themselves in the texts we invite them to read and 2) breaking up systems in our society that continue to oppress and marginalize people.
From the #DisruptTexts website, here is their current mission statement (though there’s a note there that they are working on an updated mission statement and principles):
Disrupt Texts is a crowdsourced, grass roots effort by teachers for teachers to challenge the traditional canon in order to create a more inclusive, representative, and equitable language arts curriculum that our students deserve. It is part of our mission to aid and develop teachers committed to anti-racist/anti-bias teaching pedagogy and practices.Ebarvia, Germán, Parker, and Torres
My teaching context…
Okay, so a bit about where I teach. I wrote much more about it here, but the short of it is this: in this mountain west college town with a healthy tech industry, mostly I teach the privileged. Our school’s non-white population is growing and school demographics look different than they did twelve years ago when I started teaching there. My district is actively working with our Latinx parent community to better support students, and my school is integrating more supports as well. But we definitely need to keep learning and looking for places where we can dismantle oppression embedded in our school and system.
The #DisruptTexts conversation shows me a place where I can focus my efforts in this critical work. Last year in AP Lit, students read six books all together, chosen by the three AP Lit teachers who taught the six total sections of the course. We started with The Great Gatsby (which we asked students to read over the summer), then moved onto One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and then finished first semester with Frankenstein. We started second semester with Twelfth Night, then The House of the Spirits, and finally, Beloved. We had a decent balance between male and female authors (half and half). We had two authors of color. I put this framework in front of my students as an entry point for conversation on our texts (it made for particularly interesting conversation about The Great Gatsby).
But one issue I struggled with was that my students couldn’t make choices about what they read. And though we did have some diverse voices in the list of texts, I thought there could be more. If I was serious about inviting my students to move forward using their privilege to dismantle oppression intentionally rather than unintentionally perpetuating it, and if I was serious about making sure ALL of my students could see their lives reflected in our official curriculum, changes were necessary.
My colleagues and I ended up with this: three whole-class texts (at the start, middle, and end of the year) and five four-week book group units where students will have choices about what they read within a few parameters that I’ll explain below.
Here’s the general plan for the year in terms of timing:
|weeks 1-4||Salvage the Bones|
|week 5||College Application Essays|
|weeks 6-9||Book club 1: pre-1900 works|
|weeks 10-13||Book club 2: 1900-birth of postmodernism works|
|weeks 14-17||Book club 3: 1970s-present works|
|week 18||semester-ending stuff|
|weeks 19-22||As I Lay Dying|
|weeks 23-26||Book club 4: Shakespeare plays|
|weeks 27-30||Book club 5: free choice (from huge list)|
|weeks 35-36||end-of-year stuff|
Our whole-class texts
Our three whole-class texts all have a southern US connection, a world that is very different from our students’ day-to-day reality: Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones (summer reading text and the focus of our first four weeks together), William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (mid year), and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (end of the year). Students are also reading an essay by Morrison for their summer reading, from her recent collection of essays, The Source of Self-Regard.
The essay is “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature.” It provides a framework for the three whole-class texts. The first part of Morrison’s essay is a discussion of the canon, the absence of Black authors in the traditional canon, and the ways that is changing. The second part is an analysis of Moby Dick that illustrates her argument that the stories, lives, and experiences of Black people in America ARE present in the seminal works of American Literature, even if academics and critics have refused to account for them. She calls these the “unspeakable things unspoken,” “the ways in which the presence of Afro-Americans has shaped the choices, the language, the structure–the meaning of so much American literature” (172).
We chose this essay for a couple of reasons. For one, it shows students what literary analysis looks like. Yes, Morrison’s analysis is at an extremely high level that our high school students likely will not approximate, but it models the creative thinking that underpins the most successful and interesting analysis. We want our students to have their own original ideas about the texts, to avoid running to Google for help, to trust their hunches and questions about literature and explore them the way Morrison does in her analysis of Moby Dick. Literary analysis can be fun and an opportunity for students to practice developing thoughts that they own and love. Rather than “right” answers about what texts mean, I want to challenge students to find their answers and pursue them with energy. That is certainly what Morrison does in her analysis of Moby Dick.
The other reason we chose this essay is for its discussion of the canon and canon building. Morrison writes:
Canon building is empire building. Canon defense is national defense. Canon debate, whatever the terrain, nature, and range […] is the clash of cultures. And all the interests are vested.(169)
I want to start the school year with this. I want my students to question what “the canon” is. We will present Ward and Faulkner and Morrison as equals, three voices from three different times writing about three different moments in the history of the American South. And I am anxious to read Faulkner looking intentionally for how the experiences of Blacks in America at the time of its writing impacted the text. My students and I will wonder about what the text reveals about Faulkner’s understanding of race in America. We won’t be the first to wonder this, of course, but placing his text alongside Ward’s and Morrison’s and challenging students to draw connections between them will make a focus on the experience of Blacks at the time of Faulkner’s text impossible to ignore.
Book club reading
The rest of the reading we do will be in book groups. We’ve got a huge list of texts for students to choose from, a list we cobbled together using the College Board’s recommended list of authors, the #DisruptTexts book list, a list of titles that have actually shown up as suggested texts to use on the open question of the AP Exam since its beginning, and some other lists I’ve collected over the years. After we wrote the list, we ventured into all the nooks and crannies in our building (the architecture is weird–there are lots of odd nooks and crannies) where our department stores our books to see which titles we actually had copies of and if there were any additional titles we could add to the list.
We organized the list into three columns, pre-1900, 1900-1968 (the birth of post modernism), 1970s to present. You’ll see on the doc our thinking about the three columns (as spilled out of my colleague Jaime’s head during a planning session–he’s has several years of graduate study in literature in his past). There’s also a key–we’ve identified authors who are not American or British with * and works in translation with **. In yellow, we’ve highlighted the texts we have copies of in the department collection.
We were able to schedule all six of the AP Lit sections for next year into one classroom, something that is not always possible. We have 17 ELA teachers and 10 classrooms–depending on the needs of the schedule, we teach in different rooms from year to year and each have multiple classrooms that we teach in. All of this makes building and maintaining classroom libraries difficult. But at least for next year, we can grab copies of the book club book choices and build a library in one classroom particularly for AP Lit student book clubs.
We’ve also done some thinking about what we’ll actually do during the book clubs. Both Kate Roberts’s A Novel Approach and Marilyn Pryle’s Reading with Presence have helped. Liz Prather’s Project-Based Writing has shifted my thinking about the other ELA class I teach that is not AP Lit, but it has inspired a question in my thinking for AP Lit: what would project-based READING look like? With those inspirations, I’m planning the following for each book club cycle:
- Each book club cycle will start with a healthy chunk of silent reading, 35 to 40 minutes.
- Then book groups will start building a concept map about the book based on what they’ve read so far.
- Students will use sticky notes to record thoughts as they read and leave them on the pages where they thoughts occurred. I’ll use Pryle’s categories for reading responses based on original thoughts students have about the book to guide this work. Hopefully the concept map work will give them some ideas about what they can focus on as they read.
- Once per week, students will select a few of their sticky note responses and move them into their writer’s notebooks and then write one page to pull together what they’re thinking (this is all Kate Roberts, btw).
- For the one-page writer’s notebook pieces, I’ll provide some thinking from Tom Newkirk’s book Embarrassment where he talks about the ways we teach argument. He suggests using these questions to show students how to develop argument (pgs. 143-4):
* What is this about?
* What happens next?
* What does it look like, feel like, smell like?
* How can I restate that?
* What’s my reaction to that?
* What example or experience can I call up to illustrate that?
* What parts of my prior reading can I bring to bear on that?
* What comparison can I make that makes that clearer?
* Why does that matter?
* What do I mean by that?
* Who else would agree with that? Disagree?
* How can I qualify that statement? What are the exceptions?
* How does that fit into larger debates or controversies?
- Groups will continue adding to their concept maps as we proceed through the four weeks. I think I’ll have them do these in Google Draw so they are shared documents each group member can access at anytime, like if inspiration hits while at home and they don’t have to wait until they get to school to add to the concept map.
- I’ll conference with each group once per week. We’ll use their concept maps, their sticky note responses, and their one-page writer’s notebook pages as fodder for our conversations.
- To provide time for these conferences, students will have about two full days per week to read in class. If I’m serious about students building reading practices, they need this time.
- I’ll block out book group meeting time for discussion at certain times each week, but I’m hoping that the sticky note responses, one-page writer’s notebook writings, and the concept maps will be ongoing work that inspires ongoing conversation.
- About halfway through, each student will choose what they think is an important passage from the book and do some close text analysis writing about it, in the style of a prose analysis question from the AP Lit exam.
- Toward the end of the book group cycle, each group will select one to two pages of text from their book that they think connects to the most important argument the book makes about living a human life. I’ll put all of these together into a packet that the class will use as a text for a Socratic Seminar that cuts across all of the book club books.
- After the Socratic Seminar, the whole class will do a timed essay in the style of the open question on the AP Lit exam. I’ll provide a few past exam prompts to choose from, and students will write about the books they’ve just read.
We’ll practice all of this together with Salvage the Bones to lay the ground work for the work they’ll do with books in book clubs. And like Kittle and Gallagher describe 180 Days, maybe by that last book club cycle, I’ll remove some of these routines and ask groups to use what they’ve learned to make their way through a book and talk about it with each other without as much of my direction.
I feel pretty good about these routines as I’m looking at them now from my home in the first weeks of summer break. But I’m sure I’ll tweak things once we get into it.
What I’m still wondering about
- The huge list of books includes books I’ve not read yet. I’m thinking I don’t want my book groups to read anything I’ve not read due to the level of instruction I plan to be doing in the group conferences. Maybe it won’t matter in the end if I’ve read the book or not, but I’m planning on deleting from the list the books I’ve not yet read. To cut back on the number of texts I will have to delete, I brought home a stack of books for my own summer reading and am doing my best to make my way through. I’ve already read the top three books (several times in the case of the top two)–need to review over the summer since they are the whole-class reads. The Kite Runner went very quickly… Wuthering Heights is taking a bit more focus and effort for my summer break brain. You’ll notice this stack is heavy in the pre-1900 column. Out of the pre-1900 texts we have in our department collection, I had only read two of them: Frankenstein and Oedipus the King. Hence the Brontës and Wilde and more Sophocles…
- The 1970s-present column on the big list of books is wonderfully diverse. And considerably longer than the lists in the other two columns. I want to make those other two lists longer and more diverse. The collection of books in our department on the whole needs to be more diverse. We do have some texts written by marginalized voices, but we need more. My AP Lit colleagues and I will need to work actively with our department in the time ahead to achieve more diversity in our book collection. Students are accustomed to purchasing their own books for our advanced ELA classes (and we do have funds to purchase sets of texts for students who need the financial help), so I can certainly expect students may choose to buy their own copies of books they want to read that I don’t already have copies of. But I still want to grow our department’s collection, and I want to literally surround my students with texts that call into question the notions of the traditional canon.
- I worry that book clubs (rather than complete independent choice) is still a bit too much structure… maybe once we get into it, it will seem like it would work to have students reading more independently. I’ll be on the lookout for that and will make changes if it seems needed.
- I wonder if just Shakespeare is enough pre-1900 reading for students? If we didn’t require another work of that era, it would open up more opportunity for the contemporary works that I’m guessing students will find most engaging. They will confront pre-1900 text on the AP Exam for sure, so they need to work with some. Have they read enough over their previous three years that we can focus on more contemporary works almost entirely?
- We need to figure out where to weave in poetry. Maybe I’ll add something to the book club routines for this–they could certainly hunt down, analyze, and write about poems that connect to their book club books.
- As already indicated, we’re planning to focus the first three book club cycles, one on each column/time period. The idea is that this would provide opportunity for conversation about the different literary movements that influenced each time period. I do worry, though, that this might be too much constraint. I wrote a piece for my local NCTE Affiliate journal this spring about how a really loose writing assignment opened up important new writing space for my students, and I’ve been pondering ever since how I can stop putting too much curricular restraint in front of my students. Should each book club cycle be more open choice, providing students are sure to read at least one book from each column?
- Another shift that’s happening is with the whole-class texts. Ever since my very first years of teaching AP Lit, I have had my students read the books in their entirety before we discussed them in class. They will do this with Salvage the Bones since it’s a summer reading text. But I’m planning on teaching along the way as they read As I Lay Dying and Beloved. Kate Roberts’s strategies (from A Novel Approach) for whole-class books have really helped me think about this, but it will be a different challenge for me. As my students and I discussed Beloved in April and May this year, I actually found myself wishing that we had worked through it together rather than had them read it on their own before we discussed it in class. It’s a hard book–well worth their time, but a difficult read. I look forward to helping them with it.
- I might decide to swap the last book group cycle with our whole-class work with Beloved. The testing schedule at our school really messes with the last few weeks of school anyhow–might be better for students to be working on something in small groups rather than all of us together as a class. AND they could use their skills gained by conquering Beloved together on one last book that they take on more independently.
- I’ve blocked out a couple of weeks at the end of the year for end-of-year activities. I’m not sure what those will be yet. I will want to come back to where we started, with the notion of canon building, and have students see what they’ve learned somehow. I’ll let this percolate in my thinking…
If you’re still with me, you see we’ve ended up in the weeds here. But I’ve always used this blog to think through my planning and reflect on how things turn out. So thanks for sticking with me.
Coming back to where we started
Let’s remember the mission of #DisruptTexts. It has two prongs: 1) Challenge the traditional canon to make it more inclusive and 2) anti-racist/anti-bias teaching practices. I hope that our list of texts (required and choice) is moving toward more inclusivity, and we will keep pushing in that direction. I also hope that the increased choice in the structure of the class will make for more inclusive instruction. I’ll keep reading and listening and learning, talking with my colleagues, questioning my own stance and biases, and looking for places to be better. This is ongoing work, a long-term commitment. And I’m in.
And with that, I’d love to hear any ideas, suggestions, experiences you’ve had–anything else I should be thinking about? What have you learned along the way as you’ve worked to #DisruptTexts in your classroom?