Hello fellow educators:
My name is Bailey Blair. I am a future educator, and similar to yourselves, care about the students whom the Common Core State Standards impact. I appreciate your desire to create a common set of standards for every classroom across the country. This benefits the students when they reach their college or career. Experiencing similar classroom curriculum helps the students gain cultural capital, and gives them the basic tools for success in society. The standards are broad, which allow for teacher interpretation; however, many choose to teach books they used when they were in school. There is no denying these books are outstanding pieces of literature; however, they no longer relate to the demographics or needs of the current students.
A few years ago I graduated high school, and I have since continued my education at a private institution in southern California. In one of my first college courses, my professor asked if we were ever exposed to diverse texts in school. The only books I remembered were The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. I thought this was all I needed to know, but I was wrong. I read a Shakespeare play every year in high school, but none of them taught me the rich messages of culture and diversity as found in the other novels. Yes, many books have underlying messages about acceptance or diversity; however, many of these books speak for diverse people and do not speak with them. In one semester at my university, I had learned more about my identity, privilege, and diversity than I had in my previous 12 years of schooling.
The Common Core State Standards are an invaluable resource to teachers and students, but the books associated with it are one noted and all consist of the same characters: white, heterosexual men. In high school, I read over 20 books from American or English authors, but only a few books from authors who identified differently. Having white privilege allows me to see myself in the novels, but what about my diverse classmates who are different ethnicities, sexualities, or identities? They rarely had the opportunity to see themselves in the novels we read. I did not pay much attention to the thought that someone could be different from me. The books chosen as classics or appropriate for literature classes are not a sufficient representation of the students. Reading relies on the reader’s connection to the content. Diverse students are only ever taught with window books. They see the lives of the privileged majority, but do not see themselves. Students who relate to the books and the characters are given the impression their identities are more important than their peers. They are never given the opportunity to grow because of the lack of window books that teach them diverse perspectives. Even if diverse characters are represented, they are not portrayed fairly. Typically, they are secondary characters, and, depending on ethnicity, some are even portrayed as less-than-human.
We live in a time of flourishing diversity, but the books taught in schools still remain the same. The canon does not change because of the belief that this is how we have always done things. The standards allow for flexibility, specifically the ones focusing on craft and structure. These can be used with any books, so why are the same books repeatedly chosen? For example, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.9 says, “Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature, including how two or more texts from the same period treat similar themes or topics.” This is a way to incorporate diverse texts with the classic texts. For example, novels such as The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald or To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee can be paired with texts from diverse authors who talk about similar situations or take place in the same time period. This practice allows the students to form diverse perspectives and encourages the teaching of both mirror and window books.
Currently, society is fashioned of different identities that were not prominent 1,000, 100, or even 50 years ago. It is time for school curriculum to match the quickly changing society that students live in. Not only will students better understand themselves, but they will also gain a better understanding of those around them. With understanding comes compassion. This world should not be determined by the writing of Shakespeare or Dickens, but authors who represent different people with equally as impactful messages. Schools are a reflection of our society, and it is our job as educators to produce equality in and out of the classroom.