English curriculum books need more diversity

October 22, 2015 — by Caitlin Ju

A glance at the curriculum across the grade levels at this school, especially in freshman year, gives us a reading list dominated by the names of white (mostly dead) males such as William Shakespeare, John Steinbeck and Mark Twain, leaving students with a narrow perspective of what the world they live in is actually like today.

When one envisions America, what comes to mind is usually a melting pot of people from different countries, races and religions sharing their diverse cultures and traditions. In schools across the country and here, this diversity is not always represented well in English classes.

A glance at the curriculum across the grade levels at this school, especially in freshman year, gives us a reading list dominated by the names of white (mostly dead) males such as William Shakespeare, John Steinbeck and Mark Twain, leaving students with a narrow perspective of what the world they live in is actually like today. In order to accurately represent all people’s experiences, the school’s English curriculum needs to continue to adapt to modern times and adopt more diverse pieces.

Currently, the few books in the curriculum that do not fall into the stereotype of white male authors and main characters are often shoveled to independent reading or side projects, such as Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Namesake,” Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club.” The commonality among these books is uncanny-female, non-white author with female, non-white protagonists dealing with heavy-weight issues like slavery, gender and identity.

More of these books should be included in the main curriculum in the place of some of the current selections rather than being set aside for independent reading. These more modern novels will better capture high school students’ interests by having more relatable characters and universal themes. For example, Angelou in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” portrays the agonizing details of her childhood as an African American, while “The Joy Luck Club” shows both close and strained relationships between Asian American mothers and daughters.

Plenty of acclaimed novels have complex female protagonists that high school students can admire, such as Rachel in author Heidi Durrow’s “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky.” Rachel struggles after becoming the only survivor of a family tragedy to overcome grief, fit in as the new girl and find her identity as a young biracial woman, all endeavours teenagers can relate to.

It is important to note there has been a push in recent years to improve the diversity of the novels in the English curriculum. In college prep English 11, Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” has replaced Shakespeare’s “Othello,” and “Kindred” has replaced Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

One limiting factor is the cost of books. If a book costs $15 or $20 for a hardback version, the price can run into the thousands of dollars to supply books for every student in a grade.

Even with these difficult expenses, the recent changes should be continued, as the need for diversity in the English curriculum is crucial. Literature has the immense power to help shape young people’s identities, and books in English classes expose students to types of people, societies and ideas that they might not have known of or seriously considered before. A wide range of books is necessary for students to see the whole picture, take in new insights and make informed decisions.

In order to incorporate more books into the curriculum, classes could have more units with multiple choices. After every unit with a teacher-chosen novel, the following unit’s books should observe a similar theme but be chosen by students from a diverse, prepared list of four to five selections. The benefit is students will feel more enthusiastic reading the novel they have chosen for themselves.

Students making their own reading choices can already be seen in other schools. For example, at Palo Alto High School, one English teacher allowed her students to choose books from a bookshelf of board-approved books, and because students knew they were the ones who made the choice of the book, they were more likely to thoroughly read the book and be prepared to discuss it.

Giving students a greater variety of books to read in English classes will ultimately open their eyes to different cultures outside the traditional views of white male authors and allow them to have a better understanding of their world.

 

2 views this week