It’s a scary time to be a teacher. States that are zealous to combat Critical Race Theory (CRT) are intruding into the classroom, even offering $500 bounties for proof of teachers pushing “divisive concepts”. Other states have sought to tackle unwanted ideas (like CRT or LGBTQ issues) by examining the reading lists in curriculums and libraries, with one VA school board member advocating for burning unwanted titles while a Kansas school district built a list of 29 books to ban. This, of course, is on top of teaching during a global pandemic with all of the curveballs and landmines it presents to supporting students.
It has made me think twice about what book lists I put in my students’ hands and how they might be perceived by parents, even though my district and community have traditionally been very supportive and inclusive in their approach.
But when Beloved became a swing issue in Virginia’s election for governor, I began to feel a little bit of hope, too, that literature is still relevant, still a disrupting force in a culture adrift in social media sludge. I think the recent school board debates offer some great ways to lean into literature, the power of stories, and the responsive climate the workshop model offers.
An opportunity for research and inquiry
When we begin semester 2, we usually shift from argument to analysis in our approach to writing in English III. As we do that, I’m going to share a Deep Dive opportunity (see the full version here) with my students so they can get a handle on what’s happening in the world. It works like the intro to this piece, trying to give them some context with links to keep learning more about the root issues and perspectives driving the stories.
The Deep Dive is also a model we’ll use to think about how to write about a controversial topic in a neutral way and how to utilize and synthesize hyperlinks to enhance the presentation or sharing of our research. But there are so many other great inquiry questions this event can spark:
- Why are some school districts building lists of books they don’t want you to read?
- How does your school district decide which books can or should be read?
- What is the role of a classroom within a community?
An opportunity to discuss the value of literary analysis and interpretation
At the heart of the school board discussions is how we interpret and arrive at meaning in a text. So it’s fair to ask: are these good interpretations of texts that parents and schools boards are making? What makes an interpretation good? Are some interpretations better than others?
The news hook gives these potentially stale academic questions some context and urgency. It also opens doors to explore some good analysis mentor texts. These are two analysis texts we will spend time with, one I’ve used before and one I intend to use next semester:
- “Virginia’s ‘Beloved’ controversy shows there can be no healing without pain” by Natshia Deon, LA Times 11/2/21: an analysis of one book’s significance and relevance (within a specific context)
- The Blide Side analysis (from White Fragility by Robin Diangelo): an analysis that uses a racial lens to evaluate the film’s significance and relevance
These are some of the guiding questions we’ll use during our analysis work of their independent reading:
- What is the relevance of the books we read to the MHS student experience? In what ways are the books windows or mirrors into those experiences?
- Do the books we read reinforce or challenge old stereotypes? Are they meant to be emulated or are they criticisms of what to avoid?
- Do the books address social issues in a constructive, inclusive way or in more confrontational, divisive ways? Are they too political? Are they literary enough?
An opportunity to make the argument for literature
Some potential argument topics have been alluded to above, but a few more flow from thinking about what literature is:
- What is literature? Who should get to decide?
- What books should schools require to be read? Should books be able to be required?
- Which books would you be willing to fight for? (which leads into some analysis and interpretation moves)
- Should parents or schools have more say in the learning curriculum?
This leads to some great opportunities for conversations about the power of stories to transform minds and hearts and why storytellers have often been met with resistance by the powers-that-be in other times and in other places. Right now you can also find many mentor texts arguing for or against what each state or school board is doing in response to parental complaints or challenges.
This satirical take is a fun way to think about argument and Petri is a consistently fun writer to revisit: “Take all the books off the shelf. They’re just too dangerous” by Alexandra Petri (The Washington Post 11/26/21).
To wrap up, the value of the workshop model in facilitating these moves and discussions is central. If I was only teaching one book to all students with the same pacing, it would be much more difficult to maneuver the discussion to respond to current events. When students are at the center of the learning experience in the way that workshop intends, their story and responses drive the learning rather than my agenda. They’re empowered by literature to take on a world that is in scary need of timeless truth.
Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio.