Last year, due to a colleague’s illness, I ended up teaching a section of English 10 part way through the year. It had been years since I had taught English 10 and years since I had taught the main novel that our Grade 10 students study – To Kill A Mockingbird. While I hadn’t taught To Kill A Mockingbird in some time, it had been the subject of much of my professional development reading lately as there is a shift happening towards questioning some of the traditional texts we teach in North American and whether they are the best texts to explore issues of race and other complex issues. In particular, I had been exploring the concept of disrupting the texts we traditionally study in high school as outlined in this excellent series by Kate Stolzfus in ASCD’s Education Update. When we look at disrupting the classic, largely Eurocentric texts traditionally taught in schools across the country, we start to explore how the classic cannon does not necessarily reflect the experiences of the students in our class. Children’s literature scholar Dr. Rudine Simmons first explored the idea that children need mirrors, windows, and sliding doors in the stories they encounter. While windows and sliding doors allow children to look into or enter into the world of people different than themselves, mirrors in literature – where children can see themselves reflected in what they read are equally as important. While Rudine Simmons was talking about children’s literature, this is just as important in the literature we study with our young adults in our high school classes. When we look to disrupt the texts we teach in class, we look for opportunities to provide “mirrors” for all of the students represented in our class, as well as “windows and sliding doors” into the lives of others.
Because I was starting the class midyear, I was not in a position where I could change the books for the course, so I would have to teach To Kill A Mockingbird, but I wasn’t necessarily comfortable with teaching it in some of the more traditional ways I have seen it handled. Like any teacher faced with a new class with only a short time to prepare, I headed to the internet to see what inspiration I could find. What I found has become a valuable resource not just for my Grade 10 English class, but also for my other classes – #Disrupttexts. The #Disrupttexts movement is a grassroots movement started by teachers to disrupt the traditional cannon and to provide resources to do so. The movement was initially a Twitter movement and if you search #Disrupttexts on Twitter, you will find many valuable resources. As well, there is a website where you will find suggestions, lessons and unit plans that suggest alternate titles to the traditional cannon, or texts to teach in conjunction with them in order to bring in other perspectives.
While it may not always be possible or necessary to replace the traditional canon in our English classrooms, by shifting the way we looking at these texts and by “disrupting” our thoughts on the literature we share with our students, we help our students access the powerful experience of seeing themselves reflected in the literature they read.
Pam McMartin in English Department Head, Senior English Teacher, and Middle Years and Senior Teacher Librarian at an independent school in Tsawwassen, BC, Canada. When she is not disrupting texts in her classes and her school library, she is spending her time reading reviews and building her to-be-read list from all of the exciting new books from diverse authors coming out. You can follow her on Twitter @psmcmartin.