Opinion: Diversity in the English Curriculum

Editor’s Note: The original publication of this piece was mistakenly labeled as an editorial.  It was a letter to the English Department from the student and was not edited by the Chronicle.  The English Department respectfully took issue with some of the claims in the letter.   The letter was effective in raising concerns, and the student is now in dialogue with the English Department.

To whom it may concern,

Hello, my name is Sylvan Williams and I am currently a junior at U-32 High School. I am in Advanced Expository Writing (Expo) with Chris Blackburn, and would like to address some concerns of mine regarding what books are not introduced to us in middle and high school.

As a student who has a great passion for literature and writing, over the years I have read many novels and stories in school that have influenced me as a writer and person. Examples include To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Other novels (Into the Wild, Macbeth, Of Mice and Men) have also enlightened me, but none as much as those written by the perspectives of women and people of color. This is not to say that authors of non diverse backgrounds are not valuable and/or important to learn from, but there is an incredible necessity, especially now, to hear from all perspectives in order to balance out our interpretation of the world. I say this because throughout my years as an English student I have found myself learning from the same, privileged vantage point of these white men to the point where I am essentially being told to consider these views as the only ones with actual literary and societal merit.

The few works that have been presented to me by non-male authors or authors of color have opened my eyes to perspectives that need voice in our society. They have allowed me to learn more about the world and literature than I had ever learned before. Take, for example, Their Eyes Were Watching God; I can clearly remember first opening this book during my Band 4 Humanities class last year. We were instructed to take our books in our small groups and find a quiet place to read silently or aloud. I volunteered to read the first section aloud to my group. The first thing that struck me had nothing to do with the fact that the author was a woman of color, but that the character was a woman of color and that the vast majority of the characters in the novel were people of color; “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board,” Hurston opens the novel. “For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time”(1). I cannot imagine a better novel to teach students the incredibly vivid description, the depth and significance of each word in each sentence, and the vitality of everything that was said. It’s not just about the perspective, it’s about how the perspective shapes the way they write.

As we turned the page to continue reading however, we were halted. Most the rest of the class and throughout the unit we struggled with the terms in the speech used by the characters. They all spoke in an entirely unfamiliar dialect to any of us, with phrases such as, “What dat ole forty year ole ‘oman doin’ wid her hair swingin’ down her back lak some young gal?”(2). This was an incredibly important lesson for all of us. The culture was just so different, it intrigued us to try and understand, or at least know, as much as we could. By reading this novel, we were not only given the opportunity to explore and learn about and from a completely different culture than our own, but we were able to learn so much more about the targets of understanding literary techniques stressed by our teachers.

While this unit was incredible and life changing, of course it was not perfect. A student looking back on this describes her take: “Their Eyes Were Watching God was probably the only time that I can think of we had read a book that so clearly shows the struggles of both women and people of color (POC) and even really celebrated their work. It kind of bothered me though that the only time we were given the opportunity to read a book like this was when our whole unit was based around this topic when we should really be discussing it all the time and normalizing works by POC and women in our curriculum. But I do applaud the effort of the English department for at least creating this unit.” -Kate McKay (current American Writers student, 11th grade). I wholeheartedly agree with Kate seeing that I am happy to have had such a diverse selection of books in this one unit, but believe that it prevents normalization to have the learning target focus being mainly on the fact that the perspectives we were reading were ‘different’.

This brings me to my request for diversity in the literature presented to us throughout high school. Throughout the English courses in high school, I was always beyond thrilled when we got to read those one or two books by a woman. I was always so excited because for once, the perspective was just a little bit closer to mine. In talking to my older sister, Aven Williams, I see my concerns about high school literary diversity reflected in her as well. “When I had this class, [Expo] my concern was that this was an advanced writing class teaching you to be a writer and we were only learning how to write from one perspective. Everyone in the class was writing from a different point of view and it got me thinking. How would someone write as a woman? How would someone write from a minority group? How is this class teaching each individual student?”

The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) brings members and colleagues to talk about the importance of diversity in high school education. One interviewee, Duncan Tonatiuh states, “The United States is such a diverse country, and we need diverse books to reflect the different cultural experiences that children have…we need multicultural books so that different kinds of children can see themselves reflected in the books they read, and so that children can learn about people from diverse backgrounds and cultures.” Our country is a complete melting pot of cultures, ethnicities, backgrounds and beliefs. Our school programs need to reflect this. Additionally, Mollie Blackburn points out: “I am one among many who have called for bringing LGBTQ-themed literature into English language arts classrooms and queering literature already there. By queering I mean interrogating the notion of normal, particularly relative to sexual identities and gender expressions.” When we talk about diversity, we need to open the conversation to all minorities, we can’t just pick and choose.

Junior, Finn Olson also brings up his concerns about diversity in the high school English curriculum: “I tend to immerse myself in these [minority] issues outside of school but I think for people who don’t pay attention to these issues, we are failing them, but more importantly we’re failing movements for racial justice, and women’s liberation.” Another student, Ginger Knight, also speaks from a point of the wider scheme of equality and representation: “I think [if there was more diversity] other people would be more informed and not base people on stereotypes and generalizations but more on actual facts because they could say ‘I read this book and these are real experiences I can see’. This can also help poc in our school to relate to characters they read about and authors they read from and learn things like ‘I can achieve what these authors have achieved.’ I can see myself in these characters and it can help me understand my culture and my heritage.” Reading from a more diverse selection of authors not only affects us now, it affects the world in the future.

When I brought some of my and my peer’s concerns to informal meetings with members of the English department last year, I was met with counter arguments such as how I should just wait until college, then you’ll get to learn the good stuff. But I don’t want to wait until college. I don’t have time to wait until college, and neither do my peers. Some of them will not attend education after high school. Some of them will never take a rigorous, non-mandatory English class. We can’t wait and congratulate the few who are able to learn from diverse perspectives later in life. We have to start this now. We have to incorporate new ideas into our learning to not only understand so much more about the world around us and learn from some of the best authors in history but to create a culture of empathy and respect for those who lead much different walks of life. And that can change now.

As a student I do not find myself in the right to tell teachers or departments which books to add and which books are of less merit. It is not my place to tell you which books I think you should stop teaching. I am just 16 years old and while I have read more books than some adults, I do not yet have the full literary range as people such as yourselves that have been studying this for quite a while now. It is up to each of you to do this and I am counting on it. However, I do believe that I have a place as a reader and a student to suggest readings with equal or superior literary merit for you to consider as you rethink your course studies. Additionally, I am not directly suggesting that any specific current readings be taken off your lists if the vast majority of the department and students believe they are of particular merit, but I hope you can find ways to either add or replace readings to incorporate new knowledge.

The below list of novels have been compiled from both outside recommendations and novels I have read and believe could have great potential and value in an English course:

Sing Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward (highly recommended due to discussion on current meth crisis, slavery/ treatment of African Americans in prison systems, female perspective)

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

My Antonia by Willa Cather

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

The following is a list of authors with highly acclaimed short stories to be of consideration to you:

Alice Munro

Ann Petry

Alice Walker

Joyce Carol Oates

Margaret Atwood

Gish Jen

Jhumpa Lahiri

Kate Chopin

Doris Lessing

Ursula LeGuin

Virginia Woolf

Thank you all so much for taking the time to consider my argument, I am glad to be in contact and working with you all to make our education system more diverse and pedagogic. I challenge the whole English department to look through their course syllabus’ and ask themselves if they are truly offering the most to their students in order to help them grow into empathetic, well rounded, and literarily diverse adults.

Thank you again,

Sylvan Williams