When Shilpa Thirukkovalur was in high school, only three books throughout her four years of English classes were written by authors of color. Thirukkovalur, who graduated from her Westborough, Massachusetts, high school in 2015, rarely saw stories about herself or other people of color uplifted in the school curriculum or assigned literature.
“All of my English teachers were white and I don’t remember any meaningful conversations about race,” Thirukkovalur said. “Most of the books we read were the typical high school required reading by white, mostly male authors.”
In the six years since Thirukkovalur graduated, more students in New England have become exposed to an increasing number of diverse authors. Rama Nagireddy, a graduating senior in Acton, Massachusetts, has read almost a dozen books by BIPOC authors in his English classes. But while he appreciates the opportunity to read books by so many authors of color, Nagireddy said the diversity mostly appeared in his last two years of high school, and nothing he read ever reflected his Indian background. He said the lack of representation was disappointing.
“This [diverse literature] should have been a focus from the start, as it made the curriculum feel more relevant,” Nagireddy said. “I also think that if texts from my culture made up a meaningful portion of the curriculum, I would enjoy and engage with that unit far more.”
In recent years, American teachers have started to reexamine the literature they teach in the classroom. All New England states require students to read literature from a variety of cultures starting at a young age, particularly in light of increasing evidence that multicultural literature improves reading comprehension and motivation among students of color.
The impact of inclusive literature
Research shows that the ability to make text-to-life connections is integral to developing literacy. For BIPOC students, this means the cultural relevance of classroom texts can have a direct impact on their ability to read and write at grade level. Studies have found that the level of cultural familiarity with a text has a direct impact on student reading comprehension, understanding of phonics, and fluency. In 2019, only 18% of Black fourth graders and 23% of Latinx fourth graders scored proficient or above in reading, compared to 45% of white students. Among English learners, only 10% of fourth graders scored proficient or above.
Reading literature that connects to students’ personal experiences can also help increase motivation. Many BIPOC students, particularly Black males, gravitate toward literature that authentically represents their backgrounds. Teaching literature that connects to students’ lives is also critical for English language development among English language learners.
“Having children that look like them, situations, [and] settings with which they are familiar would help them be better readers just because they want to connect with the text,” said Dr. Pamela Mason, director of the language and literacy master’s program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “They want to find out what comes next; they are interested in the characters; they are interested in the storyline.”
Much of the literature assigned in schools across the country comes from predominantly white authors. Only about 13% of children’s literature includes multicultural content, preventing BIPOC children from having regular access to stories they can personally connect to. One study found that in transitional books (books for children beginning to read independently), there are more nonhuman main characters than characters of color.
Even when teachers and school librarians are aware of books featuring characters of color, lack of funding can be a barrier to access. While many teachers are technically able to choose the books they teach, they may be limited to using titles the school already owns in class sets. Teachers also need training to teach diverse books properly. Some organizations in New England like Primary Source offer programs to help educators develop skills in anti-racist teaching, particularly in the humanities.
“Opening up the canon is happening at the secondary level, but providing teachers with professional development to know how to teach those titles is an ongoing effort,” Mason said. “It’s important that you’re not teaching Beloved like you would teach Antigone or Jane Eyre.”
Teachers take charge
Some teachers, especially at the secondary level, are working to diversify the literature taught in school. Abby Erdmann, who recently retired from teaching at Brookline High School in Brookline, Massachusetts, started a class called Identity, Race, and Literature in 2001 for their School Within a School program, an alternative voluntary program that gives students more of a say in their own curriculum. After a program-wide conversation about affirmative action, Erdmann worried that Brookline’s predominantly white teachers were not doing enough to educate students about race. She launched a course on race and literature and found that Black and brown students who had rarely participated in class thrived with the chance to talk and write about their experiences for the first time.
“Because it’s centered on the experience of people of color, it tremendously changed the dynamic,” Erdmann said. “It made me think so profoundly about the opportunity gap. Would we be seeing these outcomes if curriculums really centered on the experiences of students of color?”
Erdmann is quick to acknowledge past missteps. When she first began teaching The Autobiography of Malcolm X more than 20 years ago, she let students say the N-word when reading the text aloud—a practice she stopped when she realized it made Black students uncomfortable. Her class was restricted to a small group of students in the SWS program, inaccessible to the majority of Brookline High School where English classes have been heavily driven by the white canon. To Erdmann’s disappointment, her course ended when she retired. She said these issues show the importance of professional development and teaching diverse literature.
Lan Nguyen, an English teacher at Enosburg Falls High School (EFHS) in rural Vermont, began actively incorporating diverse authors into her curriculum in 2015. After realizing her students did not know enough about some of the important issues going on in the country, Nguyen launched a social justice class and expanded the diversity of books she taught to her students in literature courses. Her English classes incorporate poetry by Joy Harjo, short stories by Amy Tan, books like The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, and other works from diverse cultural contexts.
“Looking back on my educational experience, while I’m grateful for it, I also realize it was extremely whitewashed and lacked diverse perspectives,” said Nguyen. “As a parent I try to have bookshelves full of diverse authors for my kids because it’s important. They need to see people who look like them.”
Nguyen has faced an uphill battle trying to incorporate social justice themes into her class, with some fellow staff members even questioning if an Asian person should be teaching English literature. But Nguyen has worked to make her classes spaces where BIPOC students can feel represented and white students can be exposed to more diverse experiences.
Mei Elander is one of a handful of Asian students at EFHS. A voracious reader, Elander said that despite efforts from teachers like Nguyen to diversify curriculum, the vast majority of books taught in her high school classes have been by white authors. She said both students of color and white students find the literature taught in class to be outdated and dull.
“Usually in school we have a list of books that we’ll go through, and they’re important,” Elander said. “I totally understand that, but I feel like we could be reading more different, modern books.”
Outside the classroom, Elander enjoys reading books from a range of genres and cultural backgrounds, most recently The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré and The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See. She thinks students would better enjoy literature if they had more opportunities in school to choose the books they read.
“I found that I really dislike analyzing the books [in class], and that could be because I don’t connect with it and I’m just analyzing it to fit a standard,” Elander said. “It would be nice to analyze something and truly want to analyze and write my opinion about it.”
Diversifying literature in schools cannot independently solve literacy problems among BIPOC students. School segregation, disparities in school discipline, and lack of school funding all play a significant role in why students of color, particularly Black boys, underachieve in reading. However, diverse books are not valuable just because they may improve performance among BIPOC students who may connect to them better. Many BIPOC students relate to good literature by white authors, and many white students also find meaning in books by authors of color. Teachers, students, and administrators pushing for more inclusive authors in classrooms have found that diversifying literature has the power to open students’ minds to the full range of human experience.
Finding the right books to teach in a predominantly white region like New England might seem difficult to teachers who haven’t been exposed to racially diverse literature as students, but a significant amount of BIPOC literature has come out of the region. Several of the 2020 winners of the New England Book Awards were authors of color, including Oge Mora and Jewell Parker Rhodes, the winners of the children’s and middle grade categories, respectively. These authors are among many who have written empowering books that speak to children who are rarely spoken to.
“Because I don’t live in a diverse community, it’s really hard not seeing myself represented and not being able to connect with others like me,” Elander said. “I think literature is a way to do that.”
This article is part two in a series about the racial reckoning in the public education system in the past year. Read part one here, and check back the rest of this week for more coverage on this topic. The series was made possible through a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.