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Disrupting Your Texts: Why Simply Including Diverse Voices Is Not Enough

By Tricia Ebarvia
 | Sep 05, 2019

disrupting-your-texts_680In May 2019, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) released its Hate at School report. Using information gathered from teacher questionnaires and news media reports, the SPLC found an alarming uptick in the number of incidents of hate and bias occurring in U.S. schools. Teachers reported that the most common driver of these incidents was racial or ethnic bias, with anti-LGBTQ bias a close second.

Furthermore, a majority of these incidents occurred in spaces where adults were present: 32% in classrooms and 37% in shared spaces such as hallways, bathrooms, or other parts of the building.

Think about what that means. The majority of incidents of hate and bias occur in the presence of adults.

As teachers, we do our best to make sure that all of our students are safe and seen in our schools. But the truth is that even the most well-intentioned teachers will miss things—harmful things— sometimes in our own classrooms. What might be the microaggressions, for example, against Indigenous students, students of color, and LGBTQ students occurring in our classrooms that teachers—who are overwhelmingly white in the United States—may not notice? What unexamined biases do we as educators bring into our classrooms that could have a potentially harmful impact on our kids?

As literacy teachers, we have one of the most powerful resources available to fight against hate and bias: We have stories. The stories—and, more important, the counter-stories, the counternarratives—that we choose to share with students are instrumental in helping all our students be seen and heard, appreciated and understood. This is especially critical for students from communities whose stories are too often oversimplified, misrepresented, or rendered invisible in the dominant culture and mainstream media. Thus, centering and amplifying minoritized perspectives can help to foster community and the type of solidarity that counteracts and perhaps even prevents incidents of hate and bias in our schools.

Steps to take

I am heartened by the inclusion of more diverse voices in the curriculum, but the truth is that it’s not enough. Although schools may bring more “diverse” texts into the curriculum, these “contributions” and “ethnic additive” approaches, in the words of researcher James A. Banks, do little to actually change the system of power that marginalized those voices in the first place. After all, efforts to “diversify” the curriculum have been going on for decades, yet we know that inequities persist. Furthermore, “diverse” curricula can often mask systemic problems, including the fact that black, Latinx, and Indigenous students continue to be underrepresented in higher level academic courses while also disproportionately disciplined.

To be clear, including more diverse voices in our curriculum is an important, necessary step. Our students deserve windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors, to borrow language from scholar Rudine Sims Bishop, that represent the richness of their own lives and the lives of others. But our efforts cannot end there. We must interrogate not just what we teach but how and why.

Some suggestions to think about:

  • Begin with the premise that public schools never intended to educate all children equally and look for the ways in which this holds true today. Likewise, the curriculum has never been neutral, but always ideological. In making decisions about what texts to include, look for the voices that are marginalized or missing and bring those voices into your text sets.
  • Consider the role that race and whiteness have played in your own socialization, particularly around your beliefs about schooling. How does your own racial socialization inform not only the types of texts you may value, but also the types of instructional choices you make?
  • Center the counternarratives. Although pairings of traditional canonical texts with voices of color offer rich possibilities for comparison, diverse texts can also stand on their own.
  • Include a diversity of voices within marginalized groups. To what extent are you perpetuating or challenging stereotypes based on your patterns of text selection?
  • Be mindful of the positionality of texts and the message this positionality sends. Are diverse voices centered in the curriculum as core and mentor texts, or are they optional? Does the entire class read The Great Gatsby while the books by authors of color are offered as summer reading, book clubs, or literature circles?
  • Know your purpose for adding or removing a text. Creating a more inclusive curriculum is not simply about replacing texts written by “dead, white males.” It is about addressing the racism, sexism, homophobia, and other problematic issues reflected in these texts—and choosing better.
  • Keep the issues facing people of color current. Racism is not a problem of the past, solved by the Civil Rights era, but a continuing problem today. Create text sets that show the complexities of these issues in both historical and contemporary contexts.
  • Resist colorblind readings of texts. If a text includes any form of bigotry, be sure to address and unpack this with students. Otherwise, students might see silence as tacit acceptance of these attitudes.
  • Understand that not all oppression is the same. Anti-black racism manifests itself differently than sexism, and drawing a false equivalence among them can cause more harm.
  • Learn and relearn the history of Indigenous people, people of color, and the LGBTQ community. Because we often use literature to better understand people and time periods—and because our own understanding of history is often incomplete, if not inaccurate—bringing a more accurate understanding of history when we study a text is critical. Reading books like An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Beacon Press) can be critical in this work.

Disrupt the system

It’s no doubt that equity work can feel overwhelming, especially as many of the problems in education are systemic. But as #DisruptTexts cofounder Kim Parker recently reminded me, people make up systems. And if we are people committed to equity, then we must understand our role in these systems and how we might disrupt them. So diversify the curriculum, yes— but let’s not stop there.

Tricia Ebarvia is a high school English teacher, a Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project codirector, Heinemann Fellow, and #DisruptTexts cofounder—but above all, she is an advocate for literacy instruction rooted in equity and liberation.

This article originally appeared in the open access July/August issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.

Tricia Ebarvia will present a featured speaker session on Saturday, Oct. 12, 9:00 AM–10:00 AM. For more information, visit ilaconference.org.

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