Allow me to set the scene: It was a rainy, Thursday night in Philadelphia. There were hundreds (flight delays and fatigue weeded out the winners) of English teachers in the great ballroom of the Philadelphia Convention Center. We were all there, wide eyed and squirming with anticipation. There was a distinguished panel of important NCTE folks on the stage in front of us. Among them sat the honored guest, Junot Diaz, in a hoodie and a pair of jeans. He looked aloof and almost bored as he sat through the introductions and various awards presented to extraordinary English teachers throughout the country. He was then introduced by an Amazonian
I really don't think my constituents were prepared for what was about to ensure. Thursday night, Diaz's Jersey was unabashedly hanging hanging out and I felt right at home. Diaz said a lot of things, including that "We [teachers] teach this civilization into existence." He talked about how we have an awesome responsibility to mold and guide the future of America, but we are devalued, marginalized, under appreciated, and under paid. The room seemed to be in general agreement with this sentiment.
The part I found the most striking about his address was when he stated that monsters, like vampires, lack a reflection. He went on to say, "We create monsters [in our children] when there is no literature where youth find a reflection of themselves." Growing up, he didn't see himself reflected anywhere; not in teachers, not in literature, not in government. He had no reflection. He was invisible. This metaphor made me look around the room. It made me think back to graduate school and my undergraduate days and then back to high school. THIS is the exact same problem I have been struggling with my whole adult life. There has been no reflection of myself in my instructors in high school, college, or graduate school. I am fortunate enough to have been born after the Black womanist movement and I have immersed myself in the works of Barbara Smith, June Jordan, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker (whom I am still mad at) and Ntozake Shange whose work, for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, was one of my saving graces in college. There were a handful of familiar faces that presented these works to me, but there were scores of unfamiliar faces where they came from. This struggle seemed to continue as I looked around the room that evening. I will delve into this more in another post.
The point is, he is right. We, as teachers, have an obligation to expose our children to literature that reflects them and speaks to their experience. It is an awesome charge, but one that is not easily accomplished with "canonical punishment." (Which is a struggle I have with high school English curriculums.) How can we expect them to want to read and understand what they have read if they are presented with books that don't speak to them?
When I taught at a private high school last year, I taught The Crucible to my 11th graders and then I taught them Octavia Butler's Kindred. Teaching The Crucible was a little like pulling teeth. They were reluctant readers. They didn't get it and they didn't want to get it. Why? Because it was impossible for them to relate to it. When it came to Kindred, they perked up. They took notice. Yes, it's set in the 70s and in the antebellum South, but there were situations on the novel that spoke to their experiences. Interracial relationships made one student perk up. White privilege rattled another one. My Korean exchange student drew a parallel between the antebellum South and the homogeneity in her culture. In short, the novel spoke to them. It wasn't didactic or archaic. It was approachable and able to suit their needs as readers and as students.
When all was said and done, I had my most reluctant student score an "A" on both the final exam in the class - something he had NEVER done before. I had another student tell me that Kindred made her want to read again. These kids suffered from what Diaz calls "canonical punishment." They've been tossed and expected to catch works that are so far removed from their reality as students. I can't blame them for not wanting to read when the books selected for them are so dreadful.
I knew I needed to do something to keep them engaged. Diaz argued that "we cannot understand the novel except through collective action." I'd read Kindred four times before I taught it and the understanding I took from it was remarkably different when they got a hold of it. I brought in my tattered copy and I read it with them. We experienced it together. I took notes on their interpretations and their feelings on the subject. They wrote reaction journals, which I read and commented on. Reading Kindred was a collective effort that was built on love and understanding. It was, what Diaz calls, "a journey of discovery" for all of us. As with all journeys of discovery, "mistakes [were] intrinsic." We worked through them together and emerged triumphant.
Junot Diaz is a real educator who really cares about how to make this world a better place through our students and their understanding of the world through literature. He has written some of the most incredible works of literature including the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Mention this and he rubs his forehead. Even without such a prestigious award to add to his already impressive list of accomplishments, the man understands the need for "motherf$%ers to read." He advocates for a Utopian society where we read and are literate without sacrificing the experiences of the Other. He told us this in a hoodie and jeans using obscenities and street slang much to the chagrin of the red faced gentleman at the end of his table. He deserved his standing ovation and I am grateful that I got to see him. He was so Jersey, it hurt.
Now if only the rest of the conference was like that, I would have gone back.