Culturally relevant approaches to literature boost engagement, consciousness
- When his high school English students read "To Kill a Mockingbird," teacher Adam Mackie ties social justice and race to the material to frame the classic piece of literature in an engaging and relevant way, he writes for Edutopia.
- Some students, as they start to read the novel, say racism is no longer an issue in the U.S., Mackie wrote. But through classroom discussions, they have "aha moments" that open them up to new worldviews and conversations about societal issues.
- Mackie will use different methods to engage students in this line of thinking. Culture Cards, for example, have students look at their own ethnicity, background and socioeconomic status to understand the different aspects of culture. Another is Body Biographies, where a traced outline of a student's body is filled with symbols and quotes a group believes represent a character from a book.
In literary initiatives, there’s a big push for more culturally relevant and inclusive materials in classroom discussions, rather than just adhering to a diet of so-called classics. Some believe forcing students to read these classic works can be a catalyst for turning students off of reading. Others argue that allowing students to select reading materials based on their interests is a better way to engage them.
Few educators would likely argue for ditching the classics entirely, but mixing them with more current offerings may breathe life into class assignments, particularly if educators can also illustrate a historical perspective of how literature has evolved over time. One way to do this, as Edutopia suggests, is by framing classroom discussions about classic literary works around topics like race and socioeconomic differences. Another way is to expand what students read.
Organizations, such as We Need Diverse Books, focus on expanding what children’s literature can be, arguing that students need to see themselves, their lives and their experiences mirrored back to them in the pages they read. Some argue that not only do pupils then find a deeper way to connect to the material, but they also see themselves included and validated.
Not every story will reflect every student, but helping them find the relevance in what they’re reading — whether it's Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” or Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth” — is crucial to their developing an interest in not just the material, but also in reading itself. That’s the job of educators, and the work they must do to ensure students understand why they’re learning.
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