Diversifying the Discussion

English department reexamines books for representation


Wesley Henshaw

The “To Kill a Mockingbird” section of the book storage room in the English department. Amidst the discussion, books such as “To Kill a Mockingbird,” as well as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “Lord of the Flies,” and “Romeo and Juliet,” have been pointed to as examples of less diverse texts. Whether because of uncomfortable language, lack of diversity, or simply being too old, texts like these have been deemed alienating by some.

Wesley Henshaw, Editor-in-Chief

Amidst nationwide racial tensions and a larger conversation about diversity, English teachers seek to diversify their curriculum both in the texts students read and in the skills they learn.

“It has been a conversation about balancing a greater need for representation and a greater need for a multiplicity of voices and stories to be told with the rigors of an English class,” English teacher Christian Schaeffer said.

Diversity in texts can take several forms, but the most obvious type of diversity involves the identity of the author.

“We’ve had some talks, not just here at our school but also within the district, of including more authors of color, more authors from other places than America, more contemporary novels, and also including different types of authors,” English teacher Kemba Metropoulos said. “We’re not just talking about LGBTQIA authors, but also different genres.”

A big part of this discussion is, not only the inclusion of different author identities, but different types of writing. For instance, there have been talks of including more magical realism, historical fiction, memoir, science fiction, and fantasy, to name a few genres. In general, there seems to be a greater desire for contemporary fiction and nonfiction.

“We, as English teachers, tend to like what we like, either from what we studied or from what we like reading,” Metropoulos said. “We’re trying to break out of the mold of traditional classic fiction.”

Aside from the author, another important aspect of diversity in texts is the identity of the protagonist and other characters. In the numerous conversations on the matter, special attention has been paid to make sure that characters of numerous identities are present, not just for the sake of diversity, but for the sake of engagement as well.

It’s important for students to see themselves in the things that they read and to have a positive image of themselves in what they read,” English Department Chair Jason Lovera said. “We need to recognize our own selves in what we read and that’s going to make it more valuable for the student.”

Looking back at the traditional texts taught, there has been concern over some of the material taught. A few of the texts currently taught pose issues due to their overall disconnectedness, whether due to being deemed culturally insensitive, problematic or simply too old.

“There are some books that will stand the test of time because they are classics and they will always be good books,” Metropoulos said. “There are other books that are good, but some students have a hard time connecting to them because there are certain things and certain behaviors or certain words that when they hear it’s not their reality.”

Some of the texts that have been mentioned are “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Both of these texts’ use of racial slurs, namely the n-word, has led to discussions of whether these texts should really be taught in school.

“It’s hard to hold that up as a classic that everybody should read when certain populations in our class could feel dehumanized while reading it,” Metropoulos said.

However, there has been an argument for the inclusion of these texts. Teachers like Lovera have argued that class discussion is very important when deciding texts to read, and even texts lacking diversity can provide profound discussions about diversity. Even the lack of diversity in texts itself, some argue, is a good discussion topic and provides a necessary forum for confronting uncomfortable aspects of American history.

“We have to be able to tackle that and talk about that in a way that is adult and mature,” Lovera said. “I mean that’s the whole idea, then we can come to an understanding of each other and our community would be better.”

These difficult conversations are actually a goal in a lot of English classes, being able to discuss complex and difficult texts in an educated manner.

“We want our students to read challenging texts, and challenging can be defined as both in topic and in style of writing,” Schaeffer said.

Challenging refers to several aspects of a book. It can simply be the lexile of the book, the surface level readability of a book. It can also be the questions it asks the reader and the complicated morals it presents. This goes hand-in-hand with the English department’s focus on teaching texts to teach specific skills, not just because they need to teach the text.

“Not just reading Shakespeare for the sake of reading Shakespeare,” Schaeffer said. “But to contend with the ideas of a complex text that don’t offer easy answers, that don’t offer simple path solutions or morals that might be knottier, that might be a little more challenging, that don’t offer a simple black and white, yes or no, on or off solution.”

All of these issues relate to the greatest issue at hand within these conversations: what texts get the axe to make way for the new texts? The difficulty in this decision comes down to a very simple mantra: no book is worthless.

“Every book has value,” Metropoulos said. “We could pick probably any book in any library and still do a wonderful job teaching English.”

The conversation then lies in which books might have more value than others.

“I can see that argument to say that these texts are old,” Schaeffer said. “But I don’t think that Lord of the Flies still offers up an easy view of society, and I don’t think that Romeo and Juliet offers up an easily condensed version of love, or passion, or duty, or fate.”

In finding texts, it ultimately has boiled down to finding texts that teach critical thinking skills while also broadening the types of authors, characters and stories students read.

“They’re going to have to be, and the phrase we use in this district is, ‘critical consumers of information,’” Schaeffer said. “Ultimately, we do want our kids to enjoy reading literature and to find books they like, I would say more than that I want my students to think critically, express themselves fluently, and to be able to use the intelligence that they have gained from reading a variety of texts to understand the world better.”

In the wake of Parkway’s own racial incidents last year, and the ensuing discussions amidst walk-outs and assemblies, there is a sense of urgency in trying to implement diversity in a meaningful way. However, this will take a lot of time as a curriculum rewrite of this level needs a lot of discussion, planning and book-vetting. In order for the teachers to implement new books, they need to first compile a list and then order and read books these books.

“I’m not going to be an advocate of a text just based on what other people say, not solely on what other people say, I want to be able to read it,” Lovera said. “We need to read the texts, we need to make sure it’s appropriate for sophomores, we need to make sure it fits into the curriculum, how the texts fit together in the scope and sequence of the year and the semester. It is a long, dirty process.”

Aside from just vetting the book, the department needs to decide on books they think are meaningful enough to even warrant that. As made apparent, it’s a very involved discussion.

“Being able to have a conversation and appreciate and think about other people’s viewpoints doesn’t happen at a lunch conversation,” Lovera said.

As the department makes its way through sophomore curriculum rewrites this year, new techniques are being implemented, such as a focus on modern mediums such as podcasts and video compositions. It’s clear that this decades-long discussion has come a long way and still has a long way to go.

“We have a department who is interested in what is best for the students,” Lovera said. “As we go on we are trying to be responsive in a number of ways, it does just take time.”