The title of this post comes from a webinar presented by Tricia Ebarvia (#DisruptTexts) during the #Mosaic2020 slow conference. (Again—I cannot emphasize enough how amazing this online conference was…and I REALLY hope they do it in this format again next year. I love the sentiment behind this phrase—”stewardship is an ethic that embodies the responsible planning and management of resources.” Educators have a responsibility to help students navigate their curriculum, yes, but also to navigate life in general through the resources chosen.

During her presentation, Tricia discussed the literary canon specifically and how it should not be viewed as a stagnant and inactive noun but rather an empowering and active verb. She stated that “the canon was constructed which means that it can also be torn down and REBUILT.” One of the purposes of the canon was to awaken one’s consciousness, and the current cannon helped to do just that back in the 30’s and 40’s. However, it no longer can fully serve that purpose. Now before a defence is mounted on this point, just hear me out for a moment…

I am NOT saying that we should ban classics from our curriculum—they still do serve a purpose.

What I AM saying is this:

  1. We need to rethink how we teach the classics in order to (a) make them more relevant to students and to (b) not perpetuate narratives that are outdated without discussing their context with students first.
  2. If one of the purposes of the canon is to awaken one’s consciousness, then we need to help students build their own canon.
  3. We need to model the building of our own canon. My current canon includes book titles such as: Untamed by Glennon Doyle, How to Be Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, and Point-Less by Sarah Zerwin.
  4. Why limit our canon list to books? Podcasts, Column Writers, and People in my Twitter Network can also be part of my canon, too. And so I would also add: Code-Switch by NPR, Hidden Brain by NPR, and Dr. David E. Kirkland, follow on Twitter.

Let’s pause for a moment and look at WHY this is important. I vividly remember the first time I watched Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ted Talk, The Danger of a Single Story (if you haven’t watched this, yet, I recommend you pause and do so now — 18 min. well spent). It was 2014 and I had just started a new teaching position. I already had in mind what texts I was going to teach, but this one Ted Talk made me rethink all of what I had planned.

Sarah Zerwin notes that “it is not about what we are going to teach…it’s about who we are going to teach. Students need to come first.” And this is what I needed to remember. And this meant that I needed to be patient—to wait for my students to enter my room. I needed to get to know them before I could choose the texts they would read, the prompts they would write about, and the questions I would ask. All of these choices would influence how they see the world and the people around them. And this is a big deal—one that educators need to treat as such.

James Banks, a pioneer of multi-cultural education, has written extensively on this responsibility and necessity of both the diversification and transformation of curriculum. By shifting what we teach, we can “[encourage] an approach to the curriculum that empowers students in how they understand the community and the world, and supports them to take action for social change” (OSIE – Educational Activism).

Jennifer Webb notes that: “curriculum is not a checklist—we need to keep the humanity in the humanities.” She asks if we are teaching empathy or empathy hoarding…who are we teaching students to have empathy for? In my experience, there is a tendency to focus on texts that place an individual at the center of the text as the singular hero. Who are these heroes in our classroom? What is their background? Are all students able to see themselves as a hero at some point throughout the year? Are there stories of collective/community action (something I feel our current context demands)?

How could this look?

Let’s start with Shakespeare—a classic that always encourages healthy debate. Christina Torres explores the use of Shakespeare in today’s classroom in her article: “Why I’m Rethinking Teaching Shakespeare in My English Classroom“. She has some solid points around (1) the space we give to white male authors, (2) the time we give to Shakespeare throughout a students education, and (3) the opportunities for how to integrate his work in more relevant and positively disruptive ways.

Up next: To Kill a Mockingbird. A simple Google search reveals the dichotomy of thinking with this novel. And this book is definitely a topical text for today’s current context. However, teaching it as is without looking at the context it was written in and how it connects to what is happening, especially in the U.S., does a disservice to the text and to our students. Here are a few online resources to help stimulate some thinking around how this classic could be disrupted:

  1. Kelly Love’s blog post, “disrupting mockingbirds“. A short post, but has some good resource links throughout and at the end.
  2. Lorena German’s post on #DisruptTexts, “Disrupting ‘To Kill a Mockingbird“. Another short post that links to a great Twitter thread. Lorena discusses how she and her student’s, “lift [Mockingbird] up, look under its pages, between its characters, and expose its gaps.”
  3. A longer read by DJ Cashmere titled “How Do We Teach ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and Honestly Confront Racism?” This article will resonate particularly if you are a white educator (it shook me appropriately).

A Final Thought…

During the final keynote speech of #Mosaic2020, Dr. David Kirkland referenced Naomi Wade’s work around human connection…or rather the crisis of human connection. He said that Wade discusses how so much of our society is shaped by disconnection and that he is seeing this divisiveness in our classrooms when educators teach what they are comfortable with and what they connect to…instead of finding texts that students connect to.

At the end of the day, this is all about creating an experience—how can educators curate better experiences for students? Dr. Kirkland’s final words resonated through my screen: “We need to create places that are affirming, inclusive, and relevant through the texts we bring into our classrooms. How can we help ALL of our students experience school as a place of joy and as a place where they can see themselves?”

Let’s Reflect.

A. What view of the world does your curriculum show your students?

B. What view of each other are they receiving?

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