We took on the topic of disrupting genre by considering incorporating graphic novels and novels in verse in our ELA curricula. We were excited to take on this conversation because we believe that it is important to not only disrupt the texts you’re teaching, but the form in which you’re teaching them, too.
Why does this matter?
It’s crucial to offer students variety and different ways of reading. This shows them that there are multiple ways of writing, reading, and it normalizes such diversity. We also know that because there are learners of all types in our classrooms, offering a range of types of literature is responsible.
What’s the value in graphic novels and novels in verse?
Something to consider is how white supremacy culture is a real thing. In our ELA classrooms, white supremacy shows up in one important way: the worship of the written word. If something isn’t written down, it doesn’t exist. If a book is not in a written format and hailed as “rigorous” or labeled as “classic,” then it’s unimportant and doesn’t make it onto our book lists. If something isn’t written in a western format, then it isn’t worthy of classroom study. This is the bias we hold against graphic novels. When it comes to novels in verse, many teachers doubt their complexity because of word choice. Let us ask you this question: Who determined that long words were the only words that could be considered complex? Additionally, who determined that many words on a page is better and more rigorous?
Another idea that surfaced during our chat was the issue of young adult (YA) novels and how so many teachers dismiss it due to beliefs that it lacks “rigor” and “seriousness.” As we discussed, that only reveals that teacher’s own lack of understanding of YA literature and their lack of ability to dig deep into critical texts. This literature is written for young people and discussing topics they are concerned with. Often, YA surfaces issues of race, ethnicity, culture, gender, and sexuality, that “classical” texts don’t address. And often, when they do address it, because they’re a product of their time, they’re highly problematic. Our own Tricia E. explained, “YA is not a genre; among other things, it’s an indicator of the intended audience. So when you disparage YA, you’re disparaging the audience.”
What do I do since I have a prescribed list of texts and have minimal flexibility to the books I can choose and my curriculum disproportionately features white male voices?
We always invite teachers to consider pushing back and offering resistance to these lists. Challenge your administrators and school leaders that rob your autonomy from you. Argue how that leaves you with minimal power in what and how you can teach and affects your ability to make decisions for the scholars in your classroom regarding what will best help them grow as readers.
Now, for those that are in contexts where this is your stubborn reality, then we encourage you to consider pairing full texts or excerpts of texts that feature the voices of people of color, women, and other characters and authors from marginalized groups. Why? Because it’s a perspective your students are lacking in literature and one they need to hear. It’s a perspective that will offer them a critical lens of the world around them. This goes for all students. All students need to hear and see marginalized characters as main characters and read writing from their point of view, in their voice.
What should I look for when critically evaluating texts from different genres?
As with any other text used in the classroom, #OwnVoices texts should be our first stop when prioritizing which books we choose for classrooms and libraries. Some resources people can consult when looking for graphic novels and novels in verse that accurately reflect the lived realities of marginalized and underrepresented individuals and groups are:
Furthermore, Zetta Elliot authored this informative and expansive blog post: “‘Asian Pride in Kidlit’” that gives us a unique view into the many facets of how Asian people from the diaspora are represented in literature for children.
What are some specific elements of novels in verse, poetry, and graphic novels I should pay attention to when designing lessons and units?
Many books of poetry these days are authored in English but with the Spanish translation on the opposite page like Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart by Alice Walker, and Cool Salsa: Bilingual Poems on Growing Up Latino in the United States. Others, like Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, include (AAVE) African-American Vernacular English. There are also bilingual books (like Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X) that showcase the beauty and complexity of what many refer to as “non-standard” forms of English, specifically, Spanglish spoken by millions of people in this country. Even if you, the teacher, are monolingual, it is an important experience to read these texts with your class to develop an awareness of the ways English changes depending upon the context in which it is spoken.
For graphic novels, consider the background and experience of the author first and foremost. It isn’t uncommon for an author to do the inking and not the art, or hire someone else to do the inking and the art for a story they’ve written, but it is imperative that we insist on authenticity and exhaustive research by those who choose to write the stories of and for people of color. Furthermore, questions of race, class, gender come can up when authors reveal their biases in the way characters are depicted. This is an opportunity for conversation about women and authors from underrepresented groups in comics. For example, though many students these days love graphic novels and Manga, the depiction of women in some series lend themselves to important critical examination. The beautiful thing about graphic novels in the classroom is that they offer a visual way to interpret engaging stories while making them more accessible for those who struggle to develop fluency and stamina with more traditional texts. Many could argue, and many have, that there is just as much stylistic and linguistic complexity in the texts mentioned here as there is in some classics or canonical works that have been elevated as superior for the longest time, perhaps too long.
We disrupted Shakespeare the week of 9/10th. Here are the summary and Twitter moment for the #DisruptTexts Shakespeare chat. Comment below!
We knew that suggesting educators disrupt Shakespeare would be a challenge for many. We were pleased to see the openness to the idea and the willingness to engage. But then again, it could be because we’re “preaching to the choir” and we acknowledge that educators hesitant to challenging thinking around the use of Shakespeare in our schools chose not to engage. The chat surfaced some valid points and great thoughts around the reasons for replacing and/or critically interrogating Shakespeare. Here are some of our thoughts around Shakespeare and his pedestal:
- We believe in offering students a wide variety of literature and access to playwrights other than Shakespeare. That is valuable, restorative, and productive.
- We believe that Shakespeare, like any other playwright, no more and no less, has literary merit. He is not “universal” in a way that other authors are not. He is not more “timeless” than anyone else.
- We believe he was a man of his time and that his plays harbor problematic depictions and characterizations.
- We believe that if you must teach him due to school policies and lack of autonomy, or choose to do so autonomously, the only responsible way to do so is by disrupting his plays. We offer our guided discussion questions as a way to begin thinking about how to #DisruptTexts.
Overall, we continue to affirm that there is an over-saturation of Shakespeare in our schools and that many teachers continue to unnecessarily place him on a pedestal as a paragon of what all language should be. Though we enjoy reading some of the plots in his plays and acknowledge the depth and complexity within many of his plot arcs and characters, we also find that educators are often taught to see Shakespearean plays as near perfection, his characters as “archetypes”, and to persist in oj indoctrinating students into a false notion of the primacy (and superiority) of the English language.
We do not see these same problematic approaches in other plays where whiteness and the male voice are not centered. The more we learn alongside teachers who are disrupting texts, the more we move away from continuing to give space to these voices; the more we want to decenter the male white voices completely, knowing that our students will read/hear of them before and after their time in our courses is over.
Furthermore, there are schools where Shakespeare is required every year, while no other author is required to be studied in such a pervasive way. Many teachers explain that he and his plays are “universal” and that “one cannot go a day without seeing a reference to Shakespeare in popular culture.” People can also argue that one cannot go a day without seeing biblical references in our popular culture. In fact, Shakespeare makes biblical references, and yet, we don’t teach the Bible each year. English classes (generally speaking) don’t require the Bible as one of the texts in its course curriculum. So, let us be honest, the conversation really isn’t about universality, nor and this isn’t about being equipped to identify all possible cultural references. This is about an ingrained and internalized elevation of Shakespeare in a way that excludes other voices. This is about white supremacy and colonization.
Considering the violence, misogyny, racism, and more that we encounter in Shakespearean texts, we offer up the notion that we can open our minds and classrooms to texts that celebrate the voices and lives of marginalized people, speak to the students in front of us, and reflect a better society. We can do this by achieving balance and greater inclusion with the examples of excellence we place before students and by applying a forward-facing, critical lens, to these works. It is also imperative that we reflect and act to correct the messages educators and school systems send children about whose language is superior, whose stories are “universal”, and whose history should be carried into the future by means of remaining in the literary canon and thus, our societal collective consciousness.
Review of the 5/14 #DisruptTexts chat on Gatsby coming soon…