What Do I Teach Now?–Critical Literacy in the Wake of George Floyd

I have been as shaken by current events as the rest of the world.  Not only have I as a teacher been concerned with what school will look like in August in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, but now I am thinking about what I will teach when we do return to school.  What texts do I use now?

Like many of us, I sometimes choose texts based on what’s available in the book room.  I had been a high school teacher of English for more than thirty years.  Choosing texts wasn’t hard.  My last high school had a list of texts we taught at each grade level and at each academic level within grade levels.  There were texts for honors English classes, and there were texts for college prep and others for “general” English. When I came to my current school, again I had a set text list for the upper school (high school) classes, but not so much for the seventh-grade class.  So, I checked out the book room.  I taught A Wrinkle in TimePercy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters, and Treasure Island.  At the high school level, there was The Old Man and the SeaTo Kill a MockingbirdThe Scarlet LetterMacbethFrankenstein, and The Taming of the Shrew. With the exception of Percy Jackson, my novels were dominated by The Canon, mostly by dead white men.  Well, there were two women on the list, and they are both dead white women. I’m teaching all middle school English now, and to some extent, I am still bound by what’s in the book room, but I am also trying to add diversity and freshness to the selections.

So, what’s this got to do with the critical literacy and George Floyd and Black Lives Matter–or as I say to the kids sometimes “the price of rice in China”? But first–a confession:  I love teaching the classics, and in spite, or perhaps despite, the fact that most of them were written by white authors and mostly male, I think these texts have value.

I believe that literature is a reflection of the times in which they were written, and when we read classics, we see not only what was of value then, but what the author may have thought of those values.  We can’t help but read into To Kill a Mockingbird the atrocity that Harper Lee must have felt at the miscarriage of justice in the Tom Robinson case and her “plea” through Atticus’s advice to Scout that before we judge someone, we must walk around in his or her shoes for a bit.  When we read Frankenstein, we have to see through the eyes of the outsider and the “rejects” of society.

So, what do we do when we teach in a school where the classics are expected not only by the administration but also by the parents of our students? I suggest that we find new questions to ask.  Paulo Friere suggests that we adopt the critical literacy stance of examining the text through a lens that looks at “power.”  We are used to discussing literature in terms of point of view already.  But what if we ask students to look at point of view from another angle, from the angle of the silent and marginalized characters?  How would the story change?  How would the themes change?  How would our perspectives change?  In A Wrinkle in Time, we can look at issues of bullying, certainly.  Meg and Charles Wallace are both objects of bullies, and for the most part, though the story is told from Meg’s perspective (third-person limited), we can also see that they are marginalized at school because they are different.  In The Old Man and the Sea, we often study this from Hemingway’s point of view of an aging sportsman, but what if we looked at it from the perspective of society’s views of the elderly and the problems the elderly have in a society that values strength and youth and sees the elderly as dispensible?

I think critical literacy can allow us to continue to teach the classics and give them a place in a post-COVID, post-George Floyd society.  I also believe that we can incorporate modern texts as well with the classics, not only to examine persistent and timeless themes (such as coming-of-age), but also to compare and contrast how authors have dealt with these themes through the ages.  I do not want to censor the classics from our curriculum; that seems like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  There is such a thing as cultural literacy as well.

A photographer friend of mine says that when we look at the world through different lenses, we are reframing.

How will you reframe the classics during this time after George Floyd and COVID-19?

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