Curriculum as Literacy

We are bringing this full circle! We began with Kumashiro and now we are ending with him. This time we focused on the chapter “Examples from English Literature” to talk about our own experiences with English in school. A big focus in this reading was the topic of race in literature and in the classroom. This ties back to the two questions we must answer:

  1. How has my upbringing/schooling shaped how I “read the world?” What biases and lenses do you bring to the classroom? How might we unlearn/work against these biases?
  2. Which “single stories” were present in my own schooling? Whose truth mattered?

I thought back to all the books I read throughout school and tried to focus on the ones that dealt with issues of race or xenophobia. There were multiple books about the Holocaust, such as Night by Elie Wiesel and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne. Other books that stuck out in my mind were Lord of the Flies, Underground to Canada, April Raintree, and As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised a Girl. All of these books dealt with serious political issues that we could relate back to our own society, but that was not was done.

I would like to preface by saying that I believe all of these books are educational and beneficial and great ways to talk about topics of racism, stereotypes, xenophobia, sexism, abuse, and a group of boys making their own society and descending into chaos. All of these books helped me grasp these issues and helped educate me. So then what’s the problem?

The problem isn’t these books. Like I said, these books should be taught in schools. The problem is that we only get these kinds of books about people of colour or Jewish people. We rarely get books about a marginalized person just living a normal life–typically, we only get to see marginalized characters in roles that are sad and heartbreaking. I don’t think I ever read a book in school that followed a Jewish character set in the 21st century. Teaching students only about the injustices they faced creates stereotypes and doesn’t allow them to view marginalized people as people. What should be integrated is marginalized people and characters in novels that are treated as more than marginalized people. Students don’t get to see a nuanced person if they are only told one side of the story. Again, these books I listed should be taught in schools, but they should be taught alongside books that have the same characters that are existing like you and me. Typically, coming of age stories focus on white characters, and many students read coming of age stories in schools. We need more diverse coming of age stories so that stereotypes don’t foster.

Also, when we read these books we were never asked to critically analyze them. If we had to answer questions, they were surface level and didn’t require high cognitive demand to answer them. This also is a problem. If we look at April Raintree, for example, April talks about how many people in her life are alcoholics and she doesn’t want to be that way. A lot of people in her life are First Nations as well, as she is a First Nations woman herself. Instead of getting us, the class, to critically think of why these people may have turned to alcoholism, we just thought of April as the exception and not the rule, further ingraining a harmful stereotype. First Nations people in Canada have faced significant oppression at the hands of the government and civilians, through residential schools and policies that attempted to assimilate their culture. We were never asked to connect the injustices they faced and the alcoholism they now dealt with. If we want to teach these stories, which we should, we have to give students the opportunity to think critically and analyze the meanings or else we may be doing more harm than good.

In my own schooling, it was obvious that the “single-stories” I saw being represented were those of white people. This is sad to think about, especially because my school has a high population of First Nations students. We were primarily taught from a perspective that may have catered to me and many other students but left behind so many others.

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