This post was written by guest blogger Sara Johnson, a teacher candidate at the University of Arkansas.
This past November, I had the privilege of attending the NCTE Annual Conference in Baltimore, Maryland. As a current graduate student and student teacher, I felt enthusiastic but overwhelmed by all the possibilities the weekend brought. I attended multiple sessions and received many new resources, but the thing that stuck out to me the most was listening to Tommy Orange speak.
Tommy Orange is the author of one of the New York Times’s top books of 2018, There There, a story which explores the lives of Native Americans living in urban spaces, and deals a lot with identity and authenticity. Orange did not read from his book or tell us why we should all read it, but instead he simply told us his story. He began by describing his dislike of school, and his dislike for English class. This was a comment that I and most of the room chuckled at, but quickly my mood shifted.
“I was never handed a book because a teacher thought I would connect with it,” he said, and my heart sank. It sank because I know when I was in school, as a white student, I could have gone into my high school library and pulled out any book and connected to the whiteness that filled its pages. But there are students in schools who may have never seen themselves in novels, and that is a serious problem.
It’s vital that we as teachers strive for representation in reading choices, and when we do, we really need to go all in.
One minor character in a book is not enough, and we also cannot give students books that always emphasize a “single story” about a group or culture. We must get our students books that allow them to see that there are more possibilities for them in life than they are used to hearing about. And fortunately, we know about great resources like Build Your Stack,® and #Disrupt Texts to help us expand our classroom libraries.
I have seen my students’ excitement this year in my own teaching placement when my seventh-grade students began Literature Circles. We had previously read a required novel that most of the class could not relate to. There was no real excitement to read or learn.
After that, my mentor and I decided these Lit Circles were going to be different. Groups chose their books from a long list of novels that had a wide range of representation. When students got started reading, immediately we could see a change in engagement. They loved their books; I had so many students come up to me just simply to talk about what was happening in their book. One student in particular, who consistently has trouble turning in assignments and participating, read his book in one night because he could not put it down.
Here are examples of books that our students read and loved as part of Lit Circles:
- The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson
- The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas
- The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
- The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
- Black Panther: The Young Prince by Ronald Smith
- Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan
- Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
- Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your A** by Meg Medina
This is what we need more of. This is what these children deserve—to see themselves in novels, and to love every minute of it.
Sara Johnson is currently a teacher candidate in the Secondary MAT program at the University of Arkansas.