Advocating for Challenging Texts and the Arts - National Council of Teachers of English
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Advocating for Challenging Texts and the Arts

This is an excerpt from “Fostering, Activating, and Curating: Approaching Books about Social Injustices with the Arts,” by Kathryn F. Whitmore, James S. Chisholm, and Lauren Fletcher, which appeared in Language Arts (September 2020). 

In the article the authors describe readers’ emotional and embodied transactions with the cordel—an arts-based strategy that supports readers’ approach to reading challenging texts about social justice issues.



As microcosms of society, classrooms today can reflect the post-truth, polarizing ideologies of the times. Daily news stories report about refugees, violence, and unrest, with varying, sometimes contradictory perspectives on each issue. Learners of all ages need space to unpack the world in which they live, and teachers need ways to support readers’ questions and agency to act in transforming that world.

Complex topics like immigration, terrorism, and mass incarceration are easily omitted in planned curriculum or addressed only peripherally in relation to content standards. Meaningful ideas for teachers who engage with these topics in their classrooms can be found in the arts, particularly within literature that we refer to as “challenging texts” (Chisholm & Whitmore, 2018). Challenging texts are books with topics that are commonly unsanctioned in schools; they include topics that teachers feel unprepared or underprepared to teach; and they are emotionally troubling.

Exploring challenging texts helps readers imagine how to participate in a pluralistic world and expand their perspectives on what it takes to create a just society (Greene, 1985; Ritchie, 2017). Although such texts can be fraught with uncertainty for teachers, when thoughtfully integrated with the arts, they can be transformative (Albers, 1999; Chisholm & Whitmore, 2018; Landay & Wootton, 2012). Arts-integrated reading enables readers to envision the perspectives of others by feeling, seeing, and thinking through their lived experiences.

The term “cordel” is derived from the Portuguese term literatura de cordel, which literally means “string literature.” The concept of string literature has been traced to Brazil, where vendors often hung excerpts from folhetos—inexpensive chapter books—on a string in a market to entice those passing by to purchase the entire book. This simple practice of hanging a cord and attaching a narrative to it has since been reinvented for the classroom and retains its original purpose: to entice passersby to read more (see Landay & Wootton, 2012; Slater, 1982).

Cordels can be curated by teachers to provide students with multiple ways to approach an upcoming text. We have found that when readers are invited to get up, move around, and examine multimodal artifacts on a cordel at their own pace, the museum-like experience deepens respect for difficult topics, elevates anticipation about reading a challenging text, and prompts engagement.

In alignment with NCTE’s 2018 policy statement “The Students’ Right to Read,” we encourage teachers and teacher educators to embrace challenging texts as a means of humanizing classroom experiences.

We teach with texts that reflect the lived experiences of a diverse range of people because we want our students to appreciate, as Adichie (2013) notes, the “dangers of a single story” and the value of multiple diverse perspectives.

Ultimately, we want learners to be able to empathize with characters and historical figures they encounter in these texts so that they can act with agency and empathize with people in their current and future lives, including other students, who share such experiences or aspects of those experiences.

Read the full article here.


Kathryn F. Whitmore is a professor and department chair of the Department of Special Education, Early Childhood Education, and Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education at Metropolitan State University of Denver in Colorado. She can be reached at

James S. Chisholm is an associate professor in the Elementary, Middle and Secondary Teacher Education Department at the University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky. He can be reached at

Lauren Fletcher is a doctoral student in the Elementary, Middle and Secondary Teacher Education Department at the University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky. She can be reached at


Interested in this topic? Check out Kathryn F. Whitmore and James S. Chisholm’s book Reading Challenging Texts: Layering Literacies Through the Arts, as well as their interview in this blog post: A Tip for Teaching Challenging Texts: Position Yourself as a Learner.


It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.