This post was written by Katharine Covino and Ann D. David, members of the NCTE Standing Committee Against Censorship.
There are clear steps that teacher educators can take in supporting novice teachers’ abilities selecting diverse, inclusive texts. One way to endorse candidates’ critical engagement with texts, while at the same time connecting them to a vast network of supportive allies in the field, is by mentoring them through the process of writing rationales for NCTE. While NCTE has long-offered its database of rationales for all members to use, the recent assault on English teachers’ professionalism has prompted a resurgence of interest in the national project. Methods instructors can explain the importance of rationales, and then explore the process of writing them. Detailed information about the process, exemplars, instructions, and the full database is included within the This Story Matters website.
Guiding young teachers through this work is invigorating. Some teacher candidates express surprise that the book under consideration requires a rationale at all. Often, they think back to their own experiences in high school and middle school English classrooms. If they read and loved To Kill a Mockingbird, why would anyone ever challenge it? For others, the process can be more challenging. This may be especially true if the book in question presents or forefronts characters or ideas that differ from their lives. This work requires careful mentorship and supportive self-reflection. Helping young teachers examine their own inner struggle when encountering a life, a culture, or an experience outside their own frame of reference is both demanding and important.
The portion of the rationale included below, written collaboratively by members of my Special Methods in Teaching English II, highlights the importance of presenting preservice teachers with opportunities to use their knowledge, skills, and professional expertise regarding inclusive literature in the service of colleagues across the country. Through the process of writing this rationale, the students had to spend time considering a text they had not read as students. More specifically, they had to grapple with elements of storytelling that forefronted issues of gender performance and sexual identity. In looking beyond themselves and their experiences, they not only learned lessons about the importance of representation, inclusivity, and valuation, but they put their new understanding to work for the benefit of other teachers. My middle and secondary teaching candidates in Massachusetts were willing to do this work. While I realize that this type of assessment may not be as popular or supported in all teacher-preparation programs, I recommend it nonetheless.
Below is their response to a question from the rationale template: “Please provide a clear, brief explanation of what topics, characters, or other elements are included in this book that could lead to a challenge.” They were writing on Drama (Telgemeier, 2012).
This book is likely to be challenged because administrators may not be comfortable with their students reading a book that has leading gay characters. In addition to this, the characters are exploring their sexualities at a young age. While some parents or administrators may not be comfortable with this aspect of the book, this is the reality of what adolescents are experiencing. Some parents may be scared that reading this book will influence their child to be gay. However, adding a book with gay characters to the curriculum is important, so that students can see themselves portrayed in the content that they are learning about. If students are reading books that they cannot connect with, a meaningful learning transaction will not be made and opportunities to connect the text with students’ life experiences will not be possible. For this reason, it is important to include academic content that features real life experiences and issues that middle school age students can relate to. More likely than not, teachers will have students in their classrooms that already identify with the LGBTQ+ community or exploring their sexualities, and need to see a physical example of it being safe to come out and how welcoming their friends and family will be. It is important that these students experiencing these challenges feel safe and comfortable in their classroom and respected by both their teachers and their peers. It is important for parents or those in opposition to note that just because teachers are including books with a wider variety of characters, teachers will still be teaching all the frameworks and standards, just in a more inclusive and relatable format to their students.
Though censorship and book banning are real issues facing today’s classroom teachers, university instructors can support and prepare their candidates by offering different avenues designed to critically engage with texts in Methods classes. As young teachers gain confidence practicing selecting, integrating, and defending diverse and inclusive materials, they not only enrich themselves and their practice, but they buttress themselves against the coming headwinds. Such work ensures that all students see themselves and struggles reflected in the curriculum. Critical engagement with texts is challenging. There is no doubt about it. But, even small victories are worthy of celebration. Any steps English Language Arts Methods instructors can take to support the next generation of teachers in gaining experience and mastery in bridging the gap between their students’ lives, experiences, and interests and the school curriculum will pay dividends in terms of the secondary students’ academic outcomes.
Katharine Covino, associate professor of English Studies, teaches writing, literature, and teacher-preparation classes at Fitchburg State University. Current scholarship explores critical pedagogy, applying indigenous lenses to cultural myths, and action research with English teachers. Before university teaching, she taught middle school and high school. She is also a children’s book author: You Got a Phone! (Now Read This Book) uses humor and science to help kids use (and not abuse) smart phones.
Ann D. David, associate professor at the University of the Incarnate Word, is a teacher educator, codirector of the San Antonio Writing Project, and a member of the Standing Committee Against Censorship. She has also taught English and theatre in high schools in the midwest. Her scholarship focuses on writing and the teaching of writing, as well as the impacts of censorship on English language arts teachers.
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.