For my Curriculum Issues class, I had to write a paper tying two young adult novels to what we had read/discussed in class. My professor gave us about ten novels from which to choose. I read most of them before I decided. I thought I'd break up my paper into its sections so no one has to read all of it--unless you want to.
“I am Outcast” (Anderson, 1999, p. 4). “Wish there was some future to talk about. I could use me some future” (Grimes, 2002, p. 8). What is the purpose of young adult literature? Does YA have a place in the classroom? As its popularity increases and the market continues to expand, many educators and literary critics have added their opinions. An increasingly popular topic is whether or not YA should teach a lesson to be useful or legitimate. But, why does YA need to be a fable or sermon? Adults do not need to appropriate the genre so they have another platform to preach to teens; rather, educators should use YA because of the role it already fills: acting as windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors (Bishop, 1990). Yes, adults largely write YA, but students can see themselves in characters, especially empowered characters—thus, in turn, teaching teen readers empowerment and showing students they are not alone. There are many reasons to use novels, such as Bronx Masquerade and Speak: YA helps dismantle systemic discrimination by showing students reflections of themselves in literature, YA helps empower students by assisting them in finding and using their voices, and YA helps teach students they are part of a larger society.
YA Helps Dismantle Systemic Discrimination
The article “Curriculum, Replacement, and Settler Futurity” helps explain why students need books that mirror all of them. “Settler colonialism is the specific formation of colonialism in which the colonizer comes to stay, making himself the sovereign, and the arbiter of citizenship, civility, and knowing” (Tuck & Gaztambide-Fernandez, 2013). We see this played out every day in English Language Arts classrooms in the choices of literature. Too many teachers continue to cling to the “Canon”: the “dead, White men” who comprise most of the books read in ELA classes (such as The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, Hamlet, and The Scarlet Letter). Literature by women and some people of color become supplemental to the Canon, making those men the voices of culture for American students. Those, mostly, White male authors are the “arbiters of citizenship, civility, and knowing.” When teachers speak of having a common knowledge or heritage, those are the authors to whom they refer. Tuck and Gaztambide-Fernandez argue that perpetuates an idea of “fort pedagogy”: “everyone must be brought inside and become like the insiders, or they will be eliminated. The fort teaches us that outsiders must be either incorporated, or excluded, in order for development to occur in desired ways” (2013). What literature do “insiders” read? That of mostly White, male authors—with palatable women and people of color for support. Tuck and Gaztambide-Fernandez continue their position by stating, “whiteness and white subjectivity [are] both superior and normal…whiteness and settler status are made invisible, only seen when threatened” (2013). I have seen this during conversations among departments on what to teach: when anyone challenges that status quo, teachers suddenly become fearful of jeopardizing that common knowledge and heritage. “But every child should read those authors? They’ll be left out if they read something else!” Is it not time to recreate what we push as normal and superior in curriculum? White is not a race; it is an ideology. Most of our students are made up of more “outsiders” than “insiders.” Why do we continue to make them feel inferior because they do not fit that outdated White ideology? The demographics of students continue to fall outside the White, heterosexual, cisgender, Christian, male, wealthy section. That is such a small slice of the America pie, so why do teachers continue to oppress and alienate the majority of students by refusing to change the curriculum to better reflect students? We do not need to continue using the Canon as a mirror for students to see how they do not fit in and a window for them to see what they will never have (as long as society stays the same). We need literature that opens doors for students—not literature that slams doors in their faces. It is past time we create a new common heritage, paradoxically built with diverse voices.
Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes exemplifies the type of literature needed in today’s schools. Bronx explores the voices of eighteen different teens (different ethnicities and genders) through the use of first-person narration and poetry. It does not represent all voices, but it does a better job than the Canon. The premise of the book has a teacher giving students a chance to read their own poems to the class each Friday. Before each poem, we get a brief chapter introducing us to the student, giving the reader an intimate look at the student’s life. Then Grimes communicates an even more honest and personal portrait through the poem the student writes and shares. Grimes does an exemplary job of creating unique styles for each character, allowing the reader a chance to meet different people, people who could act as mirrors or windows. Grimes also uses one character (Tyrone) to react to each poem, filter his new knowledge about the classmate, and act as that “sliding glass door.” Through Tyrone, the reader can also learn what it is like to have to change opinions about another person, to reassess preconceptions and give that person another chance. Raul, a Latino artist, thinks about using his art to “show the beauty of our people, that we are not all banditos like they show on TV…I will paint los niños scooping up laughter in the sunshine…I will paint Mami…Mami’s beauty is better than a movie star’s” (2002, p. 21). Latino students will connect to the use of Spanish; other students will see the use and have a glimpse of Latino culture. All students will understand the desire to show they are not stereotypes: they are rich and layered individuals, who need not feel shame for their language and culture and race. Tyrone understands Raul’s passion through Raul’s poem, and Tyrone ponders this truth, “Forget who white folks think you are, ‘cause they ain’t got a clue” (p. 23). Our students know this, so why keep pushing them into the “whitestream,” forcing them into the “fort” (Tuck & Gaztambide-Fernandez, 2013)? After a few weeks of sharing poems, Leslie, a classmate, remarks, “I’m starting to feel like I know Janelle, at least a little. And Lupe. And Gloria. And Raynard” (Grimes, 2002, p. 51). The same could be true for all students if we would have the courage to highlight their voices, the voices of a diverse range of people, in our curriculum.
While Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson focuses on a White girl, it does provide a chance for others to look through the window, maybe step through the door and into the shoes of a girl who was sexually assaulted at a party. This is yet another voice overlooked or silenced by our use of the Canon. For example, readers hear about what a whore Curly’s wife (who is never given a name) is in Of Mice and Men, we hear Hamlet’s assault of Ophelia, we hear Othello accuse Desdemona, we hear about Daisy’s adultery in The Great Gatsby, we hear about Abigail Williams sleeping with John Proctor in The Crucible…we hear all these women’s stories through men. We hear and judge these women. Through Speak and the narration of Melinda, we can begin to hear, and understand, what women go through at the hands of more powerful men. Rather than force these women into the fort, we can leave that narrow-minded place and see their trauma. No, Melinda cannot, and should not, speak for all assaulted women; however, she can open the door and help us start conversations about consent and rape (conversations especially timely in 2017). Melinda begins her freshman year (after the rape) by not speaking. All of her friends have deserted her for calling the cops on the party, where the rape happened. “It is easier not to say anything…All that crap you hear on TV about communication and expressing your feelings is a lie. Nobody really wants to hear what you have to say” (1999, p. 9). When victims of assault and harassment finally tell their stories—if they ever do—many times they express this same sentiment: I did not think anyone would believe me or listen to me. They fear the system set in place to benefit men, plus the centuries of people teaching women are to blame for any sexual transgression. As the novel progresses, Melinda loses sight of herself, does not even recognize herself: “It looks like my mouth belongs to someone else, someone I don’t even know. I get out of bed and take down my mirror” (1999, p. 17). Her struggle needs to be told in classrooms. While Melinda refuses to look at herself in the mirror, we need to use the book as a mirror for our teens to discuss assault. We need to open the doors to the fort and meet our teens where they are. We can no longer call ourselves “educators” as we silence our students by only teaching the settler colonialism of the male experience. Both men and women need to read Melinda’s story and examine it. Then, maybe, we can begin changing a misogynistic culture into one where Melinda could have told her story—or never have been raped.
Sources for this section:
Anderson, L.H. (1999). Speak. New York, NY: Square Fish.
Bishop, R.S. (1990). Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors. Retrieved from
Grimes, N. (2002). Bronx Masquerade. New York, NY: Dial Books.
Tuck, E., & GAZTAMBIDE-FERNÁNDEZ, R.A. (2013). Curriculum, Replacement, and Settler
Futurity. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, Volume 29 (Number 1), 72-89.