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Expanding Diversity in Middle School Literature

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I recall the first time I encountered my own identity reflected in a reading assigned for class. It was Annie Proulx’s famous short story about two cowboys who fall in love. After reading the story, I felt apprehensive about the next day’s class and what kind of vitriol disguised behind academic language I might hear from my peers. On the contrary, my teacher led the class gracefully through a conversation where my classmates— presumably all straight—spoke tenderly and earnestly about these two characters. And in a single class period, my own experience that I had wrestled with privately all my life had been validated publicly and within the safety of a classroom. It changed my life.

The only problem: I was a sophomore in college, and I had waited twenty years to experience this.

One of my goals, formerly as a middle school English teacher and now as a principal, was to teach a curriculum that did more than expose students to the hallmarks of the canon. I want all of my students—no matter their background, experiences, or identity—to see themselves reflected in the assigned books, stories, essays, and poems. I wanted their narratives to be echoed in the literature they read, not shut out. And I didn’t want them to wait twenty years for it to happen.

Because we strive to give our students a more inclusive, diverse booklist, the IB concept of “perspective” plays such an important role in our classes. When our eighth-grade English teachers, Ms. Adkins and Ms. Romeyn, assign a classic like To Kill A Mockingbird—Harper Lee’s novel about prejudice and justice through the lens of racism in the American south—they pair it with two articles that they ask the students to compare and contrast.

One article discusses how, in the era of Black Lives Matter, this novel has never been more crucial to assign to students. The other article describes the author’s experience of how being assigned this book in high school as the only black student in his class alienated him. The article goes on to ask, now that the author’s own son is a high school student who has been assigned this book: Aren’t there better books about racism out there? Ones that have been written by those who have actually experienced it? Ms. Adkins and Ms. Romeyn engage the students with these two perspectives to enhance and complicate their reading of this novel.

When it comes to teaching a diversity of voices, we must be careful as a school to not become too self-satisfied. It’s a goal without a finish line. We must always be asking ourselves: Whose narratives are we including or excluding? How can we do better next year?

While it is important to assign texts in the classroom to help students feel seen and validated, it is equally as important to expose students to a wide array of perspectives and voices that are different from their own. Whether that’s a book about a girl who flees the Vietnam war to live in Alabama (Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai), or a gay man who encounters his bullies at a high school reunion (“If You Knew Then What I Know Now” by Ryan Van Meter), or a Latina girl growing up in an impoverished neighborhood in Chicago (The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros), at INT'L* we ask our middle school students to consider and weigh different perspectives in order to identify with characters whose life might look vastly different than our own.

Our students, under the careful guidance of their teachers, after analyzing and examining a rich diversity of texts, learn something in addition to critical analysis, grammar, and vocabulary—they learn empathy by stepping outside themselves and experiencing the world from another point of view.

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