“Diversify our narrative”: The need for diverse literature in high schools

We need to diversify our narrative–but what does that mean? In this issue, we’ll look at the current state of required literature in Issaquah School District (ISD) high schools and what changes are being made to our curricula. Whether it’s the characters, narratives, or authors, our literature should represent the diversity of the ISD community.

March 19, 2021

The current state of literature

In recent years, there have been many changes in Liberty’s curriculum to make it more inclusive and diverse. In both history and English classes, there’s been a shift away from white-centered narratives and towards books that contain a collection of different perspectives.

“There are four texts that were taught ten years ago–Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Lord of the Flies, and The Great Gatsby–and all the others are new. Several other texts by white writers are no longer the centerpiece of our curriculum, so there’s a lot more diversity,” English teacher Henry Level said.

These four novels are part of the recently revised Core 9 books that every student will be taught throughout their years at Liberty. The other five are House on Mango Street, Persepolis, Nisei Daughter, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and then either The Astonishing Color of After or The Girl With Seven Names, depending on if it’s an honors class or not. 

“For our Core 9 books there are four books by white male authors. All the others are by women of color,” Level said.

English is not the only subject where such diversification has occurred though. In the past ten years, the district’s history curriculum has also had some big changes.

“Back in 2012, all sophomores were required to take European Studies or Honors European Studies. Now, Liberty provides World Studies 1, 2, & 3 and AP World History,” history teacher Peter Kurtz said. “This change of curricula has definitely provided much more diverse instruction and literature.”

Seeing ourselves in literature

I don’t know many Liberty students that are part of minority groups who have seen a main character that reminds them of themselves in our literature.”

— Charlene Agbayekhai (12)

Although the core curriculum has improved, literature constantly needs updating. According to Richard Mellish, ISD’s Executive Director of Teaching and Learning Services, curricula update timelines have changed to accommodate this need. Now, schools can regularly add a new choice novel each year.

This was necessary to prevent recycling narratives that students couldn’t quite connect with anymore while also giving teachers a chance to refresh the curriculum with novels they personally think are valuable for students. 

As for district-mandated literature, there’s a demand for updated texts, but they will take some time to fully administer to all schools within ISD.

“Creating and launching a new curriculum at one time is unrealistic,” English teacher and Equity Club advisor Joan King said. “If we go forward with the understanding that archaic, irrelevant novels should be slowly phased out, we can get to a place where each novel is considered ‘essential’ for the constantly changing world.”

Yet maintaining relevance isn’t the only change needed–we also need to ensure proper representation of students. While there’s certainly value in Shakespeare and Dickens, students often resonate with texts more when they can see themselves in the narrative. Unfortunately, most current Liberty students haven’t been able to experience this. 

“I don’t know many Liberty students that are part of minority groups who have seen a main character that reminds them of themselves in our literature,” Equity Club member senior Charlene Agbayekhai said.

That lack of minority representation is what the district and Liberty staff are continuously working to remedy.

“There are far more than nine groups to be represented, so I don’t think that we can ever capture full representation, but the steps we’ve taken are moving us towards much greater diversity,” Level said.

At the end of the day, the goal is to improve and progress literature representation. The district is making meaningful strides towards equity in literature and doing its best to keep the momentum of these changes going.

The importance of representative history

In regards to history, it is essential for students to obtain a level of empathy for all peoples. Thus, we should provide literature that does more than just showcase a single narrative of our past.”

— Peter Kurtz (History Teacher)

Working to diversify our literature and curricula allows us to experience and learn about events from different perspectives, particularly when it comes to history. Doing this makes it easier for us to connect with other people.

“In regards to history, it is essential for students to obtain a level of empathy for all peoples. Thus, we should provide literature that does more than just showcase a single narrative of our past,” Kurtz said. 

There is always more than one side to a story. By including more diverse narratives in our history reading, students are able to gain a more holistic picture of historical events.

“We should be making sure that our curriculum represents our society. We can’t just select white narratives or African American narratives or Asian narratives. When adopting a history curriculum, we try to consider the American story from multiple perspectives,” Mellish said. 

Doing this also ensures that people’s stories are not erased from history and gives minority students the chance to learn about history through the eyes of their ancestors.

“Often, when we learn about U.S. history, we focus on the colonizers and founding fathers. As a black student, it can be really hard to see and connect to that,” junior Amira Turner said. “We need to be better at teaching black history not only through its relation to ‘white history.’ Black history doesn’t start with slavery, and it doesn’t end with the civil rights movement.”

It’s important that we strive to teach the entirety of history–the good, the bad, and the ugly. That will not only teach a broader perspective but also give students a greater understanding of other people, something society can only benefit from. 

“Censorship and division are not the way forward. We need to have a collective and genuine approach that is inclusive and considerate,” Kurtz said. 

The future impact in ISD

There is always room for improvement and the work to diversify is never done; it’s a continuing, ongoing process that each teacher must explore on their own to ensure that each class is inclusive and representative of minority voices.”

— Joan King (Language Arts Teacher)

When it comes to the district’s approach to making historical lessons more inclusive and diverse, updating historical curricula is the first step.

“I’m excited about a group of middle school social studies teachers who are working with a company called EduCuriosity to create new Washington state history curricula with different narratives,” Mellish said.

There is not a timeline currently set for these new history lesson plans, but it’s progress to expand the historical perspectives that students learn about in schools. 

As for updating English curricula, the district is also trying to adopt new lesson plans to diversify reading while still maintaining the necessary literary content for students. The plan? Book clubs.

“Book clubs are a new unit in every high school English class where students have a menu of books to choose from with an array of narratives, diverse characters, and authors,” Mellish said.

This will give students more of a choice in what they read and discuss in their English classes while also helping expand representation further than the Core 9 books.

“We didn’t just primarily focus on race,” Mellish said. “We’re working to include the immigrant experience, the LGBTQIA+ experience, the experience of differently-abled people, and the experience of people of different socioeconomic statuses.”

These books are set to become options for ISD book clubs once administering them becomes easier for teachers amidst the pandemic.

The district is not the only force working to update literature though. Two student-led organizations–the ISD Student Equity Council and Diversify Your Narrative ISD–have spearheaded student activity demanding diverse reading. Diversify Your Narrative ISD is on Instagram spreading awareness and petitioning the district to continue integrating diverse works into curricula. Similarly, the ISD Student Equity Council works in-depth with students, encouraging them to start projects to help this mission.

“Currently, the ISD Student Equity Council is doing a multi-affinity group project Book Drive, providing dozens of books from groups including Students of Color, LGBTQ+, and Mental Health and Illness,” Equity Club member sophomore Naomi Hancock said.

Based on both district adaptations and student work, it is clear that ISD is prioritizing working to diversify school literature–a goal that will continue to be a community effort. 

“There is always room for improvement and the work to diversify is never done; it’s a continuing, ongoing process that each teacher must explore on their own to ensure that each class is inclusive and representative of minority voices,” King said.

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