Summer has hit Spokane; school is out, and the days are (finally) hot. For many students in the Spokane Public School system, a week of relaxation has come and gone, which means it’s time to turn to summer reading.
Amid widespread demonstrations against racial inequality, educators say that reading books by diverse writers is important to growing an understanding of other people, cultures and experiences.
The conventional high school English canon has for decades been comprised largely of white male writers. While many are great books, the selection is utterly lacking in diversity.
One quintessential inclusion, J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” for instance, is about a white kid at a prep school. “It is not our typical kid’s experience,” said Mary Fruchter, an English teacher at North Central High School. “I tried to teach that book once, and it did not go over very well.”
Being exposed to diverse writers is a significant catalyst for growth for students from elementary school through college, regardless of their background. Gonzaga University’s Jessica Maucione and Michelle H. Martin at the University of Washington have both seen the impact firsthand.
The classroom is a place for discussion, Maucione said, and books like Toni Morrison’s “Home” help prompt conversations about race, culture and the experiences of others. Moreover, Maucione cites several studies that find links between fiction reading and the development of human empathy. “They say for certain that a child who reads a lot of fiction will grow up with enormous capacity for empathy.”
At UW, Martin specializes in children’s and young adult literature. She works with anything from picture books to novels, and her expertise points to a similar conclusion. “There’s a really popular Ted Talk by Chimamanda Adichie that talks about the danger of a single story, that if you only ever read about one kind of people – and it’s very easy if you’re not intentional to just read white books and to read books about animals – that you end up with a skewed view of the world, a skewed view of reality, power, all those things.”
It’s important for readers to see themselves in books they read, Martin said, but they also need to glimpse the lives of others in order to develop an understanding of difference. “All kids need mirrors, they need windows, they also need sliding glass doors … mirrors are books that look like you, and oftentimes white kids have the luxury of lots of books like them,” she said. Windows glimpse the lives of others, and sliding glass doors “are those immersive experiences when you start reading, and the whole world just kind of disappears because you’re into that world.”
In applying this to reading curricula, the importance of reading from authors of color, authors of different sexualities, experiences, backgrounds, cultures and more becomes clear.
For Maucione, the power of strong, non-canon narratives is demonstrated time and time again in her teaching. “I’ve seen that over and over again, that students are like, ‘Oh, we’re reading a story, it’s not about a real person, no one’s trying to tell me to think a certain way or behave a certain way, I’m just reading a story.’ And then all of this stuff gets let in; the humanization of certain experiences that, for some students who consider themselves part of a majority or part of dominant culture, they’ve been really avoidant of discussing anything to do with,” she said.
“It comes to students having realizations about their own ideas about race, and they often come to a sense of responsibility for understanding how inequities are operative.”
John Parks, Secondary English Language Arts coordinator for Spokane Public Schools, echoes those thoughts. “I think it gives kids a chance to see themselves, a chance to learn about others and a chance to learn empathy and respect,” he said. “It allows you to get into other peoples’ skins. I like the idea of a window into somebody else, and I think it’s really important to give students that opportunity to learn more about themselves and others.”
Joseph Kraus teaches at North Central High. As a white man teaching African American literature, “I can’t convey the voice and the emotion behind this because, as much as I try to understand it and sympathize, I just can’t get there,” Kraus said. “So it’s really cool that, with some of the living poets … they get to hear it first-hand. They get to see and hear. I think that’s so important.”
Many of Kraus’ former students have been in touch with him lately, noting the relevance of his course material to life amid the present unrest. It’s an education left out of the conventional canon. That’s not to reject the importance of white writers. “It’s not an either or, it’s a both and,” Kraus said.
Offering more choice to students in the form of courses and authors is more likely to produce interest in the subject, and giving students agency is central to Kraus and Fruchter’s teaching philosophy. “The choice is critical,” Fruchter said. “Giving them the space to share their voice and share their stories and connect them to the stories that they’re reading … They just need a chance to read and think on their own. … They need to figure out what they think about it.”