I caught wind of a math blog meme giving advice to new teachers after reading a wonderful post from Jason Buell called “Life in the Gray,” which nicely goes a long way toward summing up how complicated teaching really is. It reminded me of something I just wrote, which I though I would post here as well.
The following is a response to an email that was forwarded to me without a name or background. Because of who sent it to me, I’m assuming it’s from a novice teacher, but I’m not sure. The email came after this teacher got into a heated and upsetting argument with coworkers where she or he advocated for adding one piece of non-western, non-canonical world literature that might validate alternative experiences to the school’s curriculum of “Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Homer, and all of the other BS that we make the students read.” She or he was looking for articles to prove her viewpoint was correct, and possibly to leave in the mailboxes of co-workers. Below is my response, slightly edited. I offer it here as advice to new English teachers, particularly those coming from a left perspective, but I hope there’s something in it for all new teachers.
To my unnamed comrade,
Your request was forwarded and I hope I can be helpful.
First, let me give you the tools you ask for: THE book on the subject is Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children. She also has a new one out, Multiplication is for White People, though I didn’t find it as strong as her first. You should also check out Teaching Reading to Black Adolescent Males by Alfred Tatum. For a different approach to the problem, you might also be interested by Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination or Edward Said’s Orientalism. The latter two are pieces of literary criticism and theory that talk about the damage done by much canonical literature.
Now, a little about me before some unsolicited advice: I’m an 8th year English and Social Studies teacher. I student taught in suburban RI, started teaching in suburban DC, and have since taught 7 years in the Bronx and Brooklyn. My master’s is in African-American studies with a focus on literature, and my thesis (part of which was recently published here) looked at an adult literacy program that was part of the civil rights movement. I’m also white, male, hetero, middle class, and all that stuff. I’m not sure to what extent any of that matters to what I’m about to write, but didn’t want to be a subjectless voice to you.
Now for the unsolicited advice:
First, the longer I teach and live, the more I realize and appreciate just how complicated education is. We exist in a field where there is no such thing as proof. Human behavior in general, and learning and development specifically, are just so complex that we can never hope to be certain of anything. From a radical left perspective, one can make a very strong argument for eliminating canonical texts (“we’ll never create a new power structure using the tools of the old one”). But I can make just as strong of an argument that we must teach the canon (“in order to survive in the culture of power, our students need to understand the tools of master. We also can’t let them enter the world feeling inferior for not knowing things most of their college classmates will”). There is no truth somewhere in the middle; both are valid views, and we need to be humble in making decisions informed by both, knowing that our decision will yield different results for each of the students we teach each year. Nearly every view I’ve been certain of in my career has been challenged by at least one situation; the best we can do is to make pedagogical decisions with a degree of humility that will allow us to be flexible as these decision meet real, diverse learners.
Second, careful about generalizing too much: while Homer, Steinbeck, and Shakespeare are all canonical writers who may share little in common with our students, none of them are from white middle class backgrounds. Homer was probably not white; the middle class did not exist when Shakespeare wrote, and Steinbeck was a leftist who captured the experiences of the working poor (and also wrote one of my all time favorite lines: If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin, were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into “I” and cuts you off forever from “we.”) With that said, I think it’s how we read anything that makes the real difference. The following point I borrow from a conversation I once had with Robin Kelley: teaching Marx at an Ivy League university is hardly a radical act, but teaching illiterate sharecroppers to read the Bible in Jim Crow South is. Likewise, using New Criticism to teach any text, be it Shakespeare or Morrison, hardly validates our students’ experiences, but reading Heart of Darkness followed by Achebe’s critique of it might.
Finally, please don’t make copies to leave in your co-workers boxes, as it will just strengthen their opposition to your views. Here’s an explanation of why.
Good luck in whatever your next step is. I hope it’s to another classroom, as we need more good critical teachers. Feel free to reach out about this or anything else in the future.
PS: It’s tangential, but here’s another piece I wrote about the importance of humility for teachers new and seasoned that is one of the pieces on my blog of which I’m most proud.