A Model for Creating an Inclusive American Lit Curriculum
A high school teacher connected the standard curriculum to the work of a living, local poet to better engage all of her students.
Inclusivity has been an issue in the English curriculum for many years. Curricular units are dominated by White and often male authors, and writers of color are frequently omitted or sequestered in separate units (e.g., African American literature). So there has been a needed push for multiculturalism in the classroom.
The need for teachers to engage in meaningful professional development related to multiculturalism became clear to me when I realized that my own curriculum was not inclusive of all of my learners. My school is about 60 percent White and 40 percent students of color, but the overwhelming majority of authors on the suggested American Literature curriculum are white. So I started to overhaul my curriculum, focusing on replacing and supplementing my text choices with different perspectives that fully represent the multiculturalism of my students. I used the following framework in my English III/American Literature class.
Overhauling an American Lit Curriculum
I teach in South Carolina, and first met Marcus Amaker—Charleston’s first poet laureate—at a state English teacher conference. He was a speaker, and recited some of his poems. When he read “The United States of Anxiety,” I was inspired. The poem was timely and timeless—so connected to our present moment but also so reflective of our past. It provided the perfect framework for the spring semester of my American Literature class.
I decided the thematic focus of the unit would be “The Impact of Progress” throughout American history. “The United States of Anxiety” was our anchor text, and I used each section of the poem as a mini-unit on positive and negative impacts of progress. The first section of the poem focuses on protest and revolution, the second on consumerism and technology, and the third on civil rights issues.
Throughout each of these mini-units, I chose texts to supplement the sections of the poem. For example, while analyzing section one, we read several texts about past American protests. We analyzed the Declaration of Independence, listened to a podcast about Black Loyalists in the Revolutionary War era, and read informational articles about current forms of protests like Black Lives Matter.
Each assessment connected with the sections of the poem as well. In the first section, for example, I had students research a protest from American history and then create a hashtag that would have been used for that protest during the time period if social media existed. They had to write a detailed justification for their suggestion.
Culturally Responsive Teaching With a Local Focus
What made this unit and author effective? Amaker is really important locally, the first poet laureate of Charleston, which made national headlines in 2015 when nine African Americans were murdered by a White supremacist in church—an episode that my students are of course keenly aware of. Amaker is an African American male, so building my curriculum around him helped my Black students, especially my Black male students, feel represented in the American Literature curriculum, which historically has been dominated by White male authors.
I also included texts by African American female authors, including Zora Neale Hurston and Maya Angelou. However, my work to be inclusive isn’t finished, and I’ll strive every year to ensure all of my students feel represented.
Amaker’s presentation of his poetry in a spoken-word format created an alternative way for students to engage with the text. Spoken-word poetry is similar to rap, which is popular in my classroom. The lyrical nature of the reading brought my students a deep understanding of the text. I had planned to have my students talk with Amaker, but with the pandemic I ended up putting that on hold. That is something I would like to do this coming school year—it could be done over Zoom if necessary.
This unit was also effective because I integrated everything. It wasn’t a separate unit for African American literature—Amaker’s text was the anchor text, and as I taught the other texts I connected them to the major themes of the poem. For example, the second section focuses on consumerism, and we read The Great Gatsby and excerpts from The Jungle in connection with that. With the third section, on civil rights issues, we read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech along with Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass. This created a sense of cohesion and ensured that all of the texts seemed relevant.
How to Do This in Other Places
So how can you begin to overhaul your teaching practices to be more inclusive to all students? Finding relevant content is essential. Not everyone has access to a poet laureate relevant to their location, or a poem that can work as a framework for a unit of study. You may have to search for resources that are applicable to your area and your students.
One of the best ways to find those resources is to ask the experts—both inside and outside of your classroom. Your students are your inside experts: What are they reading, listening to, or watching? By getting to know them as individuals, you’ll get a glimpse into their cultural literacy, which can help you construct an inclusive curriculum. The experts outside of your classroom include writers on multiculturalism and pedagogy, and researchers and other educational professionals, including teachers in your department. Having meaningful conversations about textual experiences with coworkers can expand your resources.
Lastly, I recommend choosing a thematic focus when constructing your curriculum, rather than focusing on genre or a singular text, which can limit your creativity when it comes to choosing resources for the unit. When trying to decide what type of theme to use, I pull from questions or ideas that I have when reading a text. I ask myself, what is important from this text and what will be relevant to my students? Because Amaker’s poem was packed with so much content, I used multiple themes for focus. Using a thematic focus for a unit enables you to select multiple texts from different genres and styles that relate to your theme, one that you hope can reach all students.
It is crucial for teachers to create an inclusive environment of learning in their classrooms. The first step to this inclusivity is to make purposeful choices in the texts they teach so all students can be seen in the curriculum.