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We Need Diverse Books . . . and Diverse Feedback

This blog is written by NCTE member, Oona Marie Abrams. 

Oona Marie AbramsI was first made aware of my white privilege at the age of 27, at a summer institute for educators hosted at a local college. A palpable tension had arisen within the cohort after one of the breakout sessions when one of the white participants asked a black participant, “You’re black; what do you think?” I found this question cringeworthy and in poor social taste, but before participating in that cohort, I had not understood how my whiteness gave me privileges I had never before considered. My wish for my white students is that they not reach a quarter-life crisis before making such a discovery.

Like so many of my colleagues, I make intentional efforts to infuse diverse texts and learning experiences into my instruction, but this practice requires constant reevaluation, and the voices of my students are the most informative tool I have. Last fall I redesigned a learning experience for my grade 12 Contemporary Nonfiction students based around a small section of Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” It is a quiet, reflective activity that requires personal writing and little conversation. Students review items on McIntosh’s checklist and assess their own behaviors and those they see in their world. I read the reflections, comment on them with questions, and return them. For most of my white students, this is the first time they are asked to consider their own whiteness and the invisible privileges it affords them.

Not surprisingly, the experience makes many of my white students uncomfortable, which invites them onto their own journeys of inquiry. “I was thinking about other people from other races,” one white student wrote in a reflection. “I was feeling they would probably answer differently than me. It made me feel kind of upset to think someone might be singled out.” Another reflection, penned by a Chinese American student, was even more compelling: “Asians are so underrepresented in society, and it is not always positive when they are. . . . There are hardly any stories about people being racist to Asians, and it is not because it never happens.” After reading this reflection, I tallied the number of books I have read by Asian authors or with Asian characters. They numbered in the double digits — barely.

This month the publication of Calvin Trillin’s poem “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” in the New Yorker generated an outpouring of responses by the Asian American writing community. One such response, Timothy Yu’s article in New Republic, “White Poets Want Chinese Culture without Chinese People,” validates the concerns of my Chinese American student. As a steward of learning, I get to select the texts that will most enrich my students’ understanding of their world, but have I really been offering a diverse selection, or have I been offering only what seems diverse to me?

I thought I had been doing a pretty good job of selecting diverse texts, but I need both the feedback of my students and a dedication to a diverse reading life to challenge my own assumptions. One of my summer professional development initiatives is to explore the texts and voices of Asian American writers so that I can address this dearth, making revisions to my course outlines. I might have come a long way since that day at the summer institute, but my journey, and the journey of each of my students, is far from concluded.

Oona Marie Abrams has been a high school English teacher since 1996. Editor of English Leadership Quarterly, Abrams has also been selected as an Emerging Leader Fellow by the Council on English Leadership (CEL). She resides in Bergen County, New Jersey with her husband and four sons.