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Embedding Diversity into Every Unit

When planning to teach any semester or full-year course, I follow a few rules of thumb to ensure that I have adequate diversity among my selected works. Number One, I commit to having an equal number of male and female authors to maintain gender balance. Number Two, if I am in in a majority-white school, I make sure that at least every third book is from a minority author. If I am in a minority-white school, I make sure that two-thirds of the books are from minority authors.

For instance, if I were creating a course for 9th graders in a majority-white school with a focus on coming-of-age stories, I might create the following reading list:

First Semester: Lord of the Flies by William Golding

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

Second Semester: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Night by Elie Wiesel

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

If I were teaching in a majority-minority school, however, I would alter the reading list to reflect the diversity of my students:

First Semester: Lord of the Flies by William Golding

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

Night by Elie Wiesel

Second Semester: A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Since I replaced Romeo and Juliet with A Raisin in the Sun, I also switched Persepolis with American Born Chinese to maintain gender balance. If I—or the school or district—were adamant about keeping Shakespeare in the curriculum, then I would replace Lord of the Flies with Romeo and Juliet.

While some might question keeping To Kill a Mockingbird on the reading list for its use of racist language and its portrayal of Atticus Finch as a "white savior," I see Lee's novel as a great opportunity to have difficult conversations about race—and systemic racism, in particular—that we might not have in the classroom otherwise. We discussed the rationale for pairing novels like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with Beloved in our February newsletter, and in this newsletter we will discuss how to embed diversity within every unit, and especially with controversial texts like To Kill a Mockingbird.

When following our curricular framework, we have multiple opportunities to embed diverse voices and perspectives within a unit. The first opportunity is through the Journal Discussion, which is a close examination of a thought-provoking quotation. The second is through the AP Poetry Analysis, which focuses on a poem with a related theme to the primary work.

If the author of the major work is male, then we make sure that either the quotation or the poem is from a female perspective. If the author of the major work is white, then we make sure that either the quotation or the poem is from a person of color. Sometimes these categories overlap. For instance, when we teach William Shakespeare's Macbeth, we choose the 2003 AP Literary Argument prompt that focuses on how the "suffering brought upon others" helps shape the "tragic vision of the work as a whole":

To emphasize the fate of leaders who use cruelty to subjugate their people, we examine Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem "Ozymandias" for the AP Poetry Analysis. Since we now have the voices of two white males in the unit, we try to find a woman of color for the Journal Discussion, which leads to our selection of the following quote from Toni Morrison:

We use the same formula when the author of the major work is female. For instance, when teaching Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, we choose Maya Angelou's "Still I Rise" for the AP Poetry Analysis to emphasize the Black feminist theme in both works. Now that we have two female voices in the unit, we try to include a male perspective on how one develops strength and self-confidence by using a quote from Viktor Frankl for the Journal Discussion:

When preparing to teach a controversial novel like Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, we take great care in our selection of secondary perspectives. One of the primary criticisms of Lee's novel is the lack of voice given to Black characters like Calpurnia and Tom Robinson. As we begin the planning process, we first choose an AP Literary Argument prompt for the final essay that will also serve as the academic focus of the unit. For To Kill a Mockingbird, we chose the 2011 prompt on a character's "search for justice":

To get students thinking about the Essential Questions of the unit and the nature of justice and injustice within society, we give a brief background of the Civil Rights movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s—the time period when Harper Lee wrote her novel, despite its setting being in the 1930s—and read an excerpt from Martin Luther King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail":

Letter from a Birmingham Jail
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Students then freewrite on the following quotation from Martin Luther King, Jr. as part of the Journal Discussion activity:

In addition to the Journal Discussion on King's quotation, we also examine the theme of justice and injustice through the Langston Hughes poem "I, Too" (1921) as part of the AP Poetry Analysis. We discuss how Hughes' poem is a critical response to Walt Whitman's poem, "I Hear America Singing" (1860), which celebrates a mythic America that embraces all of its people despite their individual differences. Hughes' response makes the reader aware that an important demographic is missing from Whitman's idyllic vision of America:

As a result of our planning process, students are given the background of the Civil Rights Movement and hear the voices of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Langston Hughes on the subject of injustice before ever opening Lee's novel. Furthermore, to prepare students for having to read the n-word—which we will never verbalize in class—we have them watch a short clip of writer Te-Nahisi Coates explaining why white people should never use the word, despite the fact that it is used liberally within the Black community:

Once we begin Lee's novel, we instruct students to consider carefully the way in which Black characters are depicted. While it is understandable that Scout—as a young white girl being raised in a racist community—would not have access to the true thoughts of someone like Calpurnia, we do get a glimpse into the feelings of Lula, who confronts Calpurnia for bringing Scout and Jem to their segregated church.

What is interesting is how Lee depicts Lula, using the Black character of Zeebo to describe Lula as "contentious" and a "troublemaker," a person who has "fancy ideas an' haughty ways." Even though Calpurnia, Reverend Sykes, and Zeebo appreciate Scout and Jem's presence at their church, Lula certainly does not. Even though Lee depicts Lula in a negative light, her depiction creates an opportunity for us to examine Lee's point of view in the novel and discuss the various Civil Rights philosophies that were prevalent during the time that she wrote her novel.

At this point in our reading, we begin discussing the differences between the philosophy of assimilation and integration—as espoused by someone like Martin Luther King, Jr.—and the Black nationalist philosophy of someone like Malcolm X. To help students understand the difference between King's philosophy—which most students are familiar with through his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963—and Malcolm X's philosophy, we have them watch excerpts from various Malcolm X speeches where he articulates the logic behind the Black nationalist movement:

In preparation for students' writing their AP Passage Analysis, which will be a rhetorical analysis of Atticus' closing statement during the trial of Tom Robinson, we use a few excerpts from Malcolm X's speeches to model how effective speakers use the three rhetorical appeals—ethos, logos, and pathos—to persuade their audiences.

Most importantly, though, we discuss why a typical white person in 1960—the year when Lee published her novel—would gravitate towards the philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr., rather than that of Malcolm X. We also ask students to consider which philosophy they would have espoused had they been Black and living during that time period.

Another major criticism of Lee's novel is Atticus' depiction as a "white savior" who benevolently helps Tom Robinson because of his moral superiority when compared to the other citizens of Maycomb County. Rather than refrain from reading the novel because of this depiction, we use the Literary Criticism element of our curricular framework to confront Atticus' depiction directly. We assign students to read Malcolm Gladwell's 2009 essay in The New Yorker, "The Courthouse Ring: Atticus Finch and the Limits of Southern Liberalism," to explore how Atticus' "goodness" can be seen as an instrument that perpetuates systemic racism within his society—and how Lee's novel can also perpetuate systemic racism in our modern-day society if we do not examine the text closely.

That being said, we still try to be fair to the legacy of Atticus Finch and his status as one of the most beloved characters in American literature. When one considers the time period in which the novel is set, Atticus remains an extraordinary character. His thoughts and actions may be flawed from a 21st century perspective, but he still moves his 1930s society closer to one that respects the dignity of all people—regardless of their race gender, or class. While Atticus might not be the perfect role model in our time, he certainly was in his time.

The variety of voices that we bring into our unit on To Kill a Mockingbird gives students a number of ideas and perspectives to help them think differently or more deeply about Lee's novel. While it is important to bring varied voices into our curriculum to better represent the diversity in our country and within our classrooms, it is also important to include diverse perspectives for a more fundamental reason: it makes our classes more effective and engaging by doing so.

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