Over at Scribbles on the Wall, Mariana Llanos has a great post about why we need more diversity in children’s literature. I don’t know much about that genre, but I know that this is something we struggle with when transforming literature courses to be more inclusive.

For this campaign, I would like to offer an interest approach I developed for a difference, power, and discrimination course. It was designed to allow students to visualize and deconstruct their own assumptions. As a formative assessment, it can also give us a baseline of how students think about literature.

First Day Interest Approach: What is Literature?

Have students take out a sheet of paper and write down the following three things: their definition of literature, two qualities/key words from that definition, and an example with the author. Explain that the definition won’t be collected or shared so that they will have total freedom in writing it.

Offer two possible ways to go about finishing this: 1) start with a definition, derive two qualities from it, and offer an example that epitomizes those qualities, or 2) start with the example, brainstorm the qualities based on the example, and then write a definition based on those qualities.

Give students five minutes to complete this. Then pull up the literary movements timeline below on a projector.

In many ways, this is an attractive and useful representation of literary movements, but it’s exclusive focus on European or American authors highlights an underlying bias in the canon.

As you slowly move down the timeline instruct students to stop you if their example comes up. When stopped, ask those students who their example was. Then ask why they think their example was included on the timeline (they can draw on their definition or key terms if they wish). After scrolling through the timeline, ask students who haven’t had a chance to speak yet to share their examples. Ask them why they think their examples were not included on this timeline.

Depending on the responses, open up a discussion about the timeline in general. Point out that it is a general literature timeline and not limited to the English language (for instance, it includes Russian and French writers).

Possible discussion questions:

  • Why do you think this timeline starts with Beowulf? What would you start it with?
  • Are there any movements that you would add? Why do you think Chinua Achebe isn’t on here? Where are the Harlem Renaissance poets? What about the magical realists?
  • What does this timeline suggest about its creator’s view of literature?

Context set (pass out syllabus): We began by looking at our own instinctive views of literature. Then we compared it to a timeline developed by the Literature Network as a representative of the traditional view of the canon. In this class, we’re going to push back against these assumptions about literature and the makeup of the canon. We’re going to explore voices that might not be included in timelines like this, and consciously examine how they stretch our own understanding of literature.

The opening writing prompt might be something to revisit at the end of the course to see if our definition of literature changes or stays the same

Why care about this? Because it is so easy to see others through a single story, but by reading novels, we can expand our understanding of persons and places. As Chimamanda Adichie put it, “When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”

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