by Jean Prokott
Until the day I retire, or die, or as luck will have it both at once, I will feel the same way about education theory and articles and professional development as I do now, which is that I find it entirely abstract without the acknowledgment that the system thwarts much of it from succeeding; that is, the hard work is put on the teachers, who have no control over the arrangement of the school day, or the Horace Mann scheme itself. I am not concerned with the amount of work, because the work is valuable and sometimes enjoyable. Rather, I am concerned about teacher morale when most things we create, in theory, work best in a fantastical (dare I say utopian) system we are not afforded.
Sir Ken Robison’s TED talk comes to mind as I consider the question: are there so many books on theory because we’re starting bottom-up rather than top-down? Why hasn’t school changed? Or, at the very least: why don’t our professional development seminars and theory texts begin: we know you’re boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past BUT…
Many communities and school boards are in the midst of discussions about Critical Race Theory (CRT), which has inspired my thoughts here, as has Cathy Park Hong’s book Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, which I listened to on short walks between my online classes last winter. The book is part literary criticism, part memoir. I recommend it highly. Hong explores how Asian narratives have become a single narrative and does so in a raw, poignant, and even humorous way. (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk comes to mind as well).
There are mountains of discussions we could have about CRT, but I won’t address those here. Instead, I want to discuss what obstacles arise even when we have control of our curriculum. I want to explore how intersectionality might put some of us in a box.
It’s important to note that I am writing as a cis white woman. If one were to Google “stock photo of English teacher,” my picture would probably come up. I have many blind spots that my government-issued teacher Ray Bans cannot bring to focus.
The Minnesota English standards appropriately direct teachers to use diverse texts, both teacher-chosen and student-chosen. For the most part, teachers are not directed to use specific texts, nor are they directed to read “Black authors” or “Asian authors.” The term “diverse” allows autonomy, but I am indecisive here. I love autonomy in my classroom. I attempt to bring in as many intersectional voices as possible. (The resources, or “book room” needed to do so is another article.) However, as Hong’s book made me consider, this forces teachers to say “we need an Asian story,” “we need a Black story,” “we need an Indigenous story,” or “shoot, I don’t have time for the feminist story, what do I do?” Other than to say “students, please keep in mind this is only one experience,” I’m lost. To give students access to as many absent narratives as possible, I have to, ironically, put those voices in a box and define them by the authors’ or protagonists’ identities.
This is not our “fault.” We are doing the best we can within the literature repertoire that understands kids need stories that expand their worldviews. (Unfortunately, the CRT debate has made this complicated for teachers to explain. Telling someone else’s story does not negate one’s own. Discussing one’s privilege does not mean they haven’t overcome obstacles.)
The challenge with the standards is the system, in that we rely on the one story, year after year, because of access to materials and time, and the weight of the job. As much as I am embarrassed to acknowledge this, I’ve had the thought that teaching A Raisin in the Sun ticks both the “Black” and “woman” boxes.
What then happens is we teach children the same absent narrative each year.
A wonderful resource is the Minnesota Humanities Center, which offers an abundance of stories that address the absent narrative. These resources help us fill a gaping hole. It also takes an incredible amount of time to explore every story, a rewarding, engaging, and time-consuming task. Time is always in short demand. One wonders whether we’ll have time inflation any time soon and the time economy will crash.
But if we change how school works, we might make more room to find these voices.
The teachers I know are impeccably well-read. Our professional development is diversity focused, compelling, and student-centered. But the school and “factory” has looked the same for the last 200 years, and for most of those years, they have mostly told cis white male stories. I wonder if the best way to make room for the rest of the narratives is to change up the system, which was built for white middle- and upper-class students.
I’m not entirely sure what this looks like, but we cannot dismiss it as impossible. I became a teacher so I could infiltrate and fix the problems from the inside, and I’m doing the best I can by keeping myself as well-informed as possible. I listen to National Public Radio 39 hours a day. I participate in book groups. I write for an amazing Education online magazine. I know we can’t beat the system on our own. What we can do is keep our personal bookshelves diverse when we find time to read for pleasure, and we can ask our students what they’re reading and which stories they’d like, and we can rely on our colleagues. I don't want you to apologize for not having time, because finding the best literature is a second job. My point here is to tell you I’m on your side, to tell you: we can’t beat the ocean’s current, but…
Third Eye Education posts weekly articles focusing on education and innovation.