A Curious Inheritance – Part I

A Curious Inheritance – Part I

post by Julia Torres, Member of The Educator Collaborative

A Curious Inheritance – Part I

I have found you can learn a lot about people by the books they choose to use as instructional tools. My first year teaching, the teacher who I replaced left me what I refer to as a book inheritance. At the end of his long and illustrious teaching career, he retired and walked off into the sunset, leaving me everything–his files, his student work, and a whole case full of books.  At first glance, I felt like I hit the jackpot. I had a small budget I could use to buy new books, but because the school was in a small conservative town, there was an approval process, and it wasn’t common for new teachers to teach books that weren’t simultaneously being taught by other, more experienced teachers. My inherited bookshelf had some really…interesting…titles, most of them novels with romantic depictions of or other thematic ties to the American West. Given the fact that I had been given the classes to teach that nobody else wanted, English 10 and 12, I wasn’t sure how I felt about forcing myself to build curriculum around these novels.  

This all happened over a decade ago, and since then, the educational landscape, and literacy instruction in general ,has changed in ways I don’t think any of us could have expected.  At the same time, so much has remained exactly the same. Many of us still rely largely on expertise, or left-over books from other people and organizations, to inform decisions about the novels we invite into our classrooms for use as instructional tools.  Part of the reason this is common practice is because teachers are not often trusted to make curricular decisions. It seems that the less experience a teacher has, the less their judgement is trusted. This might, at first, make sense. In most other areas of the field, knowledge comes with increased experience.  With regard to text selection, however, the process and skills needed to choose relevant and effective texts for the classroom is more nuanced.

There are many different types of learning environments with rules, regulations, and restrictions around which texts can be used to support learning and the development of a literary consciousness within children.  In some environments, a teacher simply cannot choose a book, get donors to donate copies, and then begin teaching without going through a complicated approval process that, in the most extreme cases, can involve going before the board of education to defend a particular title.  In other places, teachers have access to per-pupil expenditure funds well in excess of those allocated by state governments for local public schools. It follows, then, that in some of the least restrictive environments, educators have been vetted by other means to ensure their philosophy for teaching children aligns with that of the institution.  By contrast, the most restrictive environments often put policies and practices into place that imply they have very little confidence in the expertise or knowledge of the educators selecting texts, and so will choose for them–providing books from a pre-approved list. In this way, the expertise remains in the hands of those with purchasing power, which ultimately ends up impacting thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of lives.

So how do we free ourselves from such traditional and binary ways of selecting texts?  It is certainly far from ideal to have those far removed from the classroom making the most far-reaching decisions about which texts our students get to experience.  Or is it? We know that the teacher shortage has precipitated situations where folks without higher ed backgrounds in the study of literature often wind up teaching language arts and literacy classes.  What is the best way to support them? The old paradigm that has educators holding advanced degrees in their content areas is no longer the norm. So what ways can we find to flow with the tide of change?

[Part 2 coming soon!]

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