Sunday, February 24, 2019

How to Diversify Your British Literature Class

Even before the powerful “Disrupt the Canon” movement started, I wanted to better diversify my traditional British Literature Curriculum. My mission has only increased with time, as I become more convicted about the importance of having a wide variety of representation in our English literature curriculum. Most will agree that it is easy to diversify American Literature, but when it comes to British Literature, teachers must think outside the box, already brimmed full of white male authors.

To gain other perspectives on this issue, I have posed the question of “How do you add voices of color to your British Literature curriculum?” on my Instagram and in an active Facebook group with over 5,000 English teachers. I also stalked the #disrupttext tweet thread and have compiled what I’ve learned, citing those who added to this conversation. When you don’t see a citation, this idea is my own. Though you will see a few ideas for adding female voices, I tried to only focus on voices of color since adding female authors to British literature isn’t as challenging (Mary Shelley, J.K. Rowling, etc.). While this list is far from extensive, I truly hope that it helps you to start the work of diversifying your British Literature class because no matter what the set curriculum is, it’s important to showcase a wide variety of literary voices. 

Ideas for adding voices of color to your British Literature: 

I think the best way to set the tone for a diverse British Literature class is by showing the Ted Talk “The Danger of  Single Story” by novelist Chimamanda Adichie. It specifically calls out the danger of examining literature through a single story, background, or culture. Kate Kelly on FB says that she plays this Ted Talk then has students respond with this prompt: How does this talk contradict, challenge, or confirm your own beliefs?

The Anglo-Saxon Time Period:

Beowulf- After reading Beowulf this semester, I tried a new essay topic, “Everyday Epic Hero,” in which we followed the lesson plan found here: Teaching Tolerance: Modern Day Heroes.
Though this lesson plan is geared toward lower grade levels, it’s easily adaptable to senior level British literature. This lesson is about realizing what it means to be an upstander and highlights voices of color from all over the world. The upstander section of this lesson can easily pair with Wiglaf’s character when he is the only one to be an upstander while Beowulf is fighting the dragon. This entire dragon scene can turn into a metaphor for fighting the beast of injustice because the dragon represents a force that is threatening the peace and community of the Geats.

Another idea comes from Dana Warren who uses a NewsELA article titled “Scientists ask: Did traditional gender roles ever apply to Viking warriors?” If you don’t have a NewsELA account, here is a similar article: Famous Viking Warrior Was a Woman, DNA Reveals. Both of these articles tie in very well with the Ted Talk listed above because both touch on how the assumption that all warriors being male has affected everything from areological digs to archaic hero stories.

The Medieval Time Period:

The Canterbury Tales- Since most British Literature teachers transition from the Old English in Beowulf to Middle English in The Canterbury Tales, this makes a perfect unit to discussion history of the English language as well as code-switching within our own language.

Chaucer’s work is important because he chose to write it in English rather than the language of power at the time, French. He understood his ideal audience and wanted to appeal to a certain group of people through his word choice. The linguistic phenomenon of code-switching pairs perfectly in this unit because it is the act of altering how you express yourself based on your audience. Here are two insightful articles to pair with your discussion of language and power: “Sorry to Bother You, black Americans and the power and peril of code-switching” and “Five Reasons Why People Code-Switch” from NPR.

Another way to bridge the Medieval time period with modern day is by having students work through the Feudal triangle, keeping with the same power of language theme. Here is a worksheet I made to show you this concept:

As you can see, the Anglo-Saxon language got pushed to the bottom because those in power held the privilege at the top. After students worked this out using my room-sized Feudal triangle, they broke off to discuss the following: Do any remnants of the feudal system exist today? Do those with privilege still hold the “power of language?” How does this play into code-switching?
For another idea, Kate Kelley on FB chimes in a great feminist article to pair with “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”: “What Women Want: A Brief History” from The Atlantic.

The Renaissance Time Period:

During my research, I came across a podcast produced by the Folger Shakespeare Library. Though the entire episode may be a little too lengthy and advanced for students, the first ten minutes gives firsthand accounts about what it means to be a Black person who performs or appreciates Shakespeare. Here is the episode: African Americans and Shakespeare. If you feel that your students can better focus on the content while they are listening, here are my podcast coloring notes. I recommend using either the general note template or the comparison template to compare African performance heritage to Shakespearean performances.

Though I said above that you might want to give just a teaser of the podcast by playing the first 10 minutes, I think reading the ending of the podcast could be a really powerful closing. Here it is:

SHEIR: Back to that original question, is Shakespeare for everyone? In a way, the African American experience with Shakespeare may be the best evidence that it’s true. The late poet Maya Angelou made this point on the BBC’s Every Woman program in the 1990s. Much earlier in the show, she talked of being raped as a child. Later, the interviewer was talking to her about her artistic influences. Her answer is one that African American scholars still quote today.

[CLIP of Maya Angelou interview, "Every Woman" show, 1990s:]

INTERVIEWER: And I understand as a child, you loved Shakespeare, so was he a real inspiration to you as a poet?

MAYA ANGELOU: I was so amazed that he could know so much. But when I came to one, well, a number, of sonnets, I thought that it must, it’s got to be a black girl who wrote that, a black girl who had been sexually abused and who had a grandmother who left her.

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
    I all alone bemoan my outcast state,
And trouble a deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
    And look upon myself and curse my fate.

See, that’s a black girl. [LAUGH]

Here are some more ideas for the Renaissance time period:

Ann Marie Kumm responded that her late professor, Imitiaz Habib, was a leading Shakespeare scholar who explored people of color in Shakespeare’s work. Topics include racial impersonation on the Elizabeth stage and Black lives in the English archives.

Lastly, Lanelle Campbell on Instagram uses Drake’s “Hotline Bling” in comparison to Sir Thomas Wyatt’s “Thy Flee From Me.” When I did a quick google search for a lesson plan for this, one with links popped up here: Poem and Song Comparison.

The Restoration Time Period:

Follow me on Instagram @BuildingBookLove

A Modest Proposal- After reading "A Modest Proposal", I have students choose a current issue for which to write their own modest proposal. While I allow students to write about the issue they care about the most, I like to give some thought-provoking articles prior to letting them brainstorm their own topic. Students also enjoy using this newspaper clipping generator to "publish" their modest proposals. 

Lanelle Campbell on Instagram does this same assignment, having her students address topics that need to be discussed on a personal, political, or social level.

The Romantic Time Period:

I don’t have much for this time period, but I always try to incorporate Tiger symbolism through the lens of Asian culture when we read William Blake’s “The Tyger.” This article from Animal Planet is a great resource. 

I also use the article “Kubla Khan and Coleridge's Exotic Language” by Daljit Nagra when we read Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.”  

For another Romantic time period idea, J.cansal on Instagram commented that she really loves the new retelling of Pride and Prejudice by Ibi Zoboi which is called PRIDE and set in Bushwick Brooklyn with characters of color in modern times. I cannot wait to pick this one up because I love this author and this latest book sounds fantastic!

The Victorian Time Period:

Female British authors are prominent in the Victorian time period, so there’s no excuse in not highlighting the work of Bronte, Browning, and the like. Oscar Wilde is also an important voice of the Victorian time period who was not only a literary genius but also a prominent figure in the LGBTQ community. Here’s an article to pull in: “How Oscar Wilde Paved the Way for Gay Rights in the Arts”

The Modern Time Period:

Finally, the modern era brings us a wide variety of diverse voices, but sadly, it seems that I always run out of time before delving into the voices of Woolf or Achebe.

However, I do make sure to include as many social issues as possible into our two novels, Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm.

For Lord of the Flies, we focus a lot on the social norms of boys and toxic masculinity. We also discuss the implications of governments that run more out of fear than policy. The discussions we have with this book always lead to real-world issues. You can find this unit here: Lord of the Flies for the Real World 

For Animal Farm, I teach it like it’s my civic duty. Scarily, there’s no shortage of real-world comparisons to be gleaned from this classic. In my blog post Teaching Animal Farm like it's your civic duty, I list lots of ideas for taking a social stance with Animal Farm

As I stated earlier, this list is far from extensive. Instead of calling OUT what it’s lacking, I invite you to come IN to the conversation and add your ideas in the comments below. I will try to continuously update this page as I add to my canon.

If you are looking for British Literature Curriculum, you can find my bundle here: British Literature Bundle 

Want to research more? Keep going here:

Loulou Enstone , who teaches literature in England, gave what she calls “bit of a stream of consciousness” when replying to my question and adds:

In terms of adding new texts, here is what is working amazingly on curriculums over here at the moment!!
The Handmaid's Tale - yep we are counting it as British Literature as it was written in England!
White Teeth by Zadie
Heart of Darkness by Conrad - a short 19th century read, better than any Dickens and really excellent for all current affairs! Some of the most breathtaking description ever. Can you tell I love it?
I wouldn't bother with reading a whole Austen novel these days. The film adaptations are so wonderful. We do a spritely jaunt through about 6 of them in one week and then vote on which to watch.
Extracts from Wolf Hall - actually now I think about it these might work well with Macbeth and even Cant Tales.
I also love Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go.

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