Choosing a work of literature for a whole-class read—and considering how it contributes to the course as a whole—is an important part of purposeful and responsive planning. We recognize that teachers are often required to teach particular texts, or they have limited choices, but for those who have the freedom to choose, making that choice thoughtfully is an important first step in the unit planning process.
Literature has the power to help students understand different perspectives, question their surroundings, and build empathy in meaningful and communal ways. Stories can be identity-affirming and broaden students’ thinking about themselves and others in the world. However, stories can also marginalize, simplify, and even erase groups of people and their complex stories from the curriculum. So it is important for educators to consider their purpose when engaging in the text-selection process.
Watch Dr. Kimberly Parker discuss text selection as part of purposeful and responsive planning.
Key Principles for Text Selection
Because text selection has such an important role in how our students engage with the curriculum and each other, Facing History offers some key principles that can guide the process.
- Consider your own identity. As readers and as educators, our identities and experiences shape our understanding of and appreciation for the texts we select. Growing up, we may have encountered texts that we found affirming, validating, or even life-changing. Or we may have searched to no avail for this sense of belonging on the page. Before choosing texts, it is important that we take the time to reflect on our experiences as readers and writers. For example, when we explore our relationship to certain texts, we may realize that what made them life-changing for us may not resonate with all of our students. For them to have a similarly transformative literary experience, we may need to consider different titles. When we engage in this reflection process, we are better equipped to be responsive to our students’ individual and collective needs, as well as more aware of why we may gravitate toward certain curricular choices.
- Consider your students’ identities. When students believe that what they are learning is meaningful and relevant, they are more likely to engage with the content and with each other. Knowing our students as unique individuals, as well as understanding their relationship to reading and writing, can help us support them intellectually and emotionally. Furthermore, when we consider how our ideas about adolescence and adolescents may influence our interactions and expectations, we can become aware of any stereotypes and biases that may get in the way of upholding fair and equitable classroom policies and procedures. As a result, we may identify new opportunities to help our students connect to what they are learning.
- Know your purpose. As educators, we need to consider our core beliefs about teaching and learning. This process starts with understanding our “why,” the key principles that guide our planning and pedagogy for the students in our classrooms each year. Grappling with challenging questions, like why we teach a particular text, can spark important conversations about the texts we teach year after year, the new ones we choose to add, and whether or not the diversity of our students and their experiences are reflected in our core curriculum.
- Examine text complexity (in a new way). When we look at text complexity as more than a Lexile number—as something that exists in a text’s substance and style, as well as in how students engage with its ideas and themes—we can broaden our criteria for text selection in meaningful ways.1 This approach recognizes that students benefit from reading cognitively powerful texts that provide insights into the human experience. When students are supported by their teachers to critically engage with the characters, conflicts, and themes of complex texts through meaningful reflection, discussion, and writing tasks, they have opportunities to imagine people and places outside of their lived experiences, as well as to form opinions about very real concepts, such as power, systems of inequity, and the multiple ways of being human in the world today.
- Identify the text’s purpose. Deeply reading and discussing a text as a class can be a community-building activity, one that provides students with opportunities to grow in ways they might not when reading on their own. Given the important work of whole-class texts, it’s essential to consider how each one fits into the larger themes of the course. In a Facing History literature unit, the text invites students to engage with the world and its people in all their messy complexity. It provides opportunities for students to explore philosophical questions and ideas about what it means to be human. It may introduce ideas and themes that are unsettling and lead to a state of productive disequilibrium. And in the end, through personal reflection, critical analysis, and collaborative learning experiences, it provides a catalyst for students to reach new, different, or deeper understandings of themselves and others in the world.
- Consider the representation of adolescents and adolescence. Adolescence is a dynamic time of growth, change, and possibility, a time when young people explore their identities, seek new experiences and relationships, and form values, passions, and goals that will shape their futures. When we select coming-of-age texts with complex characters and themes, we can help students make connections between what they are reading and their own developing ideals and principles. Furthermore, we can invite them to evaluate how the text portrays adolescence and adolescents and critically examine how representations of young adults and their experiences reflect or don’t reflect their own lives.
- Assess your readiness to address racist and derogatory language. An important step in the text-selection process is to read, watch, or listen to any text we are considering in its entirety. Only then can we know where the author may have used racist slurs, derogatory words, anachronistic language, and/or dialect. If, after previewing the text, we identify instances of dehumanizing historical language and dialects, we need to assess our preparation to address these problematic moments with intention and care. We may realize that we lack the tools to teach the text in a responsible way and choose a different text. Or, given our identities and relationship with the words and dialects in the text, our community and its norms, and/or our professional experience, we may feel prepared to lay the groundwork to facilitate the challenging conversations necessary for our students to fully engage with the text and its language. See Strategies for Addressing Racist and Dehumanizing Language in Literature for additional considerations.
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