Dear English Teachers,
To your students, reading feels like a chore. We might associate any joy from that action with the pain of completing analysis sheets, projects, and of the time lost while reading. That’s what I feel like when we’re given books or any texts to read for English class. The books have pretty generic plots, considering that they are the most commonly-taught literary works, also known as ones in the literary canon. The literary canon consists of any texts that were considered to be the “best written” or most important during that time (the criteria is very vague). Usually, those texts have been mainly written by (now) dead, cishet, white people. Now, students don’t relate to them because of differences in time periods, writing styles, engagement levels, and relatability of the work. The canon author’s view on life doesn’t mirror the students’ experience or possibly interest them, so their relationship with the canon texts is just, “Wow, I can’t believe I need to analyze another old story, how fun.” Every time I hear the title of Harper Lee’s most famous work, I mentally combust, even though I’ve never read it. The bare titles of books remind us students of the workload that needs to go into reading, discouraging us from wanting to do real work in class and enjoyment. Instead of re-teaching the same stories and the same projects that make students (and teachers when grading) go insane, is to find other material that ultimately teaches the same or similar lessons as the canon texts and makes it more relatable to the students, or add material that aids in teaching those original and relatable lessons. When students find something we connect with or when we see representation in our classes, it piques our interest, resuming engagement. While this may be a step-up from having your easily-accessible materials (because being a teacher is hard work and re-teaching stories are easier), the true goal of teaching young minds is to show them the world’s reality and other people’s view of the world. Teaching doesn’t center around one group of people to state their views and everyone is made to believe them, it takes a variety of voices and experiences to allow the students to truly understand the world. Changing or adding the material from the canon works to texts by diverse authors with similar topics or that challenge them, such as the future and cultural identity, engages the students and makes them feel represented.
The theme of creating perfect worlds or civilizations is impossible because humanity’s choices are unpredictable is taught in both Lord of the Flies by William Golding and The Book of Martha by Octavia E. Butler; still, only Golding’s story has been frequently taught in schools. Why is that? It’s because teaching books like Lord of the Flies is tradition: teachers stay with books they have access to and are familiar with and teach it to the next generation. But, when teaching the same story over and over again and with students having to read those stories repeatedly, we all get bored. Reading these traditional stories might be great for the minds, but it’s not fun and a major part of teaching is that you need to make it engaging. Every time we read a literary text in class from a famous author, we have an idea about what the lesson would be like or what the work would be about (especially if that author had a specific genre they liked or had common themes in their work). Let’s say we had to read Shakespeare. Once my peers and I hear his name, we groan because we already know about his unorthodox writing style, a few common themes he writes in his plays (or other works), and that he sticks to a few genres in his work. We get bored and it just feels like reviewing the same type of material, just in a different class. This is why teaching unfamiliar authors like Butler is great for the students and teachers: both of us get to learn about new authors and the lessons in their work. In The Book of Martha, Butler writes about a black author named Martha who wakes up from a writing session to God, asking her/giving her the power to “fix” all of humanity, in the hopes that they would be better. Of course, she freaks out because she just met God and he shows her his powers. Then, Martha pitches a bunch of ideas on how to make humanity better and God rejects them, explaining the consequences. One of her suggestions was to make the population smaller, by limiting the number of children each person can have. Butler makes God interject by writing, “‘What about people whose children die or are seriously disabled? What about a woman who’s first child is a result of rape? What about surrogate motherhood? What about men who become fathers without realizing it? What about cloning?’” (Butler 7). Here, God is listing possible consequences that could happen if she acts on her decision, which he cannot change once it’s made. When listing these consequences, it stresses Martha out because she realizes she needs to weigh her options so the consequences aren’t terrible for everyone. She needs to predict what humans are capable of, to make their lives better, but this is an impossible task. She couldn’t make the perfect world because she (and God) can’t predict the future and actions and/or thoughts of every human. Because humanity’s choices are unpredictable, there is no real, true answer to make everything better. Eventually, she lands on the idea of letting everyone have powerful, amazing dreams that when they wake up, it pushes them to be better people and more mature. This solution could start well, but again, she doesn’t know what humans could do to ruin their utopias. Even this solution describes the theme because everyone has different ideas of a utopia and their dreams could push them to do bad things that they are unaware of. Nobody knows the future actions of all people, so creating a perfect world can’t be done. Similarly, in Golding’s story, the main characters try to make a civilization/ try to survive with all members present but fail. The story begins with a group of boys who land on a tropical island from a plane crash and learn to survive in their small group. They appoint leaders of the group, which have different ideas of how they want everyone to survive (trying to create a perfect civilization), creating conflict between characters. In the end, the boys become unhinged and go a bit crazy, but are saved by a British guard. The fact that each leader had different ideas of a perfect civilization or a good way to survive is an example of the theme: they couldn’t make a perfect civilization/agree on a way to survive, leading to their unpredictable actions, like killing other boys. Taking action and being in charge of a group urges the leader to help their group survive, but since they couldn’t foresee their future, especially since others didn’t agree with them, they were unable to create a healthy, surviving group. In addition to a similar theme in the stories, reading Butler’s text shows students a representation of black people, written in the eyes of a black person. In The Book of Martha, Martha is described as a black woman with a rough childhood, Butler writing, “‘How could you not know? I was born poor, black, and female to a fourteen-year-old mother who could barely read. We were homeless half the time while I was growing up. Is that bottom-level enough for you? I was born on the bottom, but I didn’t stay there. I didn’t leave my mother there, either. And I’m not going back there!’”(Butler 4). Here, she describes Martha’s life and when comparing it to her job as an author, it shows she has found success in her life, even with her origins. This could be an inspiration to students starting from the bottom because Butler has written out an example of success and those students could hang on to it. Black students can also relate to her character because they both understand their lives as black people and any struggle (s) they go through. Likewise, Butler herself is an example of representation because showing her work in class means that she succeeded in her career, inspiring students to do so in their future careers.
While the future is uncertain, teaching students about the reality of the world is crucial and can be done through poetry. When teaching this form of literature, most teachers lean towards classic poets like Shakespeare or Emily Dickinson. They teach their students about language, poetic structure, and anything else about these poets that categorize them as “the greats”; however, teaching students with only material written by the past canonical authors doesn’t reflect the ideologies of the modern world in poetry. The world is full of other people’s perspectives, so students also should be reading poetry about the modern age. An example of a classic poem one could would be “Thanking My Mother for Piano Lessons” by Diane Wakoski. One can use this poem to teach students about figurative language and how it makes the poem interesting, but, “The Janitor of High School Musical Speaks” by Scott Woods, is a poem that teaches the same lessons, but entertainingly, in the eyes of a janitor living in a universe that most students recognize: the High School Musical universe. For Wakoski’s poem, she describes some of her memories of her mother and her lifetime, using the sense of sight, creating imagery. Wakoski writes, “I want to thank my mother for working every day in a drab office in garages and water companies cutting the cream out of her coffee at 40 to lose weight, her heavy body writing its delicate bookkeeper’s ledgers alone, with no man to look at her face, her body, her prematurely white hair in love” (Wakoski). Here, she writes about her mother’s job and her appearance, reflecting on her past in this thank-you poem. When she describes her mother, she uses her sense of sight, which is an indicator of imagery. Because of this, she reminisces about her mother, giving the poem personal meaning to her. Similarly, in Woods’ poem, he describes the lively students of East High, in the eyes of a janitor, also using his sense of sight to create imagery (but with less personal meaning to the poem). He writes, “Every time there’s a fire drill, they file out of their classes, twirling, arms in the air, single file all the way to the curb, where they jump on the nearest car, bobbing their necks to the rhythm of the fire alarm” (Woods 86). Here, the janitor describes what he sees the high-spirited high schoolers do during a fire drill. Throughout the poem, he is annoyed with the students, having to be the one cleaning up after their little “concerts”, considering the entire plot of High School Musical. By describing their actions, it gives the readers an image of them acting the way they do. This poem is less serious and is read in the voice of an irritated interviewee, which makes it interesting for the student to read. While teachers love the canon poets for their amazing writing styles, students will be bored. Reading intersectional poets’ works like Woods’ is great; his poem is entertaining, easy to understand, and fits in better with the students. They tend to not care about a woman writing a thank-you letter to her mother, no matter how kind it is. While reading his poem, it’s from the point of view of a made-up character in a famous universe. If you told me I was going to read a poem written from the point of view of a janitor from High School Musical, of course, I’d be excited to read it! It’s fun to learn about a side character’s point of view in fantasy worlds; it serves as a reality check. While the main characters get to have fun, everyone else in the universe (like this janitor) would probably find their antics annoying. The janitor’s existence teaches the lesson that life doesn’t turn out the way you want it to be. From the last stanza, one can realize that the Janitor probably had dreams before and held on tight to them, but life didn’t work in his favor. Woods specifically writes, “None of them realize that they’re just one bad knee or failed recital away from having their name on their shirt for a living, rinsing out some self-absorbed kids’ dreams in a mop bucket’” (Woods 87). Because his dreams didn’t work out, he lives his life being a janitor, having to clean up after these bothersome kids. It shows the reality of having dreams and that life can either beat you up or work perfectly in your favor; most times it beats you up. Students need to learn about having backup plans if their dreams fail because real life doesn’t make your dreams come true (it may be a sad statement, but true). This theme is more important than Wakoski’s theme of being thankful for what you were given because it directly deals with the future, something students are supposed to be preparing for while in school.
If students learn about the realistic perspective of the future, then they should also learn about how fragile it could be and how easily corruption can come. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury is a commonly used piece of literature that teachers use to teach their students themes about censorship, technology taking over, and losing one’s individuality, all showing the fragility of the future; however, The Erasure Game by Yoon Ha Lee engages the students with its cliff-hanger of a plot, teaches the same topics and includes Asian and non-cisgender representation. The previously mentioned topics are shown in Fahrenheit 451 because the main problem in the plot is that people are glued to their electronics and all books would be burned. Bradbury writes, “So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life. The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless’” (Bradbury). Here, the head fireman Beatty explains why they burn books; they show uncomfortable information and do this to hide it away. Censorship is shown since they are manually burning away information from the citizens. With the loss of books, technology takes over the town, turning citizens into mindless people. Their individuality drifts away, becoming shells of humans. When reading this book, I became incredibly bored with the plot. Sure, learning about a dystopian society where they burn books might sound interesting at first, but then the rest of the book just follows Montag and his research on the reason behind the censorship, which lost my interest. Plus, it felt like a burden to read because I didn’t care about it, but we still had to do tons of projects or busy work on it. Reading felt like a chore instead of being used as a tool to learn and engage students. On the other hand, when reading The Erasure Game, it piques students’ interests with a modern and realistic plot. Lee writes the main character, Kimmy, and her best friend, Gray, as realistic teenagers: ones who dread school, work hard to please others, and who are seen as “reckless” by the other adults, which students could relate to. They read the text, can relate to them, and can be entertained with the plot centering around the mysterious Game, an app that tracks the citizens’ lives. In the end, my head was filled with questions such as “who implemented The Game in the first place” or “what would the future be like, due to the ending of the story”, which left off with Kimmy and Gray leaving to work for “The Dragon”, the presidential candidate whose goals were to make every town play The Game. The readers never find out what’s next, but we know that Kimmy planned to infiltrate the headquarters and learn the tactics of The Game and why they chose this method to control the citizens. Having this unsettling ending makes the reader crave more, engaging the students. The story brings up the previously mentioned themes by citizens getting sent to social rehabilitation centers if they misbehave or question The Game. There is no other background information on The Game, so the government is trying to hide the truth. When the citizens in this story show any ounce of creativity or curiosity, they get sent to rehab (the readers never know what exactly they do, but from the view of Kimmy and Gray, it doesn’t sound so great), possibly being “fixed”, erasing people’s true individuality and forcing them to be Game-playing obsessed people, like the rest of the citizens. An example of a “good” citizen the government wants would be Mari, Kimmy’s roommate. Lee writes, “It annoyed Kimmy that Mari would rather be seen agreeing with everyone than indicate her own opinion…Mari would suggest something sensible like waking one of the sentinels to report the incident” (Lee 23). Here, Lee describes Kimmy’s thoughts about her roommate, who is too afraid of her individuality that she is becoming just like the citizens: obsessed with the game. The government controls her, making her main goal to be gaining points for her household. Not investigating the problem clearly shows that winning The Game is of the utmost importance to her. The people’s obsession with The Game proves that technology was taking over and they were slowly losing their creativity by becoming Game-playing robots. Moreover, the author is a transgender, queer, Asian man, who writes the main character as an Asian woman and the supporting lead as nonbinary. Asian or nonbinary students can feel represented because they are reading a story written by this intersectional author. Reading his stories in schools educates people on different author backgrounds instead of only reading stories written by cishet white people and ones with old perspectives.
When students learn about a future that could become corrupt, they would need to learn to persevere and help improve the future. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck is a commonly used book in the English curriculum that teaches students about perseverance and people’s lives in a historical context; however, One Friday Morning by Langston Hughes, teaches those same lessons and is a representation for some black students. In Steinbeck’s work, he writes about the Joad family, who are farmers from Oklahoma, and live in the 1930s during the Dust Bowl. The book documents their journey to California, with the family facing certain hardships on the road. Despite their difficulties, they make it to California, motivated by their hope for a better life. Likewise, in One Friday Morning, Nancy Lee’s art wins a scholarship, but then gets denied once the committee learns her race. She is a proud, black artist and student at George Washington High and her hardship was that she faced discrimination from a higher power (the committee). She knew her art was great, but she still was denied because of their racism. Her perseverance is shown when Mrs. O’Shay, the principal, gives her a pep talk about the racism her ancestors have. Hughes writes, “‘You may not know, Nancy Lee, but years ago we were called the dirty Irish, and mobs rioted against us in the big cities, and we were invited to go back where we came from. But we didn’t go. And we didn’t give up, because we believed in the American dream, and in our power to make that dream come true’” (Hughes 8-9). Even though they faced that discrimination, they powered through it in hopes of an improved future. From there, Nancy Lee is also determined to improve the future and show that she is better than what any racists think. Hughes writes, “‘There’re schools in other cities. This won’t keep me down. But when I’m a woman, I’ll fight to see that these things don’t happen to other girls as this has happened to me. And men and women like Miss O’Shay will help me’” (Hughes 9), showing that Nancy Lee wants to keep fighting. Persevering through hardships with the motivation of a better future is the common link to both of these literary texts. Moreover, both stories include historical perspectives: one in the 1930s and the other in the 1940s, both taking place in America. Steinbeck writes about the Joad’s life before the big move and writes about their jobs as farmers. It shows that farming was the major industry in the South and how their lives would have been impacted by the Dust Bowl, forcing them to move. For Hughes’ work, he writes about how Nancy Lee’s family came from the South and worked hard to get her into a good school, writing, “Nancy Lee had told her how, six years before, they had come up from the Deep South, her father having been successful in achieving a transfer from one post office to another, a thing he had long sought to give Nancy Lee a chance to go to school in the North” (Hughes 5). Here, it talks about the era after the civil war, where many black people would still be facing discrimination in the South. A way to bet on a better future for their family would be moving up North, teaching the students about the sacrifices people made in the past, and could still be making now, to be free of discrimination and hate. Furthermore, Hughes writes about Nancy Lee’s parents before moving to the North, specifically writing, “Both parents had been to Negro colleges in the South. And her mother had gotten a further degree in social work from a Northern university. her parents were, like most American, simple, ordinary people who had worked hard and steadily for their education” (Hughes 2). By explaining her family’s background, it gives a more historical perspective and allows the students to relate it to her parents’ hard work, even though they are in different periods. Having historical perspectives in the stories teaches students about the lives of people in that context, explaining not only the major events that occurred but how it affected the people living during that time. While teachers would prefer Steinbeck’s book, they should be teaching Hughes’ works as a way of representation for the students. Many of Hughes’ works deal with the lives of black people, as he is a black person. His writing may give emotional and/or a personal touch to it since he might have faced discrimination of his race before, which many students of color can relate to. Remember, teaching all students shouldn’t just be focusing on the perspectives of dead, cishet, white authors when there are so many intersectional authors with different life perspectives to teach. Not only does it provide diversity in the English curriculum, but students will understand other people’s views, giving them an open mind and getting them used to diversity. Besides, the world is so diverse that it needs to be taught to students so that they understand that the world isn’t just black and white. Teaching Hughes’ work is a representation for black students because it shows that another member of their community has succeeded in their field, which can be inspiring for that student.
Learning about how the future can change and how to deal with it is important in life, but learning about one’s cultural identity is significant too. In non-traditional texts, the idea of feeling lost within one’s cultural identity is commonly written, but not taught as much with canon texts. Canon texts that we read are mainly about one’s individuality, not how culture can influence their identity. During students’ school years, they may be conflicted about who they are and if they get to read stories in class that reflect their struggles, then they would enjoy the classwork. Cooking Lessons by Rosario Castellanos should be a story taught to represent the struggle with upholding gender roles and how the culture in a society enforces them, creating conflict with one’s cultural identity. This could be taught alongside Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, finding similarities with the way gender roles are enforced in their cultures for both stories. Cooking Lessons describes a newlywed Latina woman cooking dinner for her husband and regretting her marriage. She feels like an outsider to the women in her society, not knowing how to cook or not feeling like a “good” wife. Castellanos writes, “What can you suggest to me for today’s meal, O experienced housewife, inspiration of mothers here and gone, voice of tradition, clamoring secret of the supermarkets?” (Castellanos 346), referring to a cookbook. The cookbook represents all the wives and mothers who learned how to thrive in their traditional roles and she resents it because she doesn’t feel a connection with the role. She often reminisces about her life before marriage and how she felt so free. She realizes that being married traps her in the role of a wife and hates it. Her sense of cultural identity( not fitting in as a wife) is fractured but knows she must stay within her duties because of the culture in their society. Castellanos writes, “What do I care? My place is here. I’ve been here from the beginning of time” (Castellanos 346), describing the wife’s thoughts and how she knows she was born to be a wife. Her culture has influenced her thoughts, making her panic about what she truly wants. Students can relate to feeling forced to uphold traditional roles because of their culture and being conflicted about their true desires. Similarly, The Scarlet Letter includes these themes with the main character, Hester Prynne, wanting to break free from her Puritan culture’s gender roles. In the story, she gives birth to a child with an unknown father and the town shames her, forcing her to wear a scarlet “A” on her dress at all times. Because of this humiliation, it makes sense that Hester would want to break free from her role that the Puritan town enforces. Both stories teach about being conflicted with their cultural identity or wanting to break free from it and if taught, it compares a modern story and an older one. Students would learn a different perspective on the same topic, resuming engagement in classes because it’s a different material. Again, some students can feel a connection with both characters and the themes, but Castellanos’ character is specifically set in a time where Latino culture is incredibly important and Latino students could relate to that. Plus, Rosario Castellanos is a Latina, so teaching her works represents one Latina perspective in literature and society.
Students should learn that breaking free from a cultural identity forced upon them is okay, but they also should learn about the struggle one goes through to connect with their culture, on their terms. Discovering oneself through culture is something that many students find difficult to do because the idea that disregarding outside factors (like one’s heritage) is frequently forced upon us. We are taught that knowing yourself without anyone else’s opinion is the most important thing you can do, which could be true, but culture is so important, especially to students of color. As a first-generation Filipino-American student, I don’t have a deep relationship with my own culture because the only things I know about it were from the perpetuation of Asian stereotypes in the media and vague stories from my parents. Whenever we visit the Philippines, my sister and I feel like outsiders, not understanding the language, seeing these family members as strangers, and not finding comfort in what is supposed to be our “home”. Many students of color feel this way with their own culture and when we read texts that tell us to stop caring about these outside factors, it feels like it’s pushing away the importance of one’s heritage. Cultural identity is important because it can remind students of their ancestors, their past, and what allowed them to be their current selves. Learning about their culture celebrates it and encourages others to break out of cultural stereotypes. It all makes one feel connected to their homeland. But all of this development and connection is lost when we are taught to just find ourselves in our own opinions because we probably wouldn’t know where to start. Self Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson teaches readers not to rely on outside influences to form our own thoughts, to embrace nonconformity, and how all of the American people need to do this to influence American culture, all in the span of 33 paragraphs. While this is valid information, learning that embracing one’s cultural identity is also essential. Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan is a great book to display this theme, as well as other themes about social class, wealth, love, etc., that all play into the main character Rachel Chu’s cultural identity. In this book, Rachel is a Chinese-American professor, dating Nick Young, a man who comes from an incredibly wealthy family from Singapore. She goes with him to Singapore for a wedding and meets his family, who flaunt their wealth and their deep connection with their culture. They gossip about Rachel because she doesn’t have a solid connection to her heritage, calling her a typical ABC ( American-born Chinese), even though she is from the Mainland. She goes to the bride’s bachelorette party and even the other rich bridesmaids gossip about her, Kwan writing, “‘How can you expect her to have any style? Think she gets it from reading American Vogue? Hahaha.’ ‘Actually, Francesca says she’s not even ABC– she was born in Mainland China!’ ‘I knew it! She’s got that same desperate look that all my servants have’” (Kwan 339). While making fun of her fashion sense, they believe that Americans are so inferior and that she’s not even a real American either, since she was born in the Mainland. The gossip affects Rachel’s cultural identity because these prissy princesses and their comments succeed in making Rachel feel like she is an outsider, a common feeling for students that have little-to-no ties to their own culture. The idea that one isn’t a “real” American affects students too because they could feel more connected to America and its customs, but not to their own heritage, creating a cultural identity crisis. In addition to horrible gossip, Nick’s grandmother (Ah Ma) believes that she isn’t good enough for him. In this book, social class and appearance are two of the most important things in their family tree. Since Rachel is of a lower class and is American, these Singaporean ladies look down on her. During a family dinner, when they discuss Nick’s future, Kwan writes Ah Ma saying, “‘You said the same thing six years ago when you wanted to remain in England after your studies. And now you’re in America. What’s next, Australia, like your father? It was a mistake to send you abroad in the first place. You have become far too seduced by the Western ways’” (Kwan 441). Here, Ah Ma is referring to Rachel as “the Western ways”. She claims that because he spends too much time in America with Rachel, he is throwing away any potential he has in their family tree, which would have opened up opportunities for him in the future. For Rachel, this impacts her because they are calling her unimportant and a waste of time. While this refers to social class and power, this deals with her culture too because she is just seen as “that American girl”. She doesn’t know who she is and having all of these family members tell her that she’s inferior damages her cultural identity. It feels like she’s just an American, not even a “real” Asian. Rachel’s trip to Singapore makes her believe she isn’t valid in any culture, which again, students can relate to. Teaching Kwan’s work in class exposes these students to material that mirrors them or that opens windows to other’s experiences, in terms of cultural identity. Again, learning to be self-reliant is great in the long run, but knowing one’s cultural identity is so important as they grow. People of color are always fighting stereotypes or just trying so hard to be their own person that they aren’t able to see a connection with their own home and it can get exhausting. Being a person of color doesn’t need to define every aspect of one’s personality, but it is an important part of their identity. Additionally, Kwan’s work is engaging and is representative of Southeast/East Asian students. Because of the title, there are large descriptions of Asian people living lavish lifestyles, which is interesting to read. It gets the reader into the headspace of a wealthy person and imaging their lives is pleasurable. For representation, Kevin Kwan is Chinese Singaporean, much like his characters, and writes little facts about the Young family tree’s business endeavors, parts of China’s history, and incorporates Cantonese and Hokkien Chinese phrases throughout the book. It all educates the students on Asian history and linguistics and having the writer as an Asian man puts the story into his perspective. In some way, there could be a personal connection, most likely his innermost thoughts about social class and culture. Plus, reading an Asian man’s work in class proves that he succeeded in his field, inspiring Asian students to succeed in their future careers too.
Trying to find comfort in one’s cultural identity is a normal part of the journey to acceptance of cultural identity and should be taught to students. “I Hear America Singing” by Walt Whitman is a poem about Americans loving their lives, taught so students can learn about the American Dream and how the characters find comfort in their cultural identity; on the other hand, “Your Best American Girl” by the Japanese-American musician Mitski sings about her journey to acceptance of her cultural identity, something students can relate to or be inspired by, and is more engaging. In Whitman’s story, he lists characters with specific jobs, such as a carpenter, a mason, a boatman, etc., all working and singing happily. At the end of the poem, he writes, “Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else, The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly, Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs” (Whitman), indicating that these Americans have found comfort in their lives and in living in America. Saying that “each person sings what belongs to them and no one else” makes it clear that they are content with their lifestyle and culture. However, this is a concept others may not relate to, such as Mitski, as she expresses her feelings in “Your Best American Girl”. She sings in the chorus, “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me, But I do, I think I do. And you’re an all-American boy, I guess I couldn’t help trying to be your best American girl” (Mitski). Here, she talks about her cultural differences with a love interest and how she now accepts herself. When she talks about “trying to be your best American girl”, it implies that she had tried to conform to the American culture to please others, but she wasn’t satisfied with that or with herself. Feeling pressure to conform to whatever standard there is to fit in is an idea that students could relate to. For students of color, they can relate to this because their homeland and American culture can have major differences and they would struggle to fit into both. I connect with this song because I know it’s hard to fit into the American culture, but eventually, you realize that you’re trying too hard to be something that you’re not and that your own culture can teach you to be true to yourself. I try to relate to my American peers, in an attempt to make me feel like a “regular” American girl, but the customs of my Filipino culture are still there and they remind me that I’m not like them. I don’t find comfort in being just an American or just a Filipina, I have connections with both. When it comes to family from your homeland, you see them and realize your life differs in terms of culture, society, responsibilities, etc. You can’t relate to everything they do and it makes you feel like you don’t belong anywhere. This is why learning about other people’s journeys in their cultural identity is so important for students of color: we get a glimpse of other people’s lives and connect with them through shared experiences. Eventually, we could be able to find that same comfort that the Americans have in Whitman’s poem with our own identities. Students wouldn’t connect with the characters in “I Hear America Singing”, who already feel content with themselves. Most teens (and adults too) don’t know their full identity and life is so confusing at the time, so when we learn about or find similarities with others, we feel a sense of belonging. Not only does Mitski’s song have a deeper meaning that students can relate to, but analyzing songs can be more engaging than just reading long texts. We get to hear how the music, understand how it affects the tone and how it feels while listening to the lyrics. Taking a break from long days of reading and just listening to beautiful melodies is relaxing. Encouraging students to find a deep message in the song while listening to the tune motivates us to work and enjoy it.
Once students learn about finding their cultural identity, they should embrace it and honor the others in their culture. One can teach this by learning about The Tempest by William Shakespeare and comparing it to Santa Maria Casino by Gerald Vizenor, which both deal with the effects of colonization, but Vizenor’s story has characters embracing their indigenous culture after colonization. In The Tempest, the protagonist Prospero and his daughter Miranda were exiled to an island filled with magical creatures, where they befriend the ex-leader’s son, Caliban, who guides the two around the island. Soon, Prospero betrays him and forces Caliban into slavery. He also has another slave, a sprite named Ariel, whom he freed from the ex-leader of the island, Sycorax (Caliban’s mother). The idea that Prospero befriended the indigenous people and then forced them into slavery is a direct example of colonization: someone powerful taking over a land filled with indigenous people and their culture and establishes a different way of living, forcing it onto the natives. In this case, Prospero’s way of living was to become the ruler of the island and take any other creatures he encountered as slaves. Shakespeare writes Prospero justifying his actions by saying, “‘Thou liest, malignant thing. Hast thou forgot The foul witch Sycorax, who with age and envy was grown into a hoop? Hast thou forgot her?’” (Shakespeare 31). Here, Prospero is reminding Ariel that he freed them and that they don’t need a break from servitude because Ariel was lucky they’re not locked up. This could have been a common justification for enslaving the indigenous people in reality because the colonizers believed they were “freeing” the indigenous peoples from their “unruly” ways or from their own culture, which they saw as inferior. Santa Maria Casino also uses the aspect of Christopher Columbus’ journey to the “New World” (the Americas) to show the effects of colonization. Vizenor writes, “‘In order to win their friendship, since I knew they were a people to be converted and won to our holy faith by love and friendship rather than by force, I gave some of them red caps and glass beads which they hung around their necks… they ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them’”(Vizenor 417). Here, Vieznor writes about what Columbus is documenting in his notes about the indigenous people of Guanahani. He says that Columbus wanted to convert them first by being kind, ultimately using their skills to his advantage. This is exactly what Prospero did with Caliban: being kind to him at first, then eventually using him for his benefits. While most would use Shakespeare to teach (and because they might be required to), teaching Gerald Vizenor’s story is important because students read about indigenous peoples’ perspectives, something they barely hear about in the whole school year. I don’t remember being taught in-depth about the indigenous people of America other than Columbus’ arrival and some parts of the horrible mistreatment of indigenous people. The only time students ever hear about it is when we discuss Indian Boarding Schools in history class and even in those conversations, the focus was on the white people implementing them. We never get to learn about all of the different cultures indigenous people have throughout the many tribes, about their current struggles, and we never see any material written by an indigenous person. Understanding one of their perspectives on their history is important for students to learn. Moreover, Santa Maria Casino discusses Native American mythology and is based on the view that some indigenous people were descendants (heirs) of Columbus. Vizenor uses the cruel history of Columbus’ time in the Americas and puts it into the perspective of the indigenous people, sort of reclaiming their past and letting the characters reflect on their ancestor’s actions. Those characters were then doing things that benefit their culture, like meeting up in a tavern, telling stories about their past lives, which they were able to remember, with Vizenor writing that they had “stories in their blood”. He includes the story of Naanabozho, the first human born in the world, and his brother, who is a stone. Throughout the story, Vizenor writes about the spiritual aspects of indigenous culture, specifically for the Anishinaabe tribe, such as having stones protect the tavern where the heirs of Columbus meet, the idea that these heirs could resurrect, and the roles of tribal hand makers. He also writes about how the Santa Maria Casino, a boat, was able to be “‘the first maritime reservation in international waters ’”(Vizenor 421). All of these topics in the story were things I was first introduced to and what other students would first be introduced to as well. Vizenor uses the cultural aspects of indigenous life and writes it into his work beautifully. Learning about indigenous culture (s) teaches the students about the world around them and exposes them to a new culture. Additionally, teaching Vizenor’s work is a great representation for the indigenous students. Since we never learn about indigenous culture at school, reading stories written by an indigenous man about indigenous people represents them. In classes, you could teach his stories side by side with Shakespeare’s plays or other canon authors. Comparing the two teaches the lesson that there can be two perspectives to similar ideas and that it is important to study both.
In short, students need to be exposed to new perspectives of life and by using modern and diverse material, you can teach a similar curriculum and still engage students. Learning about any aspects of the future (the uncertainty, the good and bad expectations, and the hope of a great future) could be taught to these students using the previously mentioned material and they can bring that knowledge with them in their later lives. Teaching about the journey to one’s cultural identity helps those students understand the process and ultimately find comfort in their own identities. If you replace or add any of these stories to the traditional texts, you will be educating your students on more than just literature, but it teaches them they have a place in the world and that they aren’t alone. They can share experiences with those authors or with those characters in the non-traditional stories and feel like they belong and they would be excited to learn. If I was reading a story about someone’s experience of being a Filipino, I could relate to them and it makes my heart happy that stories by people of my ethnicity are being shared. When more people spread these authors’ works, students will learn more about the world. Plus, all the texts end up teaching those students about literary topics like themes and how to analyze stories, so you’ll know these students are learning their English curriculum. Engagement will resume since students would be interested to see themselves in these stories and to read new plots. The joy of reading will return to us, as we no longer see reading as a chore.