Rethinking the Classics: Supplements and Updates for 10 Core Texts



Hey, y’all! It’s Danielle from Nouvelle ELA. I’ve seen a lot of y’all posting on social media recently and asking for help diversifying and decolonizing* your curriculum. This is not work we’ll be able to do overnight, but it is important that we start. I’ve asked Dr. Sheila Frye, a Literacy Specialist from New Jersey who blogs at TeachingLiteracy.me, to help me help you find some first steps.


[*NB: When Sheila and I talk about diversifying, we mean adding more voices to the material aspects of our classrooms, like updating our reading lists to include authors from backgrounds not currently represented. When we use the term decolonizing, this is changing material and immaterial aspects (such as discussion techniques) of our teaching practices to de-center White European heritage.]


Most of us can easily recall some of the books we were required to read in high school, no matter where in the United States we grew up. Of Mice and Men? Check. The Scarlet Letter? Yup. Romeo and Juliet? Us too. By now, we know that these texts serve to amplify white voices. Given the dynamic plurality of the citizens of our country, it is safe to say that a large portion of our students’ stories are being ignored or muted, all for the sake of past practice. The good news is that we all have access to tools to expand the canon and move it toward inclusivity and intersectionality. 


Before we dive into inclusive pairings for 10 commonly-taught texts, Sheila and I wanted to make some acknowledgements and provide you with some resources for your anti-racist work. (You can read our full notes on these affirmations in this post.)


1.        We acknowledge that representation matters.

2.               We acknowledge that diversifying the ELA curriculum is just one step. 

3.               We acknowledge that schools are under-funded.

4.               We acknowledge that teachers may have little say in the texts they teach. 

5.               We acknowledge that talking about race may be new to many teachers.

Sometimes, curriculum decisions are made at a district level, and it can be difficult or impossible to pivot in a single summer. Sometimes, core texts are approved a year in advance, and there’s little wiggle room. Within our recommendations, we’ll show you how to reframe conversations around your “fixed” texts to increase empathy and critical thinking in your students. Our goal is to help you use the tools you have to disrupt racism. (And since you’re on a budget, here’s an idea for how to get free books from Danielle’s blog.) 


With all this in mind, let’s jump into discussing specific texts. We’ve chosen ten commonly-taught texts from secondary ELA to reexamine with a goal of inclusivity. For each text, we’ll share easy changes, like supplemental texts you could incorporate on a budget. We’ll also share more difficult changes, like curriculum updates you could request in the future. We are not saying that you need to replace every text -- we want to continue a dialogue on how to make our curricula more inclusive.


Guiding Questions

For each text you teach, ask yourself: 

  • What themes will students consider?
  • What essential questions will students explore?
  • Which literary elements will students observe?
  • Which voices are absent in the current unit?
  • What other texts could students use to achieve these goals?


The Texts

Romeo & Juliet


Supplement the text: Have you heard about the Harlem Shakespeare Festival? When Debra Ann Byrd started the company, she was tired of not being given the chance to play a full range of roles in Shakespeare’s plays. Byrd said, “I decided that I am going to start a theatre company where classically trained actors of colour get opportunities to perform whatever classics they want to perform.” In addition to adding Byrd’s interpretations to your students’ discussions, check out Akala’s analysis of Shakespeare & Hip Hop. (I always use this TED talk to introduce my students to Iambic Pentameter)

A curriculum update: What are your main teaching goals with this text? If you’re looking for a lyrical tragedy that is character-focused, check out In the Time of Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. If you like the star-crossed lovers aspect, consider The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez. Both texts will engage your students and provoke deep conversations about destiny, choice, and responsibility.


To Kill a Mockingbird


Supplement the text: If you’d like to keep teaching this novel, teacher Christina Torres recommends exploring tough questions that are still relevant to our students’ lives today. For example, Atticus fights for Tom because he is a “clean-living” Black man. This is a great discussion starter! What does it mean to be “clean-living”? Is a citizen’s life only valuable under certain conditions? How does this ethos connect to the arguments various groups make today about police brutality?

A curriculum update: Consider adding or substituting the book Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. A lawyer, Stevenson shares the stories of those wrongfully imprisoned and their fights for justice. His work has been adapted for young adults and there’s also a new film adaptation. This would be the perfect way to give a Black writer space to tell stories about justice for Black people. 




The Odyssey


Supplement the text: Round out your teaching of The Odyssey by having it share the stage with other myths and legends from around the world. As students meet Scylla and Charybdis, have them research other mythological creatures. You can also connect the concept of xenia to current events, like the refugee crises in Syria or in Malaysia. Stacey Lloyd recommends drawing in essays from “The Displaced,” edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen. This is a collection of narrative nonfiction by refugee writers. Be sure to check out Stacey’s post on adding a global perspective for ideas on incorporating short stories, too.

A curriculum update: If you’re looking for a modern classic, The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline is an excellent pick. The Marrow Thieves is a coming-of-age dystopian about a young man on a journey. One of the beautiful things about this novel is that students can read it quickly for the adventure, and then return to it for deep discussions. You can listen to our YA Cafe Podcast discussion on the book here.



The Outsiders


Supplement the text: Highlight the relevance of themes by pairing the novel with other voices. “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks is a classic poem with themes of identity tied in with delinquency. “What Love Isn’t” by Yrsa Daley-Ward underscores themes of love and loyalty. (Daley-Ward is a great addition to your curriculum in general because she is an “Instagram poet” and her work is very timely and accessible) You could also pair this novel with a modern YA tale, like Ghost by Jason Reynolds. Lastly, consider tying in the news article “Healing ‘Brick City’” to explore themes of heroism and home in a new mode.

A curriculum update: This is a great opportunity for literature circles on identity and belonging. Literature circles are one way to decolonize your curriculum because they center students’ experiences with a certain text. At the end of your literature circles time, groups can present to the rest of the class on how their book treats certain themes. You can also design “lit kits” around these themes. Addie Williams provides more on that approach here.


The Giver


Supplement the text: The core of any dystopian study is about external shaping of individual liberties. This naturally leads to a discussion of who is included in the utopian vision and who gets left out. Did you know that Thomas Jefferson dreamt of making the United States an Agrarian Democracy? Very quickly, students will point out that Jefferson enslaved people to work his lands. Does enslavement fit our notion of utopia? You can also draw in seven real-life utopias as students pursue these discussions.

A curriculum update: This is a great opportunity to pair The Giver with a more recent text. I love Jinxed by Amy McCullough, a Chinese Canadian author. It is about a young engineer living in a techy utopia. She gets the opportunity to go to a sleek high school that feeds into the major tech corporation. Once there, she realizes that not everything is as it seems. Jinxed is high-tech and features Battle Bots-esque scenes that will complement The Giver’s slower, rural setting well. 




Lord of the Flies


Supplement the text: One way I’ve supplemented this text in the past is with literature circles. Students have read Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens (a feminist retelling of LotF), The Maze Runner, Hunger Games, and The Grace Year. Honestly, still a pretty White view of dystopian lit. Next time I teach this text, I’ll pull in contemporary voices on leadership and terror, such as Farida Nabourema’s TED Talk “Is Your Country at Risk of Becoming a Dictatorship?” I’ll ask students to connect points of Nabourema’s talk to the events of the novel. 

A curriculum update: Because Lord of the Flies is an allegory, you could meet many of the same teaching goals by using another allegory. One notion that comes up with the novel is that perhaps only boys and men have the capacity to abuse power. The Power by Naomi Alderman imagines a world in which teenage girls have the biological ability to shoot electricity from their fingertips. Alderman explores the implications of this in her dystopian setting. You could also replace the novel with shorter stories, like any of the dark fairy tales in The Merry Spinster by Daniel M. Lavery (as Mallory Ortberg). This would be a great opportunity for students to work in groups to present one tale and examine how different tales explore different archetypes.

In terms of centering student expertise and experience, students can write their own short stories. They can begin from “What if… (teenage girls had the power to shoot lightning)?” and imagine the answers. This is the core exploration in any dystopian novel. 


Death of a Salesman


Supplement the text: When discussing Willy’s role as a tragic hero, students can explore the character traits that bring about his demise. He’s well-liked, yet struggles. In a 2015 interview, Audie Cornish and Shankar Vedantam talk about a study that links childhood emotional skills to future success. Center student experience through discussion. Do they believe the American Dream is still relevant and achievable? If so, why? This could take the form of class discussions or an argumentative research presentation.

A curriculum update: This is another one you could replace with “A Raisin in the Sun,” particularly if you want to touch on elements of genre or compare the text with adaptations for the stage or screen. For 11th and 12th graders, you could also use Louise Erdrich’s LaRose as a countertext to the American Dream. It really questions who has access to this notion (hint: it’s not Native Americans). Additionally, this book touches on similar themes of betrayal, loss, and familial relationships.


The Great Gatsby


Supplement the text: Make sure you’re truly teaching about the era before students jump into the text. I’ve written before about building context for this novel. Students need to understand where the nation was after World War I, particularly those people for whom the 20s weren’t exactly “roaring.” Black Americans were migrating to Northern cities as part of the Great Migration and White women had just won suffrage. Both of these inform the novel. Goin’ North is an amazing oral histories project about the Great Migration, so you could easily integrate some of these authentic voices. 

A curriculum update: Consider replacing this novel with “A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry. Students can still explore themes of money and the American Dream through this text. They’ll also still be able to discuss how gender impacts access to this dream. 




The Adventures of Tom Sawyer


Supplement the text: If you want to continue teaching either novel, I recommend checking out the article “Teaching Huck Finn without Regret.” Any teaching of either novel MUST include a firm foundation in satire and an acknowledgement of the historical context. You can draw connections to modern satirists and comedians. Trevor Noah has some excellent examples. You can spend time discussing Mark Twain’s life and his family’s evolution of ideas about anti-racism. Lastly, be prepared to openly discuss with students whether this book “holds up” for those reasons, or not. This is a great part of a larger literary debate -- when do we need to let a work of art go?

A curriculum update: One argument for keeping Twain’s novels is exposing students to a realistic depiction of the era. If this is one of your teaching goals, consider replacing the novel with Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, American Slave (1845). This is a first-hand account and definitely brings the realism! Moreover, students don’t experience racism and poverty through the eyes of a young White boy -- they hear from Douglass himself.

The Scarlet Letter


Supplement the text: Add more perspectives on these themes. In Lewis Sawaquat’s essay, “For My Indian Daughter,” he touches on many of the same feelings Hester expresses for Pearl. You can also include Sarah Kay’s slam poem “If I Should Have a Daughter” and have students discuss parents’ hopes, dreams, and sacrifices for their children. This is also a good chance to draw in current events. In this #MeToo world, it’s hard to imagine reading this book without connecting it to the women who have bravely spoken up against the men of power existing without consequences. The novel tells a story about power, and we can still see those struggles today. 

A curriculum update: If you’re looking for an engaging replacement, consider Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. You could use either the novel or the graphic novel to get students talking about what ostracization looks like in a modern setting. For a more complex novel exploring societal norms, family drama, and betrayal, check out Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones. 



What's Next?

However you are planning to include more voices in the curriculum this year, we’re here to support you. Diversity in the texts we share with students is just one step in our work to be anti-racist educators. Sheila and I are also making extended lists of supplements and updates, so check those out! 

Also, be sure to check out our full notes on our affirmations and let us know if you have any questions. 


Happy teaching!
-Danielle and Sheila


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