“I’d never read a book on my own before this year. I didn’t really like reading. I just finished my 4th book of the year in Mr. Smith’s class, and I kinda like reading now.”
-one of my second period students speaking to another teacher on my hall
A culture of choice independent reading is ingrained into my classroom, from the extensive library of books on my shelves to the daily book talks that my students and I give to one another. Students in my class get the first 10 minutes of every class to read from a book of their own choosing, and long story short, they read A TON more over the course of the year than their peers in neighboring classrooms.
I work in a Title I public school in which nearly 90% of the student population is either African-American or Latino, so my classroom library primarily contains books with authors and characters that look like my students. My kids deserve to see themselves in the texts that they read. My first period reading support class is currently reading All-American Boys by Jason Reynolds, a book that deals with the social injustices that exist for African-Americans in their interactions with law enforcement. My Language Arts classes are currently reading Monster by Walter Dean Myers, a novel that examines the prejudices that remain in the justice system and how that system works against people of color. I supplement these books with informational articles about relevant issues and people: Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Eric Gardner, Stefon Clark, etc.
I have various students that are reading or have read The Hate U Give, Dear Martin, and I Am Alfonso Jones. I’ve read these books as well and held small group discussions with my students that have enjoyed them, too. These books deal with uncomfortable topics like white privilege and police brutality. We talk about these things. I acknowledge to my students that I understand the number of benefits I enjoy in this country simply because I am a white man. We lament how unfair that is and we talk about ways that we can make meaningful changes in regards to these shortcomings in our society.
My girlfriend teaches History at the elite private school in our town, and recently she learned that the 9th graders at her school were reading both The Hate U Give and Dear Martin. Over 80% of her school is comprised of affluent white students, and that’s exactly who needs to be reading THESE books. When my students read those aforementioned texts, they get angry and frustrated, probably because many of the issues in the books are realities for them and their families. However, for these private school students, reading a book from the perspective of an African-American female teenager (The Hate U Give) is most likely a point of view that they have never considered. Trying to understand what it’s like to be discriminated against for no reason other than the color of a person’s skin (Dear Martin) is a situation that your average white private schooler has not encountered before.
The fact that the students at my girlfriend’s school are reading these books is uplifting. It gives me hope for the future. It makes me want to get these types of books in the hands of white high school students across the country as quickly as possible so that they can see and feel what it’s like to be a marginalized person in this country. If we want to continuing progressing on Dr. King’s arc of the moral universe towards justice, then we must have discussions about social injustices in every school, and not just in the ones in which the students doing the talking are also members of the oppressed group.