I recently read an article by Doyin Oyeniyi titled “Why I’m only reading books by Writers of Color in 2015”, and it made me reflect back to a time in my teaching career when I only used writers of color in my English class in a public middle school in Philadelphia. In the mid 1990’s I had just completed Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity (S.E.E.D.) training and had also become a teacher consultant in the Philadelphia Writing Project (PhilWP). Both of these experiences rejuvenated my classroom teaching. Before them I had been feeling weighed down with the day to day struggle of teaching in an urban school – few books and supplies, very little support from administration, and colleagues who were plain and simply ‘tired’. I welcomed the support I received from SEED and PhilWP – new ways to think about teaching and learning and a group of teacher colleagues who were supportive and ready to provide forums for ideas about how classroom teaching could be improved. I wrote about this lack of books and supplies in a previous blog entry titled “The hidden costs of teaching in an urban school” on my blog at www.tremphil.com
I recall going into the bookroom at my middle school one September and the only classroom set of books I could find was a hardcover (no less!) version of Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”. That was all there was to be found! I began by writing for a grant from a local literacy initiative and was given a small amount of money to buy books. That group also provided me with a ‘library’ of books that I could keep in my classroom as supplemental reading. At that point I decided to only acquire books written by writers of color – preferably female. I was able to get enough sets of books so that each class would read a different book and then we would exchange them through the five classes that I taught at that time. SEED had provided me with an array of choices in writers and I was able to purchase some YA fiction and some shorter nonfiction and fiction texts. SEED also gave me access to videos that I could bring into my classroom – I recall showing them “The Price of the Ticket” and then reading Baldwin’s “Go Tell It On the Mountain”. I added poetry and history perspectives by copying classroom sets on a Xerox machine – I wrote about this on my blog entry mentioned above.
I did not publicize my choice of writers to the administration. It seemed at the time that the administration perceived ‘good’ teaching to be teaching that did not require the teacher to call for assistance to quell classroom disturbances, and since I did not do that, I was left alone to my own devices. I did share my choices with trusted colleagues because as a white male teacher of predominately African American students I was keenly aware that I needed to hear other teacher voices about the consequences of my choices in literature. There were both positive and negative responses to my curriculum, and I would use those responses to shape future choices of books and methods of teaching.
The students seemed to respond positively to the books and poetry they were reading. I was struck with the realization that a lot of them had not even heard of some of the writers. I felt that as a classroom community of learners we were growing together with the new exposures we were all getting through the literature.