Diversity in the English Curriculum: Challenges and Successes

Article excerpt

In the March 3,1995, issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, the cover storyreads, "Is Alabama's Curriculum 'Multicultural' Enough?" The story examines whether or not the state's predominantly white universities "discriminated against blacks by offering classes that include little material on black culture, history, and thought" (Healy, 1995, pp. A23-24). Certainly the discussion must be much broader and the approach more comprehensive if we are to embrace the goals of multiculturalism and create an inclusive curriculum that echoes all of the voices in our very multicultural society. Yet, the question as presented in the story's title is very interesting and has affected my work tremendously.

As a graduate of a small rural public high school in Alabama, the University of Alabama, and Auburn University (the two largest predominantly white state universities), I knew the answer to the question was "no." And now in my position as assistant professor of English education at the University of Alabama, I am constantly searching for ways to inform my practice in order to better prepare preservice and inservice teachers for what Davidman and Davidman (1994) term "teaching with a multicultural perspective." Also, I agree with Beach and Marshall's (1991) conclusion that students will never find the richness of differences and learn to accept and celebrate these differences if English teachers, in particular, continue to only select from those writers whom we all know and have studied for years.

Therefore, part of my mission as an English teacher educator is to facilitate my preservice and inservice English teachers' abilities to successfully integrate their literature programs with culturally and ethnically diverse authors. My purpose here is to share some reflections from my work with English teachers relative to diversifying the high school English curriculum.

A Search

In preparation for my English methods course, I read with interest Applebee's (1989) study investigating the most frequently used book-length titles in high schools across the country. In that national study, Applebee found that while a few more contemporary titles had been added, the literature taught in the late 1980s remained remarkably similar to what was taught in 1963 when a similar study was conducted. Applebee determined the ten most frequently taught book length titles to be:

Romeo and Juliet Huckleberry Finn To Kill A Mockingbird Julius Caesar Hamlet

The Scarlet Letter Of Mice and Men Lord of the Flies Macbeth

The Great Gatsby

This list, which shows no recognition of works by authors of color and very little by women, has not changed much in the nine years since Applebee's investigation. The study in part revealed the need for more discussion about the discrepancy between what is taught and what should be taught in high school literature programs today given the diversity in the student population and the quality literature routinely omitted. Moreover, English teachers must be encouraged to use diverse literature as one way to develop and expand multicultural understandings because literature illustrates common experiences, relates artifacts that make different groups unique, and explores the effects of race, class, and gender differences (Bieger, 1996).

Therefore, the canon must be more inclusive if English teachers are to expose students to the remarkable literary traditions represented in works by authors of color and help them develop an appreciation for and understanding of themselves, others, and society. Furthermore, one of our goals in selecting literature must also be to help all students see their realities reflected in the texts used in English classes. When students can make personal connections with the characters, themes, and situations in the literature they read, learning becomes much more authentic, exciting, meaningful, and fun for them.

Applebee's study prompted me to conduct a similar investigation at the local level in order to (a) better understand the current practices of Alabama English teachers and (b) inform the way I structure discussions" activities, and assignments in my undergraduate and graduate English methods courses. …