Advancing Multicultural Education: New Historicism in the High School English Classroom

By Li, Sidney C. | High School Journal, Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

Advancing Multicultural Education: New Historicism in the High School English Classroom


Li, Sidney C., High School Journal


High schools across the country are restructuring their curricular frameworks to meet the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which emphasize an understanding of cultural diversity in addition to critical thinking and literacy. Despite curricular variance among high schools, the significant roles non-white races have played in constructing a pluralistic America, and the increasing importance of U.S. minorities in global economic sectors, many history/social studies courses fall short of presenting culturally diverse material to students. This paper presents a theoretical argument for using New Historicism, a method of literary criticism, in high school literature/ English education courses to meet the goals of the CCSS while generating greater discussion about and appreciation for the contributions of diverse cultural narratives. Using three case studies, one on a U.S. history textbook analysis, another in an English classroom, and a third on a letter written in 1852 by two Asians to the then Governor of California, this paper reveals a striking lack of discussion about cultural diversity in the secondary curricula and demonstrates the historical and cultural richness that can be illuminated in the classroom via New Historicism.

Keywords: curriculum framework, multiculturalism, New Historicism, immigrant history, Common Core State Standards, literary criticism, high school, education

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In 2010, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were released by the Council of Chief State School Officers in response to a growing need to prepare high school students for college and the global workforce. The Council devotes a particularly well-researched appendix to emphasize literacy in the complex textbooks students generally come across both inside and outside of the classroom. The CCSS target an extensive range of subjects, applying literacy standards not only to language arts and literature classes, but also to the sciences, history, and vocational training. According to the CCSS Initiative, forty-two states, four territories, and Washington D.C. have fully adopted the Standards, giving the Common Core a decisive role in the future of American education. (1)

While the CCSS have revised learning standards to promote critical thinking and reading skills in American schools, they say little about the content that should be taught. The development of a precise and often more advanced curriculum is left to states, districts, and teachers. For instance, California's Education Code Section 60000c states, "Governing boards of school districts have the responsibility to establish courses of study and that [districts] must have the ability to choose instructional materials that are appropriate to their courses of study." Supporting this open-endedness, Appendix A of the Common Core Standards in ELA & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects, argues:

Variables specific to particular readers ... and to particular tasks ... must also be considered when determining whether a text is appropriate for a given student. Such assessments are best made by teachers employing their professional judgment, experience, and knowledge of their students and the subject. (Common Core, p. 4)

Control of the curricular literature is therefore tightly attached to the instructor's philosophical and pedagogical underpinnings, giving him or her some freedom over lesson content and structure. This flexibility prevents national standards or organizations from ensuring that secondary education is multicultural.

Critical deficiencies in multicultural education across the nation may arise as a result of this omission in the CCSS. For example, California's Department of Education lists recently modified CCSS English-Language Arts (ELA) and Mathematics standards, but has left the History-Social Science (HSS) standards untouched as of 1998 (State Board of Education, 2013). …

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