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Student-led group aims to make high school reading lists more diverse

Amid a new civil rights movement that has swept across the country, a group of high school students and recent grads struck on an idea earlier this year that might, in some small way, improve racial understanding.

It was time, they said, to include more diverse authors in the curriculum for literature classes.

About a half dozen Southern California young people recently formed Diversify Our Narrative, an organization dedicated to changing high school reading lists by petitioning individual districts. Their goal is to get every English class to assign at least one book written by a person of color, and by Black authors in particular. The organization has quickly grown — spreading across the country.

The group, which formed in June, now has participants in 200 school districts, generated through a social media campaign, who are prepared to take their demands to local school boards everywhere. A nationwide online petition, as of Friday, Aug. 14, had nearly 47,000 signatures.



Along with selecting at least one book authored by a person of color and about the experience of that community, the petition demands that at least one book be about the Black experience and that teachers have autonomy in making these selections.

The idea of changing required reading lists in high school has been a battle long-sought by advocates of diversity and the freedom of expression. But those efforts have continually fallen short, with defenders of classic books often winning out. Many of today’s required reading lists for high school students have remained virtually unchanged for generations.

“The reading list has never been really changed up,” said Cameron Adams, a recent high school graduate from Rancho Cucamonga. “Even when it is changed, it’s still often about white authors.”

Approaching decision-makers

The current list of recommended literature for California students, from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade, includes more than 8,000 titles. The list was updated in 2017. Then-State Superintendent of Instruction Tom Torlakson said at the time that it represented exciting work that reflected the lives of students.

“The books our students read help broaden their perspectives, enhance their knowledge, and fire their imaginations,” Torlakson said. “The addition of these award-winning titles represents the state’s continued commitment to the interests and engagement of California’s young readers.”

At Los Angeles Unified School District, the decision for what textbooks students read falls on the district, while literature choices are made by teachers and principals.

Despite the wide array of options, students often read the same books over and over again. Like so many generations of students before her, for example, Adams read “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain — timeless American classics.

As streets across the nation filled with demonstrators following the Memorial Day police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Adams and many other young people began to think differently about society, culture and the things they learned in school — and how curriculum can shape perspectives as students become adults. While “To Kill a Mockingbird” is considered a progressive novel, its author, Lee, was white and the book is told from the perspective of a white person.

Changing the books teachers and school districts assigned was a cause that appealed to Adams, now an organizer for Diversify Our Narrative.

“We were thinking, ‘How can we take this sudden activity and all these people who are passionate and loud about social justice and use it to change our school system?’” said Jasmine Nguyen, a high school student in Anaheim and one of the group’s co-founders.

Nguyen, together with Katelin Zhou from Ventura County, started organizing in mid-June just as protests were occurring. They said they were inspired by the demonstrations.

“It would be a tangible step in the right direction,” Zhou said.

Familiar with social media, the girls launched Facebook and Instagram accounts and started gaining followers. Through posts and hashtags, their message quickly spread. New groups cropped up in other areas and they were provided the tools to form pages of their own and circulate their own petitions.

Before long, the group and their demands spread far and wide — one group in Union City, others in Carpenteria and Huntington Beach. More groups contacted them in eastern states and are now planning to take petitions to their own districts.

Addressing LAUSD

One of the first districts the group targeted was LAUSD, the second largest district in the country. Several members of Diversify Our Narrative spoke at a Board of Education meeting last month and asked the panel to consider the organization’s petition.

Katherine Matsukawa, a former student at Alliance Dr. Olga Mohan High School, which is part of LAUSD, said at the July meeting that it wasn’t until she reached college that she understood why schools are still segregated and learned about the anti-busing movement.

“I stand in support of this,” Matsukawa said, “because Los Angeles students deserve to learn about their own history and see themselves as the protagonists of the stories they read.”

Another organizer, 16-year-old Elysse Mendoza, said the group wants to expose students to a wider range of perspectives in literature.

“I don’t think that any text that we read is necessarily like racist,” she said, “but I think it is only from one perspective, when we can read about other things that can give us a (broader) perspective of more cultures and make us better people in society.”

As part of the overall campaign, Diversify Our Narrative has recommended a list of works they’d like to become part of the curriculum, including “A Raisin’ in the Sun,” a 1959 Broadway play by Lorraine Hansberry, which tells the story of a Black family living on the South Side of Chicago after its patriarch dies; “The Hate U Give,” a 2017 young adult novel by Angie Thomas that became a popular film a year later; and “The New Jim Crow,” a 2010 nonfiction book about mass incarceration by Michelle Alexander.

“We wouldn’t want anyone else telling the experience of Black Indigenous people of color,” said Michelle Montenegro, a 16-year-old senior at John Marshall High School, also part of LAUSD. “We would rather have those authors tell our own narratives.”

During a video update to the LAUSD community earlier this summer, Superintendent Austin Beutner said the district introduced ethnic studies courses in the 2016-17 academic year, yet in 2019-20, only 12,000 students enrolled in them, a small fraction of those who were eligible to take the classes.

“Civics, on the other hand, is a state requirement for all 30,000 12th-graders,” he said, “but the curriculum says little about Juneteenth, the Greenwood Massacre in Tulsa or the role redlining by cities has had in creating the disparity in funding for school districts, which serve predominantly students of color.”

He then said the district would look at making real change, in particular when it came to the naming of certain schools, but did not specifically address reading lists.

“This moment cannot be about more words and false promises,” Beutner said. “It has to be about real change, based on logic, reason, thoughtful analysis and genuine engagement with all stakeholders in the community.”

Shades of past battles

Theresa Montano, a former classroom teacher, professor of Chicano/Chicana studies at Cal State Northridge and activist in the movement to get school districts to require ethnic studies, said she supports the students. A white person cannot write about the experiences of people of color, she said, just like a man cannot credibly write from a female perspective.

“Only people of color can realistically describe what it is like to live under a racist structure,” Montano said. “White people can describe what it means to fight against it and to be an ally in the battle against racism. Only we can talk about what it’s like to live under it.”

Montano said students are often on the front line of the struggle and Diversify our Nation provides a long-overdue example. Montano recalled, for example, a movement years ago to promote into the main curriculum “Bless Me Ultima” by awarding-winner author Rudolfo Anaya who recently died.

The book is a coming of age story set in rural 1940s New Mexico. Soon after it was published in 1972, the book was critically acclaimed in the Chicano literary canon and has been pioneered by teachers as a way to implement multicultural literature. But the book also faced detractors, who said its adult language and graphic scenes make it inappropriate.

“There was a culture war directed at not only ‘Bless Me Ultima,’” Montano said, adding that the culture war also took aim at James Baldwin and women who opposed banning books like “Bless Me Ultima.” “There’s a whole generation of students who have not been introduced to those literary works and these students are now saying it’s time for you to stop this invisibility and make these folks visible.”

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Source: Orange County Register

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