Why Is It Always the English Classroom?

The English language arts classroom appears to be THE place for social instruction. We are charged, as English teachers, with teaching literature (among other things), which gives us the ability to focus on social issues that may affect our students. But it feels as if it is ALWAYS the ELA classroom that is targeted for these issues. I prefer to see more cross curricular instruction in reading, which would require more individual and common planning times. Earth-space science teachers can help with texts like Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer, and psychology teachers can explore David Levithan’s Every Day. Other YA texts can be fit into multiple spots within the high school curriculum so that it is not just the English teacher’s job to teach reading. Reading becomes part of the culture of the school, even if each subject area had only one alternative text (fiction or nonfiction) during the school year. Imagine what an impact that would have. This relates back to my many frustrations that lead me to leave the school district and seek a full time college position.

I do believe that the English classroom is uniquely positioned for discussions regarding controversial issues, particularly as English can focus specifically on narratives and the great varieties of narratives that exist (Adichie). The English classroom, with its extensive reading and writing curriculum, is perhaps the easiest place to insert instruction that deals with the intersectionality issues all people experience (some more than others). It is also the place where we can teach a “troubling” of the narratives, to seek out more information, more diversity, more voices and to find the silences, because “what is being learned can never tell the whole story” (Kumashiro 18). The ability to empathize instead of sympathize with characters is what changes readers’ views (Renzi, Letcher, Miraglia 104), but to do so we must examine the narratives that we follow and determine how we situate differences (Kumashiro 19).

Kumashiro’s article showed me how I failed to question the situation my exchange students were in during the 2008-2009 school year. We had males students, one from South Korea and one from China, living with us for the school year. When they went swimming with us for the first time, my husband and I separately made mental notes that we needed to take the boys swimsuit shopping because they were wearing Speedos. We were afraid the boys would be made fun of and explained that that wasn’t how high school boys dressed for going to the pool. We also made it a point of teaching them how to sit like “men.” The boys crossed their legs at the knee, as women typically do here in the States, and we explained how they would be perceived by Americans. My husband and I had a set of norms that we imposed upon our Asian exchange students, norms that said something about their sexuality and our ideas of what their sexuality should be and which were alien ideas to their cultures. We were fearful that despite being known as exchange students that they might have difficulty making friends or might be made fun of behind their backs because they didn’t know how to act like AMERICAN teenage boys, which they weren’t. So, thank you Kevin K. Kumashiro for showing me how I screwed up on that one.

Really, though, the article was of service for it showed me that even if I advocate for LGBTQ+ rights I might miss how race or gender play into issues of sexuality. No matter what, those issues will be situated differently for me as a white heterosexual Christian leftist, and that situation may change daily or hourly. If there is a continuum for me, someone who fits mostly the “norm,” then that continuum is going to be more visible for students who do not fit the norms for my area. How to teach intersectionality still remains an abstract concept, but the fact that intersectionality exists and can be discussed will now be part of the background when I teach.

Works Cited

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. “The Danger of a Single Story.” TedTalk, 7 Oct. 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Ihs241zeg.

Renzi, Laura J., Mark Letcher, and Kristin Miraglia. “Crossing Boundaries: Exploring the Fluidity of Sexuality and Gender in Young Adult Literature.” Teaching Young Adult Literature Today: Insights, Considerations and Perspectives for the Classroom Teacher, second edition, edited by Judith A. Hayn, Jeffrey S. Kaplan, and Karina R. Clemmons, Rowman and Littlefield, 2017, pp. 101-122.

Kumashiro, Kevin K. “Queer Students of Color and Antiracist, Antiheterosexist Education: Paradoxes of Identity and Activism.” Troubling Intersections of Race and Sexuality: Queer Students of Color and Anti-Oppressive Education, Kevin K. Kumashiro, editor, Rowman and Littlefield, 2001, pp. 1-25.

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