Equal Representation in High School Literature: What Beacon Gets Right

By Sanai Rashid

As I opened my English syllabus for my upcoming freshman school year a smile spread across my face. The books listed were from writers of all colors and backgrounds. In most schools, teachers don’t get to choose what books their classes get to read because it is a grade wide decision made by each school. In these cases, most of the books are old and outdated, and teachers fail to realize that they do not connect with students. Literature can be timeless, yes, but in our society today there are so many different books to choose from, so why not be more inclusive?

Coming from a middle school that lacked a certain creativity because everything was strictly based on the curriculum, I often feel uninterested in the texts we were reading. Nobody would participate in discussions and I could see why. We were reading books from writers decades ago and couldn’t relate to the struggles of the characters. Students like myself often had to resort to independent reading to find books they were actually passionate about. A classmate from my middle school shared my feelings, saying “The books we read didn’t show enough real world issues on minorities and the majority of the characters were white males, not reflecting our student body.”

However, now in my Beacon English class, we are reading books from all over the spectrum. We started with Junot Diaz, a Dominican American writing about his struggles of growing up as an “alien” in the United States in his novel Drown. However, in the summer of last year there were allegations against Diaz by former students of his saying that he sexually assaulted them while under his teachings. I inquired to my 9th grade english teacher (also an 11th grade teacher), Mary Whittmore, why she chose to include this book on her syllabus in light of this allegations. She had to say, “So, I don’t think against the charges against him disqualify him as a writer…  I think Junot Diaz is both a victim and a victimizer and he writes characters like that. I don’t think the charges against him says we shouldn’t still read his books, and they give us important questions to raise.” 

We’ve also read a short piece by Jamaica Kincaid, titled “Girl”, who is a Antoguan American writer. Other titles include: The Bluest Eye, “Superman and Me” and Purple Hibiscus. Of course we are still going to be reading classics like “The Odyssey” by Homer and “Hamlet” by Shakespeare. I asked Ms. Whittmore if she ever finds it difficult to balance out the classics with new and upcoming literature. She replied, “Well I think it’s hard to find books that everyone can relate to at the same time. And by 11thgrade I try to choose books that I think are important to know and that all students should encounter rather than if they feel represented.”

Being an African American teenager who sees a lack of representation of people like me in the media as it is, it’s nice to have teachers that support an exploration of all different types of people. It was especially appealing when during my interview with Ms. Whittmore she emphasized, “When I’m teaching 9thgrade I want to try to have as many Non-American authors as I can and try to include authors from different backgrounds.” For once, I am interested in what I am reading and find joy in all the projects that come with my readings. 

I wanted to get as much voice as possible on this topic so I also talked to Mr. Seckler, a 9th grade English teacher in his second year at Beacon. When I asked “During one school year, it’s difficult to pick books that every one of your students can relate to; how can you ensure they feel represented by the works discussed in class?” He told me his unique process for making sure he hits different races and genders, “I try to get as close as possible. As a check for myself I made a table for myself and broke down all my texts by race and gender and it was a reminder for me. If I see something is “missing” then I may add something like a poem to be representative.”

Diversity is on full stream at Beacon and another freshman I talked to about this topic strongly agreed, saying “I do feel like the books we’re reading at Beacon are diverse. The books I have read for class represent a wide variety of texts exploring challenges facing multiple demographics and Beacon has made an effort to develop a reading list that accurately represents their student body!”

To conclude, I give two thumbs up to Beacon teachers for selecting a variety of books that we can all enjoy and learn from.

One comment

  1. […] However, some students still don’t see themselves in the  characters they read about, disengaging them from the class. Junior, Olvia Ballentine stressed, “The lack of representation in classics can’t be changed, but we can start incorporating better books that expose students to different groups of people. Why do I want to write an essay about a plot, main character, or motif that I can’t empathize with?” As a freshman, the first article I ever wrote for The Beacon Beat was about how critical it is for high school English departments to teach a variety of books featuring characters from all backgrounds and races. Beacon English teachers even weighed in on the matter, which you can read here.  […]

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