The Process of Picking Texts in Upper School English

by Ellen Kwon, Upper School English teacher

When I think about what texts I want to share with my students, I think about the feeling I had in the theater with my three sons, while watching Crazy Rich Asians. We loved it, despite the fact that some of the depictions in the film were definitely tired Asian tropes. A cast of Asian actors performing a screenplay co-written by an Asian writer based on a novel by an Asian, and directed by an Asian director? While the luxury of experiencing this four part reflection of the self is so common for our white students as to be unworthy of comment or notice, it is so unusual for those of us who rarely see ourselves reflected in the entertainment industry, or in the so-called canon, that my family and I raved about it for days afterwards.

Teacher Ellen Kwon works with US student

As an Asian-American child growing up in Vermont, I wanted nothing more than to assimilate to the majority culture of my school. I grew up reading one white authored classic after another. Later I succumbed to the indoctrination of my college’s largely white core curriculum. In my first English department I cut my teeth teaching “must-reads” — mostly white authors with some Richard Wright and Amy Tan thrown in. As I evolved from newbie to experienced teacher, I have had the opportunity to expand my offerings, by reflecting on my teaching, listening to student feedback, and researching authors and history. Over the years, I’ve shared texts by Toni Morrison, Edward P. Jones, Gene Yang, Junot Diaz, Claudia Rankine, Jesmyn Ward and Julie Otsuka. Essentially, I have been honing and refining my own core curriculum, and it is still a work in progress. 

I am aware that some students — and adults — grow tired of talking about race, even if race is not the primary lens through which we are reading a particular text. I have noted white students’ palpable relief at moving to a text that, on the surface, feels “neutral.” As I continue to learn about teaching, I am less willing to allow my students the ease of the neutral read. Nothing is neutral. Even (and especially) texts that are the very canonest of canon must be interrogated and held up to a bright light in the classroom, and it is my job as an English teacher to push every text to account not only for their obvious focus but also for the experiences of those who exist at the edges of these narratives, much as Laure hovers in the background tending to the needs of her white mistress in Manet’s Olympia, just as Chinese laborers built the railroads but did not appear in the “Golden Spike” ceremonial photographs.

Literature brings complexity, awe and joy to the human experience, in large part because it can reflect the reader’s thoughts, feelings and experiences; after immersing ourselves in a text, we come out the other end knowing ourselves and humanity more deeply. Because my goal as an English teacher is to share texts that enable my students to see themselves and thus speak/write their experiences from those mirrored experiences, I am constantly re-working the ways that I teach texts, and I am constantly on the hunt for texts that will reach more and more students in the same ways that my sons and I were both touched and seen by that film.