I remember how it felt to read “Macbeth” for my high school English class. I yawned as my head went down on my desk. When I looked around, I noticed I wasn’t the only one of my classmates surreptitiously dozing off. Macbeth is a classic novel and a great piece of literature; however, it mirrored the typical reading of most of my upper-level high school classes: a heavy emphasis on White literature. My classmates and I were hungry for something new, more relatable, and more relevant. A month later was Black History Month, so I wondered about the type of literature my high school teacher would choose for us to read. To our surprise, he chose “Othello,” another Shakespeare play with a “Moor” as its main character. We were surprised because my teacher rarely taught any literature with characters of color. He described Othello as a Black man or at least a person of color, and so I was eagerly anticipating reading the book because this character looked like me and my classmates. As we read “Othello,” we were all taken with the story of a Black man’s tragic love story. We loved how many experiences Othello had that were similar to experiences we had witnessed in our own lives and community. We read the book with different students role-playing the characters. The boys in the class argued daily for who would read the part of Othello. It was the most engaging unit all year, simply because the main character was Black.
A Passion for Reading
My experiences and those of my classmates show the power that comes from having students read about characters who reflect themselves. Back then having a main character of color in a Shakespeare play awakened in me a love for reading that I didn’t know I had. In school districts around the country, there needs to be a continual push for cultural relevance and strategic selection of texts that reflect the students’ race and experiences. When I was in high school my English teacher chose Black History Month as the impetus to introduce a Black character for his students to read. Just like him, many other teachers focus on cultural relevance during months that celebrate a particular culture. But, Black History Month, while a great opportunity to introduce Black characters, should not be the only month we introduce diverse literature in our classrooms.
Diverse literature curriculum increases the cultural capital of all our students—giving them access, understanding, and knowledge from various perspectives. This is vital in an increasingly diverse world into which the students we teach will be entering. In my 10th-grade English language arts classroom, I make sure that some of the books I select for the academic year that will be read by my students reflect not only their race but their various experiences. Books like “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in The Cafeteria,” “The Other Wes Moore,” and “Go Tell It on The Mountain” are exceptional pieces of literature that all English language arts teachers should teach throughout the academic year. This purposeful and strategic selection of texts for my students to read has led to high levels of engagement in my class and a sense of relatability and connection with the books’ themes, characters and life lessons. I know that when my students say that they have learned from the love decisions of the main character in “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and they have related to the constant battle between personal desire and religious restriction of John from “Go Tell It on The Mountain,” that Black literature has awakened in them a passion for reading. This has led to gains in their reading skill, intellectual acumen, and development of nuanced ideas on how to address common issues in their lives and their community. When Black History Month comes to a close, let’s continue the celebration by reading the aforementioned books and other books well beyond the 28 days in February. We just might ignite a passion for reading in our students just like Othello did in my classmates and me.
Devin Evans is a 10th grade English Language Arts teacher at Butler College Prep Charter High School on Chicago's far South Side. He serves as co-10th grade team lead and master teacher for Butler's humanities department. He graduated from Michigan State University with a BA in Social Science Education and History and is pursuing a Masters in English Language Arts from Relay Graduate school of ...