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It’s about representation: Let’s talk about the Outsiders and Animal Farm

Through this conversation today I would like to unpack representation in the classroom, what is known as culturally responsive classrooms and the importance of it in the classroom. When classrooms are centered and speak only to one cultural background, everyone misses out.

I know that there are many teachers that have retired the Outsiders and Animal Farm in their classrooms and I am so thankful for that. Unfortunately, there are still some using them and refuse to remove them from their practice. I am all for teacher autonomy in the classroom but when it is harming students and more specifically Indigenous, Black and People of Colour students (IBPOC), this is where I feel we need to talk about what is happening in classrooms. I believe that there are a lot of people stepping into work that makes them feel uncomfortable in order to do better for IBPOC students and my hands are raised in deep gratitude for you and the work you do for change.

I would like to talk through some of the things that I find challenging about still using books that have been written 50-70 years ago. Books that I read when I was in grade 8 & 10, like the Outsiders and Animal Farm that all three of my children have read or reading now in their grade 8 & 10 classrooms. Starting the conversation there, how is the education system actually changing and reflecting the moment we are in when my children are getting the same lessons and books from my childhood? I feel like the world has shifted drastically from when I was a child. We are in an educational space where we need to be talking about oppression, racism, identities, and LGBTQ+ experiences in schools today. These were not topics talked about or taught about when I was in school, and we were never asked to use critical thinking about what we were being taught.

The Outsiders was written in 1967, Hinton was 15 when she started to write it and sold it when she was 17. In her own words Hinton said: "Most of the literature handed down for high school students to read had, in Hilton's estimation, nothing to do with the lived experiences of teenagers in her hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma". What I find most interesting when I read about the author and the book, is that her belief was that there was nothing being written about real topics for young adult books at the time. There was not even a genre of young adult books. So, she wrote an "outsider" story about boys and gangs from the perspective of a white, middle class, female. Just like what she was fighting against when she wrote the book. She was wanting a voice in her education, so she used someone else's story to write about, not her own. She was speaking about a life and events that were not her lived experience as a white female. Not saying that this book didn't have a place in the history of books, it did change and create pathways for others to step into writing differently for young adults. Hinton allowed for space for authors to be real in the writing and not water down writing for younger readers. From my experience with students, is that they are so much smarter than we give them credit for.

I would like to apply what Hinton was doing in that moment in time, to today in our current day classrooms. In the curriculum for grade 10 curriculum competencies are:

  • Construct meaningful personal connections between self, text, and world (this speaks to the importance of having texts that reflect all students in the classroom)

  • Explore how language constructs personal and cultural identities (this speaks to including topics of oppression, racism, Indigenous peoples’, white supremacy, colonialism)

The Big Ideas for English grade 10 are:

  • The exploration of text and story deepens our understanding of diverse, complex ideas about identity, others, and the world (speaking directly to the need for multiple explorations of diverse authors and stories within the classroom.)

  • Text are socially, culturally, geographically, and historically constructed. ( speaking directly to the need for multiple perspectives in the classroom and the need to understand the place they actually live.)

The curriculum is informing us that we need to be focusing on a larger conversation, a conversation that includes oppression, racism, Indigenous peoples’, white supremacy and colonization. It also includes student voice and representation of themselves in the curriculum. None of these are topics in the Outsiders or Animal Farm books. We, like Hinton should be pushing for change in the classrooms to have books and curriculum that reflect the students in the classrooms. Bring in books from IBPOC people that reflect the challenges they are facing in today’s society, from their own personal lived experiences. This will be how we prepare all students for living in a multicultural society. If we do not allow for students to be learning about and talking about these topics then we are doing a disservice to the next generation. We have had a history of education that has silenced and avoided difficult and challenging topics, if we continue to not change what we are bringing into the classroom for books, then we are allowing for the continuation of oppression, racism, and harm to happen in the classroom.

I also wanted to share with you some responses and conversations I have had from people when I start to have a conversation about representation in the classroom.

“Well Carolyn, we need to teach to the white students too.”

This is for real something that was just said to me, I can’t make this up. My response, well we have had 150 years of teaching to only the white students in the classroom. My children have had 11 & 13 years of education in this system that does not reflect them or share their culture, identity, or even talk about them in a good way. The system and educators in the system have a responsibility to my Indigenous children just as much as the white students, to learn/read more than just white stories in education. We also need to be doing the work of uplifting Indigenous brilliance in classrooms, talk about more than just Indigenous trauma that has been inflicted on us by colonization, so students can learn and understand the peoples’ whose land they live upon.

“I didn’t find the book offensive when I read it in grade 12.” (white, middle aged, male, educator)

This response for me shows the lack of what is needed in the work of social justice. In social justice work the most important thing you have to be willing to do is to listen. Listen to those who have been historically silenced in the system and make sure you are personally taking actions to do better for the next generation. By listening to these voices, you will be able to hear that not having a space in education, that represents you as a human being is detrimental to IBPOC students, it then contributes to them being pushed out of the education system all together.

The comment also shows that they have not read the book in the last 20 plus years and have not put the book in today’s context of education. Had they read the book and had some solid points of why they teach it to a class of 95% black and brown students, then I might be able to have a conversation about how Animal Farm is problematic for this group of students in today’s classroom.

“If we bring in Indigenous books like Monkey Beach or Trickster, parents will push back against the Indigenous content and drugs and alcohol.” (Again, not making this up, this was actually something said directly to me as a parent in the school.)

First of all, I was there making a complaint about Animal Farm, they were clearly not afraid of the push back against that book from an Indigenous parent. I am curious to know what is the difference between Indigenous parents pushing back about content and non-Indigenous parents pushing back against content? I would really like to understand this one better, but I don’t. The other push back about Monkey Beach is that the book talks about drugs and drug abuse, my response, well if we are not talking about drugs and drug abuse then we are not teaching about it. This should be something that all high school students should be talking about and learning about. There are drug dealers in high schools, it is happening in real time today and we have a responsibility to teach about it. Again, these are things that are happening today in the places and spaces all children are in, so we need a curriculum that reflects today and how to navigate in today’s society.

If we are continuing to use material, lesson plans, and books from white authors from over 55 years ago, we are doing a disservice to all students. If IBPOC students do not see themselves within the curriculum and books, then they feel unsafe, unwelcome, and unseen in educational spaces. If white students never hear the stories of oppression, racism, and harm that happens to IBPOC students, then they will never understand how harmful it is and how they participate in the continuation of the oppression and harm.

We all need a well-rounded education, we need a society that addresses systemic racism, oppression, and the daily impacts of colonialism for real change to happen for the next generation. If we don’t change it up, then the continuation of systemic racism and oppression will just continue the daily harm on all IBPOC students in the education system and in society. It really is up to us to make change happen; it impacts every single one of us, every single day. How are you curating your resources to ensure balanced representation and the inclusion of historically absent identities? How are you reading outside of your own identities / preferences to become more informed about the experiences of others? What are you going to do to make change happen?

Special thanks to my friend Bryan Gidinski for his contributions and support in my wiring.


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