A Literary Society

  • 2022
  • High School
Andrew Gilbert, High School Humanities Teacher

Term two has arrived at THS and students are now coming back from winter break already in the middle of courses. Many of the students in the courses I teach submitted their first major assignment of the term before winter break, and I decided not to give them any take-home work over the holidays. I’m pretty sure we all needed the rest. However, winter break always begs the question, what are they reading over break? 

As a humanities teacher in the High School, I have a somewhat decent idea of what students are reading when school is in session. Aside from the curated reading list that I fuss and stress over for the courses I teach, I also try to keep abreast of what is being read within the greater THS community, especially in other humanities classes taught by my esteemed colleagues Dion Newsome, Tom South, and Ru Lau. Last term students read Ishmael by Daniel Quinn in Mr. Newsome’s class, a book that addresses complex ideas surrounding sustainability, and asks the reader whether they are a ‘leaver’ or a ‘taker’ on this earth. In my classes, students have been reading Octavia E. Butler, Kate Chopin, Jorge Luis Borges, and James Baldwin. Writers that I have picked from my favorite corners of the literary universe, and ones that I believe do not get enough attention. 

When students are here, they are part of a community of readers. One that is carefully cultivated and tended. A community that is determined to create strong, lifelong readers. But what about at home? Or when they are commuting, or traveling? Or online? Where else do students discuss reading, develop a critical perspective, and learn more about the knowledge of shared values? How can we give them the skills to make their own selections of reading material, and how can we be sure they are reading with a critical eye?

Recently I read the book Cultivating Genius by Dr. Gholdy Muhammad, who developed a pedagogy currently being used in schools called Historically Responsive Literacy, or HRL. Muhammad writes about the many historical literary societies that existed within the Black community in America throughout the 1800s and 1900s. Many of these communities were formed because of little to no access to adequate schooling. Muhammad describes these literary societies’ relationship with literacy by stating, 

"One of the ways in which they set out to counter the conditions they endured during a time of racism and oppression was through reading, writing, and engaging with literary texts. As part of a broader struggle to counter multiple attacks of oppression with violence, they used their minds and pens as weapons to battle injustice. Books and other forms of texts became ammunition to fuel their progress. They worked toward cultivating the minds and hearts within themselves and among others, which led them to being equipped to face and alter the nation’s harshest realities.” 

Muhammad frames literacy as the comprehensive tool for survival in a world heaped with challenges. I could not agree more. These literary societies were book clubs, organized reading and writing groups, and institutions that gathered around the idea that knowledge is power. They studied books, poetry, news articles, and more. But, most importantly, they were safe spaces for members of a community to curate their learning process with an eye toward individual and collective interests and needs.  

She continues throughout the book to share the many tenants and values that historical black literary societies held, and transforms them into a four-layered equity framework. These goals, or learning pursuits as I will refer to them, are: identity development, intellectual development, skill development, and criticality. Though the contexts of our lives and learning communities are different, these tools can help us reimagine/remember why we read and read together, and help us create spaces for our students to become strong, independent, and critical thinkers through their reading/encounters with books. 

Our greater community here at THS is a literary society. Although our students may not be facing the challenges that young people in the Black community were facing in some of the most intensely racist and violent days in American history, our students will be faced with challenges. The challenge of the climate crisis, political polarization, misinformation and the influence of the media, their own health and happiness. There are challenges we have not foreseen, much like the ever-raging pandemic, which may be a reason to look to the HRL framework so that our students can face challenges with a strong sense of who they are. 

So, let me describe some of how I have been utilizing HRL learning pursuits, and share with you how you can contribute to the conversation and trajectory of this specific literary community.

I would first like to humble brag about an initiative that was not started by me, but by our school leaders. Led by our administrators Kyle King and Alison Kutlaca we have been diving deep into the sci-fi classic Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. When they announced the book I flashed back to reading this book when I was young and thinking the book read like a movie. Like something that is definitely in the category of a pleasure read. It is a story of a young boy who gets selected for a slick futuristic type of war game that is a means of preparation for an eventual alien invasion. The reader not only experiences the action from the boy’s perspective, but they are also privy to a constant dialogue behind his back between the adults that are secretly evaluating or monitoring him. Seems pretty typical of a young adult sci-fi bestseller. A little surveillance. A little individual against society. Very descriptive and very action-packed.

But thinking about how Muhammad calls for the need for literary engagement that goes above and beyond the typical analysis, I started to consider the book in a different way, seeking more intentionally to connect each individual learner and activate them to respond to the novel through the actual challenges within their current world.  

Ender’s Game contains a rich representation of identities and cultures inspiring discussion on diversity, identity, and representation in the media. As students probed the role that identity plays in the narrative, they were asked to engage in questioning the importance of identity and representation in their lives. Next, we engage our literacy skills in regard to description, dialogue, structure, and symbolism. But the true purpose of the exercise of reading together is comprehension and perspective. Students learn so much from hearing each other read, interpret, and analyze. They gain such a deeper understanding of the multiple perspectives that exist when they read together, it is clear that historical literary societies understood how community is essential to learning. And most importantly when getting deeper into Ender’s Game -  criticality. There is a very unique sense of justice in Ender’s Game that aligns with Mohammad’s view that criticality is related to seeing, naming, and interrogating the world to not only make sense of it but to also work toward transformation. As a group, students pushed back on Ender’s willingness to do what the adults said, and many of the students were of the impression that young people deserved the right to define what justice is regardless of their age. 

Ideas of Justice, age, ability, and duty have helped students feel connected to a global conversation around the trajectory of our world and society as a whole. It has helped students to understand and reflect on their own values as young people, deciding whether they are ready to take on a huge responsibility, or if kids should be kids for as long as possible. 

But that is what literary society is supposed to be. A place where students can build the tools to be their best selves, reflect, learn, and be excited and inspired by the possibilities around them. As Muhammad states in her book, a community that utilizes literary presence in the classroom, 

“1. Create in-school contexts for students to share their voices and visions through acts of reading, writing, and speaking. 2. Select texts that speak to their multiple identities instead of selecting texts based on their reading identities alone. 3. Scaffold ways for students to share their thoughts and respond to texts.”

Okay, I’m going to stop this humble brag, by transitioning into a final humble brag/call to action. If you would like to contribute to the inspiring literary community that is THS, I have an entryway for you. One of our 11th-grade students Isabella has taken it upon herself to look after our library. It is a sort of pet project for her, one that we as a community are very grateful for. In order to align our library with the issues and challenges that students see today, it is important to have a student-curated library. Isabella has made it a side project to collaborate with Jess Cuzme (our resident library aficionado) to bring more diverse choices to the library at the high school.

So how can you help? Well, as James Clear, author of Atomic Habits (a book with which I’m sure some of you are familiar as we are entering a new year) says, “Your output is only as good as your input.” If we desire our students to produce clear critical writing that is unique to their personal identities as global citizens, is filled with intellectual prowess, and utilizes the skills of writing at the mastery level, we must provide them with reading material which, like Ender’s Game and Ishmael, challenges systems and identities in our world, and is told with the utmost skill. If you are reading this and you are wondering how you can contribute to the work we are doing as a literary society at THS, then what you can do is suggest a piece of reading that has inspired you, challenged you, helped you understand the world better, and pass it along to me and I will pass it along to Isabella. As a student lead initiative, Izzy’s work with the library will make sure there is community ownership over the reading that is offered at THS, and we as a community will make sure that this writing is engaged with using a framework that helps students read deeply. 

As stewards of the future, our students, like the young soldiers in Ender’s Game, have the task of being our world leaders, shapers, and caretakers, at a very young age. When they are deeply engaged in the reading practice, they are developing the skills and tools to combat any challenge whether that challenge is fully realized or unseen. 

And back to the question I asked at the beginning of this post. What are our students reading when they are not in school? Well, we just don’t know. But, if they are spending their time within this literary society consuming quality material that has been carefully selected and presented to them with the intention to inspire and invigorate, then they will be more able to select strong textual elements when they are reading on their own. 

Thanks so much for reading and thinking along with us. 

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