By: Kate Lechtenberg
You Are What You Read
I organize my bookshelves at home to correspond with stages in my life: childhood and adolescence, college, early teaching, young motherhood, and now my own childrens’ childhood and adolescence. Who I am impacts the books I choose, both for myself and in my professional life as a teacher and librarian. The books on my shelves both reflect and inform who I am.
Likewise, in my recent dissertation study, when I set out to study the ways that teachers select texts, frame instruction, and facilitate discussions about controversial issues, I could not escape the role of teacher identities in this complex work. Like all readers, teachers and librarians develop intimate relationships with books, and what we read stems from our lives, our very selves. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the books teachers and librarians choose to offer our students—and our choices of conceptual frames (e.g., are we going to focus on family in this novel? Race? gender?)—are intimately tied with who we are, what we care about, and what is happening in our lives at any given historical moment.
In my study, I had the pleasure of working with four high school teachers (three English teachers and one school librarian who also taught two sections of sociology) in a suburban community in my state. They agreed to join me to research these two initial questions:
- How and why do teachers make choices about text selections, instructional framing, and discussion facilitation about sociopolitical issues?
- With whom would teachers like to communicate and collaborate regarding these pedagogical choices?
Focusing on teacher’s identities wasn’t initially on my radar. But after spending time observing in Erica’s, Kristin’s, Rebecca’s, and Will’s (pseudonyms) classrooms, talking with them in individual interviews, and meeting as a small group of teacher-researchers to discuss these issues together, I realized that each teacher’s personal and professional identities and experiences shaped their choices in both simple and profound ways.
The act of selecting a text is never just about text features, its place in the canon, the author, or its relationship to educational standards; not only did teachers in this study select texts with attention to these text-centric qualities, but they also selected texts with attention to various aspects of their teacher identities. These human, emotional, identity-centered factors in selection and framing should not be ignored because they contribute to a teacher’s ability to communicate their passion and expertise to their students.
Although my goal is not to generalize patterns in Rebecca, Kristin, Erica, and Will’s practice and apply them to educators at large, taken together, their experiences and identities provide rich portraits of both the individualized and the common factors that inform teachers’ choice of texts and conceptual frames.
English Teachers’ Relationships with the Literary Canon
Erica, Will, and Kristin were all English language arts teachers, and they all referenced their identity as an ELA teacher as an important factor in their text selections. However, each teacher interpreted the demands of their discipline in a different way. Erica, for example, frequently referenced her disciplinary expertise in literature as a reason why she does not offer her students as much choice compared to some other teachers; for her, the years she spent as an undergraduate and graduate student developing her professional identity gave her the authority to be the primary text selector.
Will and Kristin interacted with their identities as English teachers and literature experts differently. Will began his career dedicated to a conservative “Great Books” tradition and had been moving away from that and toward contemporary trends in literacy education that privilege choice and relevance, and Kristin described the feelings of loss that she experienced as she “let go” of texts that were synonymous with her identity as an AP English teacher. All three teachers felt pulled by the canonical traditions of the literary canon, but they inhabited and enacted those identities in different ways, in conversation with other aspects of their teacher identity.
These three teachers remind us that both continuing and expanding the canon are individualized, contextualized endeavors, and not a uniform campaign waged en masse by all English teachers or even by large groups of English teachers. Instead, each teacher creates a textual world for and with their students, in conversation with their own evolving identities as English teachers.
A Librarian and a Sociology Teacher
Rebecca took on the role of school librarian after over a decade of teaching social studies, and during the study, she continued to teach two sections of sociology. Rebecca’s approaches to text selections as a sociology teacher and as a librarian were very different, and one major difference was the type of texts she chose for her classroom vs. her library. In the sociology classroom, Rebecca selected only narrative and informational texts; she avoided argumentative or persuasive texts because she did not want to bring the focus to the policy implications of the sociological concepts she was teaching. She wanted to “let the content be the guide,” and she thought human stories and facts were the best way to do that.
As a librarian, however, Rebecca included a wide variety of argumentative and opinion-based texts, as well as a range of texts that some staff members found controversial. She saw the classroom as a very different space from the library given that the library was centered on choice, whereas in her classroom, she did not give students a choice when she introduced texts.
White Teacher Identities
In addition, the teachers in the study were all White teachers, as were nearly all the teachers in that suburban school, and their differing understandings of their White identities informed their text selections and framing choices. After the 2016 election, Kristin, for example, let go of texts stepped away from teaching Don DeLillo’s White Noise because she realized she could not teach the satirical approach to Hitler studies in the context of neo-Nazi protests and the hateful rhetoric of the Trump campaign. During the years after the election, Kristin became more active in racial justice work in her community and engaged in personal and professional learning to understand her White identity. Eventually, she returned to teaching the text but reframed it around her new learning about Critical Whiteness Studies.
Will, on the other hand, believed that his racial and gender identities as a White man were “only a small part” of who he was, and he said that he struggled to facilitate discussions about race in the classroom. In his teaching, he drew more on his identity as a sexual abuse survivor to inform his approach to building relationships with students, the way teachers supported him as a young person. He found that students were very receptive to discussions about sexual abuse. It is quite possible that Will’s choice to focus on his survivor status more than his racial identity informed his feelings of success and confidence when reading and discussing books like Speak rather than discussing texts that deal with race.
Other Influences & Final Thoughts
In my study I examine other layers of identity that inform teachers’ text selections as well: how new colleagues and relationships can serve as catalysts for new choices in texts and instructional frames, how political ideology informs text selection, how teachers respond to current events in local and global contexts in their choices, and how emotional relationships with texts sustain their selections over time. I’ve written about there in my depth in my dissertation, and I hope to explore them further in academic and practitioner publications soon.
Overall, this study helps shed light on the human frames that teachers and librarians draw on when they select texts and frame those texts in discussions. Although it’s tempting to reduce a curriculum to a list of texts or district mandates, teachers and librarians will always bring their human frame to their shelf lists, their syllabi, their selections, and their discussions about literature. Instead of wishing away the role that identity plays in text selections—in the name of standardization or the myth of neutrality—I encourage educators to be reflective and transparent about who they are and how that informs what they choose to read with students.
Kate Lechtenberg earned a doctoral degree from the University of Iowa’s College of Education, where her research focused on how teachers select, frame, and facilitate discussions about controversial issues. She teaches courses in young adult and children’s literature, collection development, and critical literacy at the University of Iowa. Find her on Twitter @katelechtenberg.