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Ontario school board promotes literature diversity to reflect student body

Lynn Filliter, an English teacher at Jean Augustine Secondary School in Brampton, teachers her class about the components of writing a blog on Sept. 11, 2017.

Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Students at a high school in Brampton, Ont., will not be reading about star-crossed lovers in Verona this year, or a feisty six-year-old girl in Maycomb, Ala., or a group of young boys marooned on a remote island in the Pacific Ocean.

Instead, they will read about protagonists who look more like them.

The move at Jean Augustine Secondary School, north of Toronto, comes as their district, the Peel District School Board, recently sent a memo to high-school principals, vice-principals and English departments, encouraging them to reconsider the novels being read in class so that the literature is more reflective of a culturally diverse student population.

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It's a bold step, educators say, especially for those who believe in the educational value of mainstays, such as Romeo and Juliet, To Kill a Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies.

But an increasing number of school officials both in Peel and in other districts are pushing hard to introduce new voices in literature, in addition to the old ones, to reflect a changing student body.

"There's probably a small minority who still believe that there is a literary canon that we need to hold onto. I think it's because it is the way we've always been taught," said Poleen Grewal, associate director of instructional and equity support services at the Peel board. "[But] if we are focusing on equity and inclusion as a school board, the work around inclusion must be visible at the student desk."

Ms. Grewal sent a memo to English department heads in June, asking them to explore culturally relevant texts after the school board heard from its students that their experiences were not being reflected in classroom literature. She attached a list of books, which includes A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry and Richard Wagamese's Indian Horse. Students in Ontario are required to take an English course every year of high school.

She acknowledged that books are costly, but Ms. Grewal said that funds are set aside every year for new purchases.

"We do not expect a clean sweep of texts in every school; however, we would like to see movement towards more culturally responsive texts that connect to the lived experiences and narratives of the students and communities we serve," Ms. Grewal said.

In the Peel region, minorities have reached a critical mass and now make up 57 per cent of the total population. Close to half of Peel's residents are South Asians.

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Increasingly, school districts are looking at their curriculum to see if it reflects their culturally diverse student population – a shift that is becoming more pronounced by news events beyond the classroom walls.

A spokesman for the Halifax Regional School Board said teachers are looking to develop culturally relevant lesson plans.

Marilyn Manning, acting supervisor for curriculum and resource support at Edmonton Public Schools, said part of a project this summer involved developing guidelines for educators to consider when making book selections. "We're not about banning books or telling teachers they can't use these things. It's really about broadening perspectives and developing the sensitivity to the social considerations," Ms. Manning said.

This has also become a topic of discussion around North America and there's sometimes backlash.

In 2015, The Washington Post detailed how a teacher in an inner-city school in Sacramento, Calif., no longer wanted to teach Shakespeare because she felt other works of literature better spoke to her ethnically diverse students. Many reacted negatively, with one teacher responding by saying that shared skin colour doesn't equal shared experiences, and that Shakespeare still speaks to the human condition.

Closer to home, the Durham District School Board, east of Toronto, recently said that its students don't necessarily have to read To Kill a Mockingbird because a school official reportedly said it may make some uncomfortable.

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At Jean Augustine, which opened its doors last fall and is named after a Canadian social-justice advocate, students in each grade are given a choice of books, ensuring that they answer an essential question around service, leadership, advocacy and innovation. (It is common in English courses for books to have an essential question.) Teachers at the school also decided to offer novels that are written by diverse authors and have characters more reflective of the students. This year, they are reading Indian Horse, Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman and How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon, among others.

Lynn Filliter, head of the school's English department, said there is still a place for Shakespeare and other traditional novels in the classroom. But by adding new voices, she has found that even the most reluctant readers are engaged in learning.

"I think that it validates their own experiences and it empowers them to understand that their voice and their perspective is valued," Ms. Filliter said. "We try to be thoughtful about having the characters in the novels be reflective of students in our classrooms. We're a very diverse board. So our books should also be very diverse."

Ann Lopez, an associate professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, has found in her research on culturally responsive pedagogy that students are more engaged when reading stories that reflect their communities. She said that literary canons are valuable, but she has seen schools make efforts to put other pieces of literature front and centre.

"It's really about disrupting this idea that knowledge comes from a single space," Prof. Lopez said. "Of course you must read Shakespeare. But you must read Shakespeare and Shabanu, Daughter of the Wind."

Author Jael Richardson, who was a student of the Peel board, said she was not exposed to a black author until she reached university. She described it as a "huge moment of awakening" and that she saw her struggles put into words.

Ms. Richardson's novel, The Stone Thrower: A Daughter's Lessons, a Father's Life, is one of the books on Ms. Grewal's list attached to her memo. Ms. Richardson said that while there is a need for students to see themselves in the novels, it's also about being able to look at somebody who is different and relate.

"Having culturally responsive texts means that a white male student can read a book with a Muslim protagonist and say, 'Wow, I can identify with how she felt about X' and that, I think, makes us better humans. We're just better able to relate to one another," Ms. Richardson said.

At Jean Augustine school, Grade 10 student Megan Duong said she read How It Went Down last year, a story about a black teenager shot by a white man and the struggles to make sense of the tragedy.

For Ms. Duong, 15, it touched on social issues, such as racism and violence. She said she also saw herself in the novel because she, too, has faced stereotypes.

"I think if you read those traditional books, the school isn't touching on everybody's interest," Ms. Duong said. "It's not super relatable. These books that we got to choose from, they had a storyline that was more relatable to society."

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Caroline Alphonso is an education reporter for The Globe and Mail. More

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