From and Through the Storylines

Disrupting Students’ Negative Narratives with Literature

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As I rolled my circular table to storage, wrapping up another year at a previous school, I noticed part of the side of the laminate was peeled away. The particle board was exposed because of one of our students, a frequent visitor to my office.

During that year, he had an open invitation to visit the principal whenever he needed to and I was available. When he came down, he would sometimes pick at the table’s side while processing what he wanted to share. I learned about significant events in his life. Some of these events were toxic experiences that have contributed to a negative narrative in his mind. 

Specifically, he saw the world acting upon him and his family, pawns in a game of chess played by someone else. During one conversation, he spent 30 minutes going over with me about a terrible situation that had happened to a relative, and “that’s why he ended up in jail.” I did my best to simply listen and generally not attempt to solve any problems.

When I did try to counsel and even offer alternatives to the way he was perceiving how the world was impacting his life, my efforts often fell short. “When you shared that ‘this is the reason’,” I responded once, “are you suggesting that it was the only reason he ended up in jail? That he did not have any influence in the situation?” He would sometimes concede a point. But just as often, he would clam up, or make unproductive statements about his situation, for example that “everyone is just racist” (he is Black). 

Literature as a Mediator

H. Richard Milner IV, a professor at Vanderbilt University, notes from his classroom observations that “Black students become motivated to read when they are introduced, encouraged, and/or allowed to read texts that are meaningful to them, resonate with their experiences and worldview, and get them excited about finding meaning from and through the storylines.”1

This is true of any student. But particularly important for students of color in public education. There are too few diverse books in classrooms that accurately portray their perspectives and their experiences. Also, what texts are available may only present persons of color from a deficit mindset. 

Good literature can change that. Stories can act as a mediator for thinking. Not just constructing meaning, but actually changing the way people think. Peter Johnston and Gay Ivey found that, given the time and relevant texts (plus less teaching), students 

  • increased how much they read, which led to 

  • talking more with peers about what they are reading, which led to

  • being part of a community that helped them rethink their identities and self-theories.2

(Johnston and Ivey also noted that students’ test scores increased. This is interesting, as the students in their study read mostly edgy fiction, while standardized tests typically utilize more nonfiction texts.) 

Considering my student’s situation and kids in similar circumstances, I cannot help but see that we are not just teaching students to read, or only teaching readers: we are also facilitating time to read and talk about meaningful ideas through carefully selected literature that will be relevant to them. If they can see their lives through new lenses, supported through discussion about fictional yet very real characters, can they also rethink the narratives they have developed for themselves?

Starting with Choice

Before the school year ended, I had a book stack of three titles ready for when he came down next. One of the titles portrayed Black characters who were situated within positive identities, for example the two main characters being avid readers. 

He sat at our table, flicking the loose piece of laminate, while I read the summary for the diverse book aloud. As I put it down and picked up the next, he announced, “I want that one.” I had not introduced the other two options.

“Are you sure? Did you at least want to hear-”

“No, I am sure. That one.”

So I read aloud the first twenty pages as he sat in my office. When we learned about one character being fired from her city job, and how she felt she had to be perfect because of her race, I paused and commented, “That has to be frustrating, to have to play by a different set of rules.”

He nodded but did not say anything. I continued reading. Recreating stories of ourselves takes time, many cycles of examining our past and rethinking what the future could hold instead.

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1

H. Richard Milner, Disrupting Racism and Whiteness in Researching a Science of Reading (Reading Research Quarterly, 2020)

2

Gay Ivey, Peter Johnston, Engagement With Young Adult Literature: Outcomes and Processes (Reading Research Quarterly, 2013)