Novel Knowledge

The importance of literary diversity.

From classic texts to contemporary stories, students often lack excitement when it comes to in-class reading. As hard as it can be to motivate, these books have the potential to make an impact on students. For that reason, Garfield teachers have been working to expand the curriculum in terms of race, background, and most recently, gender. This is because Garfield’s current curriculum is composed of almost entirely male authors, a make-up which does not reflect the student body.
The required reading is selected by curriculum committees that are made up of teachers.
“[Those] committees get together and do a lot of research looking at other high schools and standards and reading levels,” said English teacher Timothy Zimmermann.
Although the reading varies from class to class, students will rarely encounter female authors. Zimmermann recently finished raising money to include the novel The Joy Luck Club, written by female Asian-American author Amy Tan. Even though this book is on the district’s Approved Instructional Materials list, it is not part of Garfield’s selected curriculum. This means that the set of books must be purchased independently, without the district’s funds. The new addition will counter the exclusively male-written ninth grade curriculum.
“The authors are important because [they] tell the story that [they] know,” said Zimmermann. “It is important to all of us on the team to share our love of             literature by letting our students see themselves in what they read.”
In addition, authors bring their personal biases and experiences with them when they write.  Novels are shaped by the writer’s identity, which runs the risk of perpetuating negative portrayals. For instance, when a majority of books are written by male authors, a pattern of female characters playing one-sided supporting roles can develop.
“Women are mostly love interests and they’re mostly objectified. The girl character is often seen as a reward,” said freshman Linda Phan. “A     [female] author would be more willing to have the perspective of a woman in her story.”
Furthermore, a novel that hits close to home can have a positive influence on the reader. When students can relate to what they are reading, it is more likely that they will pay attention.
“It’s so exciting when people read a really good piece of art in which they can see themselves,” said Zimmermann.
Likewise, students can be affected negatively if a majority of the books they’re reading don’t reflect aspects of their identity. `
“It makes me frustrated that women are not portrayed more in books and I can’t read a book about someone who is like me,” said Phan.
In addition to having students relate to the texts, another concern of teachers is incorporating books that explore unfamiliar topics. Educators are responsible for many things, one of which is to expand the viewpoints of their students. For that reason teachers try to balance their curriculum so that students can connect with the books but also broaden their thinking.
“I think going out into the world you just don’t reach for [diverse] books, you reach for what you know,” said sophomore Isabel Schmidt. “You need to have other perspectives.”
A 2008 study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that reading outside of class is not a priority for students ages fifteen to nineteen. Overall, students spend their free time pursuing extracurriculars, watching television, socializing, working, or doing chores. Less than fifteen percent of females and less than ten percent of males will read for pleasure on an average day.
“[Students] say that they’re bored or they don’t like reading or they don’t have enough time,” said Schmidt. “These [school] books become the foundation of their reading.”
Therefore books read through school can have a profound impact on students, something teachers want to capitalize on.
“As much as I want to expose [students] to famous things, I want to challenge people and create a space in which they can engage with stuff they might not otherwise,” said Zimmermann. “Part of our job as teachers is to frame those books and perspectives as really valuable.”
These books can conceivably be the basis for the development of student’s personal opinions and mindsets. Novels read at Garfield will incorporate a range of voices, however, the female perspective, for the most part, is still absent. This can lead to negative portrayals of women through characters with little purpose. Although there are logistical and bureaucratic roadblocks, the Garfield teachers are working to make authentic representation a reality.
Art by Ana Matsubara