This post is the first in a series about including diverse voices in English curriculum while exploring issues and needs related to gifted students. This series will focus on various essays found in the YA nonfiction anthology, Our Stories, Our Voices: 21 YA Authors Get Real About Injustice, Empowerment, and Growing Up Female in America.
Our gifted youth are as diverse as America, but they can be unseen, unheard, and forgotten in our classrooms, our gifted programs, and our curriculum. Our Stories, Our Voices: 21 YA Authors Get Real About Injustice, Empowerment, and Growing Up Female in America, is a new nonfiction anthology and a must-have for classroom and school libraries. It represents the rainbow of what it means to be young, gifted, and female, and raises up rich voices, brave and honest, that will resonate with many.
Duke TIP was especially excited to learn that former TIPster, Tracy Deonn Walker, and also the former Assistant Director for Operations and New Programs in the Educational Innovation and Online Learning division, was one of the winners of the contest to be included in the anthology. Tracy’s YA novel, Descendants, will release in 2020 from Simon Pulse/Simon & Schuster.
The young-adult angle of this anthology is key, because these authors as they remember their teen years speak directly to the challenges that intelligent, reflective, sensitive, and justice-hungry girls experience. With this collection of stories, you can offer a series of lessons that invite deep conversation, greater understanding, and more empathy in your classroom community.
How do you include and explore diverse nonfiction in your English classroom?
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Why We Need this Nonfiction Anthology
YA author and editor Amy Reed (The Nowhere Girls, Clean, Beautiful, and many others) states one of the anthology’s key purposes when she writes in the foreword to readers:
You are wanted. You are loved. You belong. I hope you read these pages and see yourself in our stories, see that there is a place for you, with us…I hope you see in the diversity of our stories a common light, a shared humanity and dignity, a community that includes you and the people you care about.(Introduction, Our Stories, Our Voices. x)
The question for us as educators is how we answer that call to help our gifted students see themselves in these stories, to feel they have a place in our classrooms, and to make internal connections as well as connections to other. First, we must seek to know the myriad identities giftedness can take. This anthology is here to educate educators as well.
To Be Young, Gifted, and Immigrant
In her essay, “My Immigrant American Dream,” YA author Sandhya Menon (When Dimple Met Rishi; From Twinkle, With Love; There’s Something About Sweetie) recalls how she was mistreated because teachers assumed a thick accent meant her English was limited. By the time she was a teen, Menon’s English short stories had been published in international magazines, but yet teachers still viewed her as an English language learner. She also faced the humiliation of watching her father be mistreated by “store clerks who would sigh and roll their eyes because they couldn’t understand him. They spoke slowly and loudly, as if he–a highly educated engineer who’d lived all over the world–were having trouble understanding them” (2-3). This and several other negative experiences led her to choose to hide her Indian culture, to acculturate more, and to stop making her art.
She describes her journey to “reclaim [her] Indianness” and how she discovered ways to value her unique self and beloved aspects of her culture. She shares how she came to embrace the fact that “there is no one way to be American. There is no one language, no one color, no one accent, no one religion. We are a country of multitudes; we should be proud to remain that way.”
Dr. Vidisha Patel, a therapist who works with gifted youth, discusses how important it is for teachers to remember that seeing giftedness takes humility, patience, and close attention. In her article, “We May All Speak English, But We Don’t Always Speak the Same Language,” she writes
Working with culturally diverse gifted populations poses several challenges that are not readily apparent. Sometimes the characteristics of the culture mask aspects of giftedness, and, conversely, those same characteristics prevent us from understanding the gifted student.”
She cites the importance of active listening, genuine curiosity, as well as awareness of one’s own perspective, lens, and judgment as we seek to understand gifted youth who immigrate to the United States. Check out her article for these and other helpful tips.
Before You Begin
Because each of these stories share voices that are often silenced they must be given “big space” in the classroom. By that I mean stories must be read more than once, and annotated–listened to, carefully. These stories should be celebrated. They should invite a reader to go inward. They should invite a conversation between the reader and the writer.
These are not stories that should be used as a preface to engage in debates over issues or politics, nor should they be assigned as essays to pick apart for those political points. These are stories that should encourage thoughtful reflection rather than argument.
These stories should invite creative, narrative responses–more storytelling–from all listeners. These are stories that should be used to help students start their own creative nonfiction or memoir, autofiction, or fiction. If your school requires a direct academic connection to local, state, or national standards, then these stories are excellent models of narrative often required for college admissions essays, and can be used as models for juniors and seniors embarking on the admissions journey.
Because some stories have an Editor’s Note regarding traumatic events or sensitive topics, be sure to review that before choosing an essay for your classroom. Menon’s essay can be used in both middle and high school classrooms.
These suggested writing and discussion prompts assume that you have done work to set up a safe space in your classroom, that you offer opportunities for students to journal privately as well as for you as the audience, and that you remind students of how to engage respectfully when sharing different opinions. Some questions below are best saved for independent writing, while some might work for small-group discussion, and others, for large-group discussion.
These questions assume that students will have a choice of a few questions and from more than one section, and that they can also propose their own prompts in response. Students should be encouraged to make a personal and emotional connection as well as an intellectual connection with Menon’s story.
In some circles, English teachers wonder whether empathy can be taught. Can a student who’s never experienced Menon’s particular circumstances possibly empathize with Menon? Not fully. But students who don’t know won’t know any more unless we ask them to connect. A student learning that such events happen to other people should be able to find points of connection and attempt to learn more.
Questions for Writing and Discussion of “My Immigrant American Dream”
Making a personal connection
- Identify a few experiences that led to Menon feeling like “the other.” How has she survived these experiences? What impresses you about how she survived them?
- How have you been an “other” and felt different than your peers, family, or a a group you belong to? How is your experience different or similar to Menon’s? On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being “completely included” and 10 being “completely other/outsider,” how does your experience compare to Menon’s? (Keep in mind that all experiences are valid, but you should also try to understand that some people are more included or excluded than others.)
- How has someone you know been an “other”? What has been your role when interacting with this person? Why? Would you do anything differently when you next interact with this person?
- How is being the other both beautiful and terrifying? Using Menon’s essay as a model, tell a story from your life or someone else’s where you show the different sides of otherness.
- Menon says how “for every ignorant, misinformed, or prejudiced person I met, there was a counterbalancing person in the world who would recognize my worth and stand up for me and others like me” (6). Talk about one way this statement is true for her. Can you relate when you look at how your life has gone? What would you share with her about the counterbalance–or lack thereof–in your life?
- Write a scene from your life where you had to deal with an “ignorant, misinformed, or prejudiced person.”
- Write a scene from your life where you were helped, encouraged, or uplifted.
- Step into one of the scenes Menon describes in her life and talk about what you would probably have done had you been there. How do you know? Why?
- Describe Menon’s multiple identities. Would you say you have multiple identities as you navigate your life? Why or why not? If yes, describe one or more of them.
- What did you learn from Menon’s experience with being the other? What more would you like to know?
- What did you learn from Menon’s reconciliation of her multiple identities? What more would you like to know?
- What are two questions you have for Menon based on her essay? Where do you want to grow in your understanding of other people’s lives? What questions do you wish people would ask you about your life experience?
- Menon shares what she believes is “the point of America.” What do you believe is “the point of America”? Write your ideas as a dialogue where you are conversing with Menon. Do not talk at her; converse with her.
- How do different definitions of what it means to be an American sometimes involve those who are “in” and those who are “out”? Answer this while thinking of people you know.
- What stories, poetry, essays, and other art (films, paintings) have we experienced this year that connect to Menon’s experiences? How?
- Menon is a young adult author. Check out her novels and decide whether you might try one. What about her work might be important to help you grow as a reader, a thinker, and as an American?
- If you have another idea for a post in response to this essay, propose it to the teacher.
Be Ready to Support Students
No matter what your background, you can support students as they write their way through new understandings or tell you stories you’ve never heard. Be open to their experiences and listen hard. Seek support from your school counselors should you see any writing that speaks to student trauma or pain, so you can respond sensitively. The most important thing we can communicate when reaching out to our students is letting them know they are seen and heard, and they are not alone.
Remember the Spirit
As you navigate this anthology with students and think about how to set up fruitful reflection and discussion, remember these words from Reed:
This is our love letter to America, to the young people who are hurting and scared. You are not alone. We hear you. We are listening. We stand by you. We will survive as we have always survived: together.”(xii)
Let’s make the classroom space a community where all gifted students can raise their heads and show their rainbows without doubt or fear.
Stay tuned for future posts on this anthology and how to include it in your classroom.