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Examining Classic Literature Through a Critical Lens

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Dave Kolpack

High school students have been reading authors like Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dickens, and Hemingway in the same way for generations.

On this edition of Talk of Iowa, Charity Nebbe hosts a discussion with educators who are rethinking high school literature classes for the 21st Century.

Jeanne Dyches, an assistant professor of education at Iowa State University, conducts research on what we define as classic literature and how we teach it. To do this, she spends time with high school students, encouraging them to critically examine and question the discipline of English language arts.

In the class, students investigate and question how the English discipline has been influenced by political entities, and, “how belief systems and people are at the helm, making these decisions about what kids read, what teachers have access to, and more broadly, whose stories matter in these required curricular spaces,” Dyches says.

Leigh Ann Erickson, an English teacher at Mount Vernon School District, says  the lack of author diversity in the books taught in high school can be problematic.

“We send our … students into the world with a very skewed perspective because of the voices they’re hearing from. If you look at Iowa education, 97.6 percent of all teachers in Iowa are white, so that’s who our students are learning from,” she says. “So if we’re not bringing multiple voices and stories into the classroom, they’re not getting those in their own lives.”

Besides broadening a student’s perspective, Dyches says having students question what they are reading can actually get students more excited for class.

“Kids want to have these conversations,” she says. “I think a lot of them feel empowered because now they have a space where they can learn some of the vocabulary in terms of understanding, what is perspective, what is voice, what is marginalized, what is privileged, and what does it look like in English?”

“I would also argue that kids want to have those opportunities to then apply those skills when they’re thinking about the world around them,” she adds.

Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa