My 9th grade English class was literature-focused, in theory, but mainly emphasized the kinds of connections I wanted my students at KU to make: stories help us talk about the world and they can (but don’t always) connect us across history, space, and racio-linguistic divides. We started out reading To Kill a Mockingbird (mostly because we had to) and students wrote about social justice work, comparing Atticus’ defense of Tom Robbinson with primary source documents on the Scottsboro trial, but also wrote papers referencing the legal struggles of the Young Lords, Black Panthers, and No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes. For some students, this was an opportunity to see that fiction could teach us about history, even if it didn’t “really happen.” For others, the connection between representations of previous struggles allowed them to see connections to activism they were involved in, especially around Stop & Frisk practices that dominated their neighborhoods. For others, the unit offered a chance to write about exactly how a privileged white lawyer was kind of missing the point.
Another favorite unit of students was built around The Odyssey, another text we had foisted upon us. Students tended to like this unit for two reasons. First, they almost all got an opportunity to focus on reading a difficult text. We spent a lot of time discussing annotation methods for reading, including thinking of reading complex texts as translations, which most of them did on a day-to-day basis anyway. By the end of the unit, they had not just spent a lot of time reading something, but they felt a kind of agency over the process of reading, which many of them had never experienced before. But secondly, they liked the unit’s focus on Joseph Campbell’s Heroic Myth Cycle, which we used to talk about intertextuality, noting the similarities between Homer and Star Wars, then eventually writing an argument about whether or not The Warriors might qualify as a heroic epic. We even got to poke fun at the Eurocentric and racialized assumptions that Campbell’s philosophy conveyed, looking at Junot Diaz’s “Homecoming, with Turtle” as a kind of mock Homeric epic.