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Yes, Judge a Book by Color

March 28, 1998|ALFEE ENCISO | ALFEE ENCISO is an English teacher at Crenshaw High School

San Francisco is the first school district in the country to mandate that nonwhite authors be taught in the city's high schools. The measure, approved unanimously by the Board of Education, was a compromise from an earllier proposal that would have established quotas of minority writers being taught in the district's curriculum.

School board members should be commended for so bravely questioning the literary canon that shapes millions of school children's lives. But as in the Ebonics debate a few years ago, the message has been impaled with reactionary critics who fear students of color will be robbed of their great, white icons--Shakespeare, Hemingway and Hawthorne--or, on the other extreme, that an Anglo reading curriculum is responsible for students dropping out of school. Both sides fail to grasp what teachers in the inner-city are constantly up against: Kids aren't reading.

Looking at the reading scores across the state and at my predominantly African American school, we had better be inventive or our kids won't be reading anything. A case in point would be my 11th grade American Literature class.

"The Scarlet letter," is required reading for all juniors regardless of their class designation (honors, gifted, special education or regular). With just a few exceptions, none of my "regular" students read the book. According to the students I've taught during the last two years, the book is boring, overwrought with highfalutin vocabulary and contains way too much drama over a silly issue--birth out of wedlock--something commonplace in the community they live.

Add to that reading failure another "white" novel, "The Great Gatsby," and the interest in reading anything for the first semester is at a soporific low with students laying their heads down at the mere mention of opening a book.

My African American and Latino students don't read these books because, they tell me, "I can't relate to it." Instead of listening to those voices, we drum up all sorts of fun activities to beat a dead text and drown out their complaints. We even claim success because we have "exposed them to great literature" and engaged them in classroom activities that include drawing pictures, staging debates and performing scenes from the chapters. These activities still don't promote or increase literacy in our young people. They just help us placate our unwilling clients until it's time to move on to another work.

After getting through these works as quickly as possible, my students begin to drink up the literature when the coffee is decidedly hotter and blacker. The spring semester thaws away their chilled reading habits with books by Richard Wright and plays by August Wilson. Suddenly, as if by literary magic, students who hadn't read anything all year begin downing hundreds of pages in a week's time and actually smile about it. The lessons flow as does the critical thinking, which begs the obvious: Why couldn't we do this all year?

If students aren't reading, maybe it's because we haven't found the right books. San Francisco's "Why not?" just might put us in the direction of finding them.

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