Alaskans know that the temperature scales in Celsius and Fahrenheit converge at -40. Through a mathematical miracle, -40 is the same all over the world. Like that atmospheric moment of convergence, I’m exploring a possible moment of convergence between the way we teach poetry to students in Alaska and the way Indian students are taught.
Yes, the places are different in geography, religion, culture, language, and so many other ways. But the dominance of British literature in our textbooks appears to be one of those moments of convergence. As I worked on my application for the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching, I found Chintan Girish Modi’s article, “Official School Poetry In Indian Textbooks.” Here’s an excerpt:
“Let us begin with the problems pertaining to the selection of poems. A substantial number of poems make it to textbooks only because they enjoy a canonical status within the tradition of English literature. William Wordsworth and Robert Frost are the staple of school-level English textbooks in India. At times, they also have John Keats, Alfred Tennyson and William Butler Yeats for company.”
Yes, we have that problem too. In the US, textbook authors have tried of late to supplement with more diverse authors, but not ones that reflect my students. Textbook selections appear slanted toward urban teens, who seem to be struggling with a set of canned “American” issues and have an abiding interest in the Romantics, Chaucer, and stories about the upper classes in Europe.
Modi describes the issue in Indian schools in this way, “There is a significant difference between what adults believe to be good for children, and what children actually enjoy.” Yes, enjoy, that’s important, but I might phrase it a little differently. There’s a difference between what privileged college graduate adults think will hook students and what actually works. Most US teachers don’t have a minute to go to the bathroom during their work day, let alone seek out poems more appropriate for the individual populations they serve. So students grow up disliking poetry.
The curricular gap is apparent every day in my classroom. For my incarcerated students, the British Literature text offers little relevance to their geographical experience as Alaskans. The Northern landscape doesn’t appear, and in the moments it does (generally in middle school), it’s filtered through the white colonizing man-mind who comes to conquer the fetishized North (think of Jack London’s curricular presence in this case).
In addition, many of my students are Indigenous (Yup’ik, Inupiaq, Athabascan). The time our curriculum devotes to the literature of the colonizing culture reinforces the disconnect between personal experience of the world and school. I think for all my students, raised in our diverse state and a community that includes Native Alaskan languages, our curriculum focuses far too much on the broad introduction to the tropes of the colonizing voice.
I have to confess, I’m a radical. I don’t believe that American students need to read a Shakespeare play every year. Are English teachers allowed to even say that? For all high school students, our stodgy curriculum gives British literature the ultimate place in most students’ senior year, as if it’s the last most important thing we can teach them before we send them out to be grown ups.
I think we could make better choices.
That’s the moment of convergence. That’s why I’ve come to India. I want to find out how the curriculum and methods are working for students here. I want to talk with teachers who are working to find poems that connect with the populations they serve. I want to meet poets and create lessons based on their writing that broaden the curriculum. I want to learn more because I’m a poet and reader too.
So let’s see what happens, shall we? I’m on the plane to Chennai as I type this. Perhaps everything I’ve just written will seem quaint and ill-informed in four weeks. I have so much to learn.