Troubling Texts and Teaching Tolerance

At Inquiry By Design, we take our text selection very seriously. We know that, because students will be engaged in deep, ongoing work with every story, poem, and essay, it is important to make sure they are exposed to a variety of rich, complex voices from a variety of backgrounds.

We also know that, because teachers are responsible for delivering the material and navigating the conversations with students, it is important that they feel supported and prepared for whatever dialogue might arise, because good literature often generates strong feelings.

What I’d like to provide here are a few resources teachers can turn to for guidance, both in building a strong culture of conversation in the classroom that is capable of respectful discussion, and in evaluating classroom texts for use with students. Each of these comes from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s award-winning materials at teachingtolerance.org.

The first of these links is to a resource called “Civil Discourse in the Classroom.” A longer article, this piece contains some research, lesson plan ideas, and general advice for building a classroom capable of tackling difficult topics together. Some sections provide tools for students to support their arguments and to respectfully refute each other’s claims — essential skills in any classroom, but especially in an Inquiry By Design classroom.

The second link is to a text evaluation framework, a short version of the longer one here. What I like about this tool is that instead of giving a list of “approved” texts (or disapproved?), it asks important questions about the literature, like “Does this text accurately reflect lived experiences in terms of setting, characters, speakers, events, language and illustrations?” and “Might this text be a window into the identities and experiences of people whose lives are different than my students’ lives?”

While it will not be possible for every single text to tick every single box, this tool opens up different avenues into different texts and asks the teacher to evaluate what is most important in his or her own classroom. For example, some texts may score higher in the “action” category by “[motivating] students to act by highlighting individual and collective struggles against injustice,” while others might work well because of how they “[p]romote a healthy self-concept and exploration of identity.”

For teachers who would like to push head-on into issues of diversity and bias with their students, teachingtolerance.org provides an anti-bias framework and list of standards that can be used to help shape instruction. This framework structures the standards in terms of four domains: identity, diversity, justice, and action and provides both anchor standards and leveled, grade-specific objectives.

Lastly, keep in mind that at the end of the day, the student is the final arbiter of what he or she takes away from a text. We go into the classroom with a general idea of possible interpretations, but when inquiry and critical thinking are at the heart of students’ work, they have the power to interpret and respond to any text in what way seems best to them. Students may agree or disagree with things they encounter — and we want each response to be an empowering one for that student.