Classroom Strategies, Research and Reflections

Finding the Courage to Teach Texts Outside Your Comfort Zone (2019 Blog Competition Finalist)

Teaching texts that honor difference and inspire challenging conversations

Modeling behaviors we want to see from our students is the most important way we can create more inclusive and equitable classrooms that foster a culture of high academic expectations for all students.

Leave your comfort zone. Encourage your students to leave theirs.

Have difficult conversations. Show students how to do that and the importance of it.

Be vulnerable so that you can show what it looks like to be courageous.

Expect that they can all achieve. It may be at different levels, but every student in your class can learn and grow.

In order to help our students learn and grow, we have to be willing to make ourselves uncomfortable and have difficult conversations that highlight the struggles our subgroup students face. Our students in poverty, our students of color, our students from different cultures, and our LGBTQIA+ students have different experiences in school than their white, middle-class peers, and bringing that to light through texts and conversations fosters a culture of respect while empowering students who are not usually represented in curricula in classrooms.

As an ELA teacher, I have the perfect opportunity to include all of my students in instruction. Through the selection of texts by authors who are not old, dead, white men present in the hallowed canon of literature, students are able to see examples of individuals who look like they do and are powerful, accomplished people.

Representation among protagonists is also powerful. I chose to teach a breakout novel from an African American female author that is the story of a young African American teenage protagonist who finds her voice in the midst of a case involving police brutality that resulted in the murder of her friend. The book also represented characters across the socioeconomic spectrum, highlighting the stories of students in poverty alongside students of color. The book made me uncomfortable at first. The thought of teaching it was most definitely outside of my comfort zone, and I was terrified of conversations. I am now more thankful that I am teaching that text to all of my students than any text I have taught in ten years in the classroom. We need to acknowledge that students can in fact handle difficult conversations, sometimes better than we can as their teachers. Why do we discount our students’ ability to handle big ideas? We cut short their educational opportunities by limiting these conversations, and including them and empowering students is as important as the academic content we teach.

In order for us to teach tough texts and have powerful conversations, we must foster a culture of respect not only for us as the instructors, but also among all learners in the room. Modeling respect for all learners (despite the students being different from me) has led to students noticing this behavior and beginning to repeat phrases I use. “I see that you believe that.” “I appreciate your idea, but I challenge it.” “You said (fill in the blank), but I challenge with respect.” Not only does this foster a safe, stress-free, welcoming environment for your students from you to them and them to them, but also it teaches them valuable life skills.

Fostering a representative and empowering learning environment is a key for success, but a teacher must also have high expectations for each student. This does not mean exasperating kids by demanding perfection; we should not demand perfection from anyone. We should, however, believe that every child who walks through our door deserves love, respect, and high-quality instruction through selection of high-quality materials taught with sound pedagogical practices. Students need to learn and grow, and our goal as educators should be to meet them where they are and commit to grow them as learners and as people. Students learn many lessons in school – mostly academic, some life skills – and it is our job to ensure that students know we believe in them and know they can achieve. Yes, this looks different for each student. Learning and growing looks different for adults, why would that not be the case for our students?

Through being willing to challenge ourselves and model our continuous learning and growth as educators and as people, we can help our students see the value in those things, too. Challenge them. All of them. Represent them in the curriculum in your classroom. Above all, respect them as people and not just kids to whom you are responsible for teaching standards. By doing these things, you will foster a positive and inclusive environment for everyone who graces your classroom.

6 thoughts on “Finding the Courage to Teach Texts Outside Your Comfort Zone (2019 Blog Competition Finalist)

  1. Excellent point of view, I firmly believe
    “Interpersonal relationships and communication are critical to both the teaching-learning process and the social-emotional development of students.”
    The inter-connectedness between student and teacher breeds success. Students are willing to learn from and stretch themselves for teachers/coaches they like, respect and trust.

  2. This article was so amazing!! Thank you for all it is that you do inside and outside of by the classroom! Very proud of you!!!

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About the Author: Rhiannon Hartman Dunn teaches ninth-grade English at Science Hill High School in Johnson City nestled in the Appalachian mountains of Northeast Tennessee. In her ten years in the classroom, she has worked to provide a space for every student to experience high expectations and have a safe space to learn and grow. Student voice and choice are central to the core of what drives learning in her classroom, and she is a champion for equity and access across the English Language Arts curriculum.