1. Consider what language is being used in the classroom, as well as within literature
Words – and the way they are used – can carry a great deal of weight and power. When referring to authors and characters, pay attention to how you, learners, and others, are describing them. Do you talk about “a disabled person,” for example, or “a person with a disability”? While one label pigeonholes, the other recognises that someone’s ability level is not the whole picture. When it comes to studying set texts, take a look at how writers describe themselves and others, consider what the impact of this is, and encourage further linguistic-based discussions within your classroom.
2. Start conversations with learners around WHY set texts have been chosen
In her talk around helping senior leadership teams embed diversity, Bennie emphasises the importance of including learners on a practical level. Take time with your students to consider how and why your school’s curriculum choices have been made, who might be missing, and how this might impact on their view of the world outside school. Together you can explore the mechanisms behind the mainstream.
3. Experiment with parallel and paired stories
You don’t need to throw out the texts you have been teaching in order to better usualise diversity. Bennie champions the use of parallel and paired stories, which can counterbalance the more traditional canon you might be working with. For example, alongside teaching Of Mice and Men you might introduce the poetry of Langston Hughes, thus counteracting negative portrayals of people of colour, and making space for multicultural perspectives.
4. Don't miss the margins
In the words of Plotting Ahead speaker James Galpin, a chartered Developmental Psychologist and Education Officer at leading charity, nasen (National Association for Sepcial Educational Needs), it’s crucial to keep in mind that designing for the average, when preparing a curriculum, is in fact “designing for nobody.” Alternatively, as James puts it, “if we design for the margins, we're going to capture everybody within that.” Consider which groups and people are in the margins – both within the texts you teach, and in your classroom – and how you can find ways to bring them on to the page.
5. Reflect your local community, and the community in your school
34.4% of UK students today are not white British – a proportion that is higher in the school population than the UK population as a whole. Yet, as described by Velda Elliott in Pearson’s Plotting Ahead: Lit in Colour discussion, fewer than 1% of English literature candidates in 2019 answered a question on a novel by a writer of colour. Expose your learners to multiple texts from diverse authors and backgrounds, away from the “dead white male” canon; and find texts that represent the community in which your students learn and live. At the same time…
6. Be mindful of creating hierarchies around certain works and representations
Ask yourself: which work am I teaching as core texts? Which am I recommending for further reading? Am I placing greater importance on one form of learning than the other? Bennie recommends reflecting on what you communicate to your learners as having value. The process may well be subconscious, and yet can speak volumes about how you usualise certain people and cultures in your lessons.
7. Avoid tokenism
In discussing the bigger picture of diversity, Daniel Tomlinson-Gray – Director and Co-founder of LGBTed – emphasises the importance of avoiding tokenistic approaches to literature. In the teaching of Carol Ann Duffy’s work, for instance, are you mentioning that the writer is a lesbian (tokenism), or are you exploring the context of her wider work, of diverse relationships, of her experience (usualisation)?
8. Use the power of your lived experience – and spot the gaps
Your own background will naturally influence how you teach the English curriculum, and what you convey, so take time to focus on your own biases and experiences, as well as influencing those of your learners. Are there gaps in your knowledge? Do you feel discomfort in approaching certain topics? How can you better serve your learners to better understand the wide world around them?
9. Make the most of existing school structures to make an impact
While teachers all have responsibilities as individual adults, it’s important to recognise that you are not alone, or working in a vacuum – after all, that is a lot of weight to carry. As Bennie puts it, “If you are thinking of adapting your curriculum to include more diverse content, it's really important that the discussion takes place at school level… If the school, or the multi-academy trusts that you're in, have an agenda around diversity, that's the most effective way to meaningfully make change happen.”
10. Never forget the bigger picture
Teaching diversity through English literature takes students well beyond their exams. By properly usualising diversity, you set them up to be better connected as adults; more engaged, aware, community-focused members of their society. Zahara Chowdhury, a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) lead, puts it this way: “DEI is looking at diverse texts, whether that be non-fiction, fiction… [and] can really help subliminally sometimes increase a sense of empathy for students and staff, which then prepares them for the diverse workplace, inclusive, professional cultures and the global context, which every student (and teacher) is now a part of.”