Diversifying reading

The lack of diversity in student reading has been an issue for decades. It has, however, received increased focus over the past year, and has been the subject of a major report, Lit in Colour, produced by Penguin Books UK and the think tank The Runnymede Trust. The report, published last week, found that in 2019, fewer than 1% of GCSE English Literature candidates answered a question on a novel written by a writer of colour, and fewer than 7% answered on a novel or play written by a woman. 82% of the students surveyed did not remember ever studying a text by a Black, Asian or minority ethnic writer.

I’m ashamed to say that at my school, our students’ GCSE diet is overwhelmingly white and male. Shakespeare is compulsory, and while there are three women writers on the 19th-century novel list, I have to say the idea of teaching Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice or Frankenstein at GCSE didn’t appeal to any of us. Studying a nineteenth-century novel at GCSE is daunting; being assessed on it through a high-stakes end-of-course assessment is even more so, and we wanted something that was both short and accessible (we’ve done Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for the last few years, although we’re switching to A Christmas Carol this year). Our modern text is An Inspector Calls. So we haven’t opted for any of the texts that would allow us to offer a more diverse range at GCSE. This is partly an issue of resourcing, but also of expertise. We’re teaching texts that we know, for which we have units of work that include extensive PowerPoints, worksheets, contextual information and sample responses, and for which students are able to find study guides and websites to support their learning. And I’d imagine that many schools, quizzed on their text choices for GCSE, would give a similar answer.

Lower down the school, though, it’s different. We have tried really hard over the past few years to increase the levels of challenge in student reading, and to diversify the texts we use. All our Key Stage 3 students have a reading lesson once a fortnight. This isn’t ideal – I’d rather have a little bit of reading every lesson, rather than one chunk once per cycle – but it’s a product of the way our timetable works and I can’t see it changing. These reading lessons used to take place in our lovely school library, and three years ago we put together reading lists for each year group to shadow and support the units we were working on in class. Our Year Seven reading list, for instance, included texts like I Am Malala, Wonder, The Reason I Jump and Ruby Holler; our Year Nine list contained Persepolis, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Safe Area: Goražde and The Way We Live Now. But there were problems. We had copies of all of the texts, and multiple copies of some texts, but not enough. We didn’t have the funds to buy more. We started a Sponsor-a-Book scheme, to allow parents and local businesses to support us. Some came forward, but not many. And then COVID happened; and bubbles happened; and we couldn’t use the library any more.

Patchwork quilt, USA, c. 1885, displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

This gave us the chance to go right back to basics and look at Key Stage 3 reading again. We decided pretty quickly that we wanted to replace independent reading with a series of class readers. Our stock cupboards gave us some possibilities, but we knew we’d need more books. We secured enough emergency funding to buy two new sets of class readers for each year group, and set about deciding which books we wanted to introduce.

One decision we made very early on was that we didn’t want to buy any books by white men, no matter how good they were. There are lots of excellent books for this age group written by white men, but frankly there are enough white men on the curriculum anyway and we wanted to do something different. So, all of our new books had to be by women. We’re a boys’ school, and it’s vital that our students explore and experience female perspectives. We also wanted greater cultural diversity. However, we wanted to avoid stereotypes. One of my former students commented that ‘books for boys about ethnic minorities always seem to be about gangs, as though that’s the only thing we’re interested in.’ We also felt very strongly that in thinking about diversity, we also needed to consider those of our students who come from Eastern European backgrounds. The Lit in Colour report recognises that ‘the term BIPOC does not notably include White Ethnic Minorities who are the target of racism, such as Gypsy Roma Travellers or Eastern European migrants, although it is sometimes argued to include these groups.’ A growing number of our students are of Polish and Lithuanian heritage, with others coming from Latvia, Romania, Russia and Moldova. In a constituency that registered the second highest proportion of Leave votes in the 2016 EU referendum, and bordering another constituency with the highest proportion, we are acutely aware of the hostility that many of our students and their families experience.

Some choices were easy. The Other Side of Hope by Beverley Naidoo is a cracking read with lots of pace and tension, and opens students’ eyes to the reality of lives that are torn apart by conflict. Coram Boy by Jamila Gavin has long been a favourite, with its story of the sinister Coram Man and exploration of the lives of orphans in eighteenth-century England. And Geraldine McCaughrean’s Where the World Ends, set on the remote Scottish archipelago of St Kilda, is a brilliant example of historical fiction that offered an intriguing counterpoint to life in lockdown.

Other choices required more research. We struggled to find any novels for this age group by writers of Eastern European origin that focused on the experiences of recent migrants. We did, however, choose Between Shades of Gray by the Lithuanian-American writer Ruta Sepetys. Its story of 15-year-old Lina, who is deported from Lithuania with her mother and brother in 1941 and sent to a labour camp in Siberia, asks readers to consider what keeps us alive when we are faced with the most extreme of circumstances. We also chose Sarah Crossan’s verse novel The Weight of Water, narrated by Kasienka, a Polish girl who arrives in Coventry with her mother in search of a better life. It’s a book about not fitting in and finding your own way, making tough decisions and relying on yourself, and appealed to our Year Eights even though they complained that the cover was ‘a bit girly.’

Our final choice was Hell and High Water, by the Carnegie Award-winning novelist Tanya Landman. It’s the story of Caleb, a young man whose father is transported to the Colonies for a crime he did not commit. As Caleb struggles to clear his father’s name, he becomes entangled in a web of secrets, finding out about the exploitation and injustice that exist in the world around him – and discovering more about himself in the process. It’s a pacy, intriguing novel full of courage and adversity, and a great read for our Year Nines.

We’re not there yet. All of our Key Stage 3 students have read at least one novel by a woman this year (in many cases, two or three). Most, although not all, have read a novel by a writer of colour. We’re about to introduce Iridescent Adolescent, the English and Media Centre’s fantastic anthology of short stories, and we’ve got more writers of colour and more working-class writers. We wanted to get beyond the stereotype that novels addressing themes of ethnic diversity that are suitable for teenage boys are all about gang culture and urban violence, and I think we’ve managed to do that. We’d like more sensitive male protagonists. What we’d really like would be a novel by a young writer from an Eastern European background exploring the experience of recent migrants, so agents and publishers, get cracking.

The other thing I’d say about diversifying your reading in schools: finding suitable novels, following up recommendations and discussing which texts would be most suitable for your students, takes time. Reading is an essential part of CPD for English teachers. Just because reading is something we enjoy and spend part of our spare time doing, it shouldn’t be assumed that we’re willing to do this particular CPD in our own time. Schools need to give students time to read, but they also need to invest in time for their English teachers to read as well.

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