Storytelling as a tool for social change
Stories matter. This is something that I deeply believe, and one of the reasons I decided to be a high school English teacher. Stories can help us to understand different perspectives and imagine different worlds. Sharing our stories helps us to feel heard, seen, and valued. Stories have power.
However, there has long been inequity in the storytelling occurring in most American English classrooms. The traditional English canon has a disproportionate amount of White male writers. The stories themselves centralize white male characters, and people of other identities are often neglected or misrepresented. The selection of texts in the canon reflects the historically racist and colonizing structures of America, and promotes the illusion that White, male voices deserve to be heard more than others. If stories have power, the traditional English curriculum reflects who has been historically and systemically the most dominant in our country.
During my time in Loyola’s Master’s in Curriculum and Instruction for Social Justice (CISJ) program, I came to critically reflect on my own actions as a teacher. As a white, middle-class teacher, in what ways was I perpetuating unjust structures of power in my classroom? What could I do to be anti-racist and equitable in my classroom? One of the clearest calls to action was to be intentional about text selection, ensuring that my students were hearing the voices of a diverse selection of writers and that they could see diverse identities represented fully and justly in those texts. Yet, this didn’t feel like enough. I wondered if my students would know why we were reading those texts. What about the curricula they studied in other classes or when they went to college? How inclusive were the texts they encountered outside of school, in the news, on their social media, and featured on television? While diversifying my curriculum is justified and important, I still wanted to transfer the power to my students. I wanted my students to be able to recognize injustice in what they read and watched, understand what was problematic, and have the agency to challenge it. So, I decided to design my capstone to address those needs using one of the most effective tools I learned about in CISJ, Critical Race Theory.
My capstone was a curriculum intended for 12th grade English students in which they learned about Critical Race Theory (CRT) and then used that lens to analyze and challenge texts. CRT contextualizes the historic and current reality of racism (and other forms of discrimination) in our country and world. CRT promotes the use of storytelling as a tool for social change. It asserts that stories are powerful, and one way to dismantle the historic unequal distribution of power is to amplify the stories of those who have been historically disempowered and marginalized.
After gaining an understanding of the tenets of CRT, students would take stock of their own media consumption. In the Instagram accounts they followed, news they read, and television shows they watched—which identities were dominant, and which were either neglected or misrepresented? We would then ask those same questions of the texts they had studied throughout high school and the texts recommended by AP Literature courses, analyzing the stories themselves as well as the identities of the authors. With this awareness in mind, students would then participate in the practice of counter-storytelling. Counter-storytelling is a practice promoted by CRT in which the dominant narrative (usually that of White males) is subverted to include the perspective of historically marginalized populations. As a summative assessment, students would choose one text they had read during high school that had a problematic dominant narrative and retell a portion of the text in a more just way. Therefore, students will exercise their ability to identify injustice in literature and media, and then act to disrupt the pattern.
Stories are powerful. We live in a society in which we have been historically told a dominant narrative about why things are the way they are. I lived most of my life believing this story, and the CISJ program helped me to understand a different perspective of our country, our systems, and my identity within those structures. My hope with this curriculum is that my students become aware of the reality of injustice in all areas of our society, even their English classroom, and then feel empowered and equipped to challenge those structures.
Sam Pomplon is a 2021 graduate of the Master's in Curriculum and Instruction for Social Justice program.