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Beyond the Canon

Hands with books in them

Years ago, Senior Lecturer Pamela Mason, M.A.T.’70, Ed.D.’75, began to notice that students in her HGSE classroom often brought the same “classic” books as favorites to discuss in class. Their preferences clearly shaped by their understanding of the “canon,” the students chose books written for and by white people, leaving entire cultures out. She realized the lack of diverse books was troubling not just for students, but also teachers, who perhaps weren’t sure how to introduce diverse books in a culturally responsive way.

As a pioneer of the movement toward culturally responsive literature, Pamela Mason has helped bring new voices to classrooms everywhere — and disrupt old assumptions.

This prompted Mason to create two professional learning experiences — the online module Culturally Responsive Literature Instruction, and its companion on-campus workshop, Advancing Culturally Responsive Literature Instruction. The courses, offered through HGSE’s Professional Education program, explore the concept of “critical literacy” as a tool for examining the cultural assumptions embedded within literature. They focus on instructional literary practices that support and value the many identities present in the 21st-century classroom.

“In our nation, we haven’t been good at learning how to talk across differences in a respectful way,” Mason told Harvard Ed. magazine, adding that a lack of teacher training, which doesn’t often include work about race, identity, or cultural assumptions, can make adding diverse books to the classroom challenging. 

Since launching the workshops, the response continues to grow, demonstrating educators’ ongoing interest in developing the skills to navigate culturally responsive instruction. Last fall, 51 educators gathered on the Ed School campus for a weekend spent learning how to bring new texts into their classrooms. There was plenty to discuss, like how to vet new books and develop a diverse curriculum, as well as more predictable topics about meeting standards.

Mason believes this collaborative work is necessary to devise a new culture of teaching literature. “When teachers learn about the cultural assumptions that made them leery about including new, multicultural literature, then learn how to teach the books, that sets them off in a stance of strength and knowledge. Then they have a couple of successes in the classroom,” Mason says. And, the rest is history. – Jill Anderson

Learn More and Connect

Read a Usable Knowledge piece about how teachers can introduce culturally relevant literature into their classrooms.

Learn more about the Professional Education at HGSE offerings, Culturally Responsive Literature Instruction and Advancing Culturally Responsive Literature Instruction.

Read the Harvard Ed. magazine feature on how the push to modernize reading lists in classrooms.

Listen to an episode of the Harvard EdCast about putting diverse books into practice.

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