A changing curriculum
A closer look at how media representation has an impact on the literature curriculum
“Where are you from?”
“But where are you really from?”
Since the first day in Honors American Literature classrooms, students have been pondering the implications behind these two seemingly similar questions that may have different interpretations. Through annotating pages of writing by Asian-American authors to having in-depth fishbowl discussions, students found that there are more to these questions than previously imagined.
With the recent movies “Crazy Rich Asians” and “To All the Boys I’ve Ever Loved,” Asian representation in Hollywood has been a trending topic in mainstream media, further fueling the discussions students are having in their literature classes. For English teacher Vennessa Nava, the movies have been breakthroughs.
“I think it was just a matter of time,” Nava said. “I know everyone is in a flurry talking about the movie ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and it was received well. My sense is that there are just these baby steps being made to break into the mainstream network TV or major motion picture markets.”
According to Nava, these movies are a symbol of recent changes in Asian representation. Because of these alterations, Nava, along with the other honors American literature teachers Mark Carpenter and Hannah Gould, has been updating her curriculum to be more inclusive.
“The course is like a living creation — we’re always changing things about it,” Nava said. “Every year we’ve taught it, we’ve made deliberate changes to the curriculum because we’re always trying to improve it for a variety of reasons.”
Junior Yoanna Lee welcomes these changes. As a Korean-American, she is more active in these discussions because of their relevance to her daily life as a hyphenated American. She embraces both Korean and American culture and does not specifically identify with only one of them.
“I think it’s a really important thing that we’re talking about,” Lee said. “Hyphenated identities, what is the American identity, questions like that. Yes, it’s a literature class, but we also are in America, and it’s something that we don’t really hear a lot in a lot of different places. It’s this thing that we grow up with which is this idea of American exceptionalism.”
According to Lee, though in the past hyphenated identity was seen as betrayal to both cultures, it is now accepted, and can even be celebrated in places consisting of many immigrants such as the Bay Area.
Nava acknowledges that the old curriculum, which started off with a socratic seminar about what American Literature entails, was not as inclusive. She understood that in order to expand literature and discuss representation, she had to introduce different voices.
“It’s been evident for quite some time that the student body is not often represented in the curriculum,” Nava said. “There’s a lot of different research on culturally relevant pedagogy and materials and that students respond when they see themselves reflected in the material. I think that there’s important conversations to be had about students’ experiences and how those plug into the larger national issues.”
Junior Matthew Cho agrees with both Nava and Lee, adding that high school is a time for self-exploration and growth. Because academic influence has a strong effect on high schoolers’ minds, he believes that being able to freely discuss ethnic representation is a key factor to forming one’s identity.
“We started off this unit with [the question] ‘where are you really from?’” Cho said. “I love the unit and what we’re talking about. I definitely feel like if we’re going to fix this issue of ignorance, we need to start at the high school level, because as an adult your ideas are going to solidify and you won’t be as malleable in the mind. Being able to form clear opinions about what’s right and what’s wrong, high school is a great time to do it.”
According to U.S. News, 85 percent of MVHS students are Asian-American. Lee believes that because of this, more students are able to relate to the curriculum.
“If you look in a lot of our classrooms, we have a lot to say because most of us are either Asian immigrants or born of immigrant families,” Lee said. “I think because of that, we have a lot to talk about. It’s really important that we’re talking about it, especially as young students who are growing up as the next generation. We’re going to raise the next generation.”
Aligning with Cho’s and Lee’s sentiments, Nava’s guiding questions and reading excerpts have been fostering personal opinions and evoking cultural identity that students don’t often recognize within themselves. While Nava does agree that newfound media representation affected the decision to change the curriculum, it was not the only factor that impacted the change.
In fact, the decision was mostly inspired by a conference that she and Gould, along with history teacher Bonnie Belshe and journalism and literature teacher Julia Satterthwaite, attended on March 30 and 31. This conference, known as the Asian-American Studies conference, consisted of a number of sessions conducted by Asian-American individuals from around the country. For Nava and Gould, this learning experience provided new insights that they could apply in their classrooms.
“It was a really great experience to listen to the kinds of in-this-moment, ‘what are academics saying about these topics that are relevant to a large portion of our student body?’” Nava said. “Being there as listeners and to take in information and thinking about how that can translate to conversations that we’re able to have in the classroom, I think is something that not a lot of teachers might be doing. Maybe they don’t see that there’s room for it in their particular curriculum, but in the English classes it seems like a perfect place to have these conversations.”
As these new questions have been applied to the classroom setting, not every student felt completely satisfied. Although Cho is eager to express his thoughts on Asian representation, he feels that society is exaggerating these questions to be more complicated than they really are.
“The one thing I don’t like about this whole idea is that I feel like part of this is an overreaction,” Cho said. “[‘Where are you really from?’] isn’t really offensive, and people who ask it aren’t always meaning to cause trouble, aren’t always meaning to cause offense. There’s no connotation to it. There’s no deep meaning to it, it’s just a simple and friendly question. I feel like that’s common in society, where people are overthinking what other people say.”
However, on the other end of the spectrum, Nava maintains that without these questions, society could become ignorant.
“I think it’s a good place to begin, just acknowledging this subtext to a lot of conversations that happen in American culture that sometimes is ignored or dismissed,” Nava said. “I think there’s something wrong with just being really dismissive. This dismissiveness is something that permeates our culture. You can see it in politics a lot, and it can escalate into something dangerous. And so I like the idea of slowing down and talking about these implications as our starting point.”
However, despite this viewpoint, Nava acknowledges that in the push for further inclusion, completely abandoning canonical learning material would be problematic. She is hopeful for the future of representation in literature and is looking forward to continuously updating her curriculum as time progresses.
“I still think that we need to protect a diversity of voices in our curriculum,” Nava said. “But at the same time it could be problematic to cut all those voices out because they have shaped society. It’s important to get a sense of those anchors and then bring in other voices so that we can bring them into conversation. I think that striking a balance is really important, and I don’t think we’ve hit the balance right yet. That’s why there’s more room for the evolution pieces that we read, and choosing going forwards towards more and more diversity.”