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Academic Freedom Isn't Free: Curriculum as Windows, Mirrors, and Maps

Maybe these maps and legends/Have been misunderstood

“MAPS AND LEGENDS,” R.E.M.

The metaphors of literature as windows and mirrors have become standard ways to advocate for diversity in the texts we invite our students to read [1]. Texts that are windows provide students opportunities to witness and understand people, lives, and cultures unlike their own; texts that are mirrors reflect people, lives, and culture similar to their own.

As an educator, I have been compelled by Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers, who both make incredibly powerful and personal cases for mirrors in the reading and lives of minoritized and marginalized students as well as how those texts provide windows for students with race and gender privilege.

My journey as a reader and human has been profoundly impacted by texts as windows; particularly during my undergraduate years when my ideology was transformed by Langston Hughes, Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and other Black writers and thinkers.

The importance of windows and mirrors extends beyond the texts included in our classrooms, however, and must be a commitment to the curriculum of all courses our students navigate.

In 2022, curriculum, instruction, and text/book selection are under assault. State legislators are proposing and passing legislation banning curriculum and texts/books; further, additional legislation seeks to expand the role of parents in not only having access to curriculum and instruction, but also to review and over-ride teacher autonomy in curriculum and instruction.

The most extreme example of the latter is a mandate for teachers to submit a year of lesson plans by mid-summer for review and approval.

At their core, these partisan bills reveal a fundamental misunderstanding about lesson plans, instruction, curriculum, and the complexity of teaching and learning.

The curriculum/text/book bans as well as the parental rights bills are rooted in a White backlash, a fear that White students are being taught in ways that cause them harmful discomfort.

A few aspects of this must be unpacked.

First, why have these same advocates not raised concerns about the discomfort of girls/young women confronted for decades by texts and curriculum that are male-centric and often portray negative messages about women; why no concern about the discomfort of Black and Brown students who must read texts that include racist language and hateful stereotypes; why no concern for LGBTQ+ students who must navigate texts and curriculum almost entirely populated by people unlike them (or worse, presented with narratives that suggest simplistic views of gender and sexuality)?

Second is the broader failure to recognize the need for curriculum as windows and mirrors for all students to instill self-awareness and empathy—and the related need for learning to be, at time, uncomfortable.

Discomfort is an essential element with changing and growing.

Intellectual and ideological discomfort is distinct from discomfort due to emotional, psychological, or physical discomfort grounded in fear. Education requires the former and is corrupted by the latter.

Despite the White backlash against a more diverse curriculum, a backlash that believes the Whiteness of that curriculum has disappeared, evidence shows that marginalized and minoritized students remain under-represented:

Findings from the report suggest there is disparity in representation of characters from different racial, ethnic, and gender groups. When portrayals of these groups are present, they tend to be affirming and authentic portrayals. However stereotypes, limited roles and inaccurate information are still present and tend to be unique to specific communities. Based on the review, the results indicate a need for educational materials that create a sense of belonging, develop cultural authenticity, and recognize nuanced identity in different characters.

THE REPRESENTATION OF SOCIAL GROUPS IN U. S. EDUCATIONAL MATERIALS AND WHY IT MATTERS [2]

Current education legislation de-professionalizes teaching, but that legislation is also suggesting solutions to problems that simply do not exist (such as banning CRT, which isn’t present or even relevant to K-12 education).

In 2014, Christopher Myers confronted the “apartheid of literature,” how Blackness remained mostly absent or misrepresented in the texts published and thus the texts students read. He addresses the value of texts as windows, but deems that inadequate; Myers argues:

Academics and educators talk about self-esteem and self-worth when they think of books in this way, as mirrors that affirm readers’ own identities. I believe that this is important, but I wonder if this idea is too adult and self-concerned, imagining young readers as legions of wicked queens asking magic mirrors to affirm that they are indeed “the fairest of them all.”…

The children I know … see books less as mirrors and more as maps. They are indeed searching for their place in the world, but they are also deciding where they want to go. They create, through the stories they’re given, an atlas of their world, of their relationships to others, of their possible destinations.

THE APARTHEID OF CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

We must acknowledge that the curriculum and book/text bans are coming in a time of U.S. public education when over half of students are Black/Brown while teachers remain overwhelming White (and mostly women). What possibilities are Black/Brown students witnessing daily simply by being students in schools?

And, more broadly, we must accept that whoever decides what students can or cannot read or learn is also deciding who students can become.

At the core of teaching, our commitments should be grounded in what we teach (curriculum) and how we teach (instruction) as that serves who we teach (students).

All students deserve, then, curriculum as windows and mirrors that will serve them in building the map of who they become.


[1] Sims Bishop, R. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 1(3), ix–xi.

[2] See a review of this report here.

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P.L. Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville SC), taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher educati...