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If you teach U.S. History anywhere near the 20th Century I’m going to go ahead and assume that you take some time for the Civil Rights Movement. Hopefully even a couple weeks. If you don’t we have bigger issues to discuss and we should probably schedule a one on one meeting to look at your curriculum. (That wasn’t a joke.)

I’m also going to assume that you use a few key texts like King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail, or maybe his speech from the March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom. You might use Brown v. Board. Perhaps you use some texts related to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. You might show films or clips of films like Selma or Eyes on the Prize. If we’re really lucky you might use  something from Malcolm X like The Ballot or the Bullet or even some texts from SNCC or the Black Panthers.

You should also use March.

march-coversMarch is the three volume story of Representative John Lewis’ (D-GA) life in the specific context of the Civil Rights Movement and President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009. The story is told as a series of prolonged flashbacks as Representative Lewis processes the historical significance of President Obama’s election. I recommend all three volumes though you could probably get away with just volume 3. Books for a school or class aren’t cheap.

If you want it in a single sentence March is to the Civil Rights Movement as Maus is to the Holocaust minus the plot line about Art Spiegelman’s issues with his father. And frankly, from a comics standpoint March is a superior piece of work. (Luckily you could use both!)

I’ve written before about how comics can increase interest and accessibility for students and that all remains true here. Volume 3 also won the National Book Award making it the first comic or graphic novel to do so. That could be reason enough.

You will need to be a courageous teacher to use it and I have faith that you are capable of that courage. (Lucky for you the people at Top Shelf created a teacher guide for book 1 as well.)

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Unlike many civil rights stories in other media, the experiences of the movement are extremely visceral thanks to Nate Powell’s art. March moved me and helped me identify with Representative Lewis in a way that no prose text or film has done previously. I felt pain when Representative Lewis gets beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I was sick to my stomach when protesters were harassed and taunted by other citizens. I choked up when Powell revealed the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church even though I knew it was coming. And I completely broke down at the end when President Obama is inaugurated and he and Representative Lewis exchange a few words. Students need to engage directly with the emotions that March brings up.

march-marchIt’s easy to just keep using the Letter from Birmingham Jail. It’s easy to stick with excerpts from “I Have a Dream.” They are known. They are safe. They’re excellent. They also keep the brutality at a distance. The conversations stay intellectual. Those texts avoid images of adult white men beating young black boys. They avoid the emotional pain and embarrassment of being repeatedly turned away from a lunch counter. Of having your church burned to the ground. They avoid the repeated arrests and the reality of putting one’s body on the line for the sake of justice.

March steps directly into that challenging space and as a teacher will force you to do the same. You owe your students an honest representation of historical struggle for justice. The dominant narrative that paints Dr. King as an infallible saint who never disturbed anyone. The dominant narrative tells us Rosa Parks as some tired old lady and does them a disservice and that narrative is a disservice to the movement as a whole.

March places the ownership of the movement in young people. Many young people working together over a long period of time. March is a story of resiliency in the face of oppression that is honest with readers about the time and effort and struggle required to make social change. And it is honest about the risks.

Without the emotional weight and the seriousness of the movement, why even teach it? Teaching the movement is not important because it may come up on the final. Teaching the movement is important because lives were at stake and young people took action. Lives are still at stake and young people can still take action and as educators we have a responsibility to help students realize their own power.

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RashadIsAbsent

The tag screams out at everyone from the school sidewalk in giant blue block letters. #RashadIsAbsentAgainToday. Rashad is absent again today because he was brutally beaten by a police office after being wrongfully accused of shoplifting. Rashad is black. The office is white.

This piece examines the full plot of All-American Boys and implications for teaching with the book in schools. I encourage you to read the book first. It’s excellent.

In All-American Boys, Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely explore issues of racialized police violence in the context of a town named Springfield through the eyes of two teenagers: Rashad, the black high school junior who is beaten, and Quinn a white bystander and senior at the same high school. Rashad is an artist and JROTC member. Quinn is a basketball player. Reynolds and Kiely (themselves black and white respectively) tell the story over a period of a week through chapters that alternate between Rashad and Quinn’s perspectives.

The book explores Rashad and Quinn’s personal reactions to the situation, their families, the community, and very specifically, the high school. Each boy experiences a clear developmental arc as they examine racism, what it means to have courage, and the definition of “All-American”. Reynolds and Kiely show great skill in immediately humanizing each character including the boys’ families, their friends, their teachers, and the police officer in question. There is a poignant sense of history in the community that is evidenced without resorting to lengthy exposition.

AllAmericanBoys CoverIf you interact with adolescents in any appreciable way you need to read this book.

If you live in the United States you should read this book.

If you’re in education you need to read this book.

If you’re a teacher, you need to seriously think about teaching this text. I understand the political challenges of adopting a novel in public education. This book is worth fighting for.

The reading level should be comfortable for middle school and my only hesitation (and it’s slight) is that there’s harsh language in the book that could be tough for younger students. The characters are in high school and they speak like they’re in high school. I don’t see any issues with 8th grade and up, but each school is a unique environment and should be considered as such when selecting literature.

Educators I speak to are wrestling with ways to address racialized officer involved killings as they come up in the news. Which ones to address, which ones to not address, how long to spend, what to do when students get riled up, what to do if they think their administration is unsupportive, the questions are endless. These questions are increasingly heightened when the incidents are local. Reynolds and Kiely have the beginning of an answer. They provide an entry point for the conversation.

All-American Boys speaks to me like “How to Tell a True War Story” from The Things They Carried, where Tim O’Brien posits that fiction can be more true than non-fiction. Reynolds and Kiely strip away the talking heads, media analysis, and theoretical objectivity and instead bring us immediately to a human level that cannot be easily accessed through other means. Reynolds and Kiely do the essential work of novelists by localizing and humanizing essential questions of humanity and providing readers with a set of circumstances against which to examine our lives.

Thankfully, Reynolds and Kiely avoid simple solutions to complex problems. Quinn is not a white savior coming to Rashad’s aid. Quinn is a confused teenage boy who wrestles with competing influences in determining right from wrong. Rashad is equally complex wrestling with his desire to avoid conflict while also feeling strong anger at having his rights violated and a growing commitment to broader social justice. Paul, the police officer who beats Rashad is equally complex seen primarily through Quinn’s eyes and their previous big-brother-type relationship. Each character is fully human and provides a potential platform for discussion and inquiry into motivations and understanding. There is great potential for students to cross identify with characters from a range of backgrounds and circumstances. Springfield is a town full of complexity and nuance.

There are many lessons for students to pick up. There is an obvious lesson about racism’s continued presence in American society and how racist acts can come in many forms including inaction. There are strong lessons about strength and courage and how courage is about doing what is right at all times, particularly when you are afraid to.

There are also more subtle lessons for educators to examine. Throughout the book, the school and the basketball coach barely respond to the incident, encouraging students not to discuss the issue and the basketball coach actively threatens to bench any player who discusses Rashad’s situation on or off the court. The students react to the school’s decision in a very human way, making it clear that the topic is unavoidable. The students’ experience in All-American Boys parallels the real experience that Rich Milner discusses in Rac(e)ing to Class when a school chooses to ignore a local robbery. Local issues always come up in the classroom and we teach students important lessons when we actively close topics of conversation. All-American Boys challenges educators to actively engage in challenging conversations for the benefit of our youth. It is a challenge that education can rise to.

Ultimately the book’s power lies in how the authors complicate humanity. Each character, even small characters like Rashad’s nurse, are fully realized human beings with history and motivation. Each one is complex and that in and of itself is an important lesson for students. There are no obvious stereotypes at play and the reader cannot easily categorize or dismiss any of the characters. This to me is the most important lesson, and the one that can make lasting change in a student’s life. If we can help students understand that each person is a worthy and important human being we can help create a future in which we can treat each other with dignity and compassion. I wanted to dismiss Paul. I wanted him to be a clear villain, not worthy of my consideration. I couldn’t do it. Paul is just as human as Rashad and Quinn.

Reynolds and Kiely close the book with a student lead march that shifts focus from Rashad being absent from school to the student population being present for upcoming hard work. There is no trial. The march is not presented as a panacea. Many questions are appropriately unresolved. Reynolds and Kiely opened a large door with All-American Boys and they’re encouraging us to step inside. I hope that schools and teachers have the courage to do just that.

 

Thanks to Max Brooks and Caanan White you can stop teaching All Quiet on the Western Front. Seriously. Just stop. Right now. You don’t need Remarque’s four hundred pages of Paul Bäumer ruminating on camaraderie, lice, mud, and the horror of World War One. Instead you now have The Harlem Hellfighters.
NoQuietHellfighterThe Harlem Hellfighters
is Max Brooks and Caanan White’s fictionalized history of United States’ 369th Infantry Regiment. Much like All Quiet, the precise details of the story and characters are fiction, but the context and the core history are accurate. This makes the text applicable in both English and Social Studies contexts. Brooks even includes a brief, but thorough bibliography for students or teachers who want to do more research into the war or the 369th.

It’s also a graphic novel. If your school teachers Maus or Persepolis you should have no trouble justifying Hellfighters. It’s on that level of greatness.

So What’s So Great About The Book?
Hellfighters is a great war story. It has incredibly poignant depictions of the horror of war, dehumanizing combat technology, and deep camaraderie. Hellfighters is a story about a few men who hoped to fight for their country’s honor and found a much tougher battle when they got to the front line and had to fight a two front war. One against the German enemy and one against an American enemy. Hellfighters is also a black story; a story specifically about black Americans during World War I.

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There’s no two ways about it. The standard canonical curriculum needs more black stories. There are bits and pieces of black stories when we cover 18th century slavery, the Civil War, reconstruction, the Harlem Renaissance, and the Civil Rights Movement, but those are scattered pebbles. There is rarely a clear path through the chronology. Black voices are typically absent or tokenized in the curriculum.

Hellfighters examines the black experience in the United States through the lens of World War I. Spoiler alert: It’s not pretty. Brooks doesn’t sugar coat the oppression and bigotry the soldiers faced while trying to fight for this country.

Historically, the Hellfighters stand out as the American unit that spent the most time in combat during World War I, never losing ground to the enemy and never losing a soldier to capture. (I’d never heard of them before reading the book.) The Hellfighters were also the United States’ first black regiment to serve in World War One, but the regiment was assigned to the French Army for the duration of the war because white American soldiers refused to serve alongside black solders. Such is our legacy.

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It Also Has Pictures:
If counteracting a hegemonic historical narrative is not enough reason to you use Hellfighters in your class, it’s also a comic and White’s art is incredible throughout. Somewhere between manga and Jack Kriby styles White’s art has extremely clean lines that explode into chaos as the battle ignites. Throughout the text White’s art supports Brooks’ words with raw, immediate, emotional content. It’s powerful stuff.  Just as powerful as Remarque’s vivid descriptions of bombardments and hand to hand combat and more accessible to a range of students.

There’s Nothing Wrong With All Quiet:
All Quiet is a phenomenal text. It might be the greatest war novel ever written. (The cover says it is.) I also really like the book. It was probably my favorite school book before Ms. Jones blew my brain open during my junior and senior years of high school. It’s also one of two school books that I voluntarily reread later in life. All Quiet also has the unique position as a historical document, being written by an active soldier immediately after the war. There is great power in situating the book in its historical context and I fully encourage using All Quiet with students. There would likely be no Hellfighters without All Quiet.

The problem is time. I don’t know of any high schools that offer a narrowly focused class on World War I, or the Literature of War, or any other course where you can justify teaching multiple complex texts on the same fairly narrow subject. We simply ask high school for too much breadth. (The fact that I can call World War I a “narrow subject” tells you how packed the history curriculum is.) With that in mind, swapping in Hellfighters in place of All Quiet is efficient. It’s a much quicker read without sacrificing emotional or historical content.

It’s also a black story and we need more of those. Hellfighters solves the dilemma of how to add other perspectives without sacrificing core content.

Stop Doing Good Things:

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World War I is an important topic to U.S. history and world history courses and the canon has a truly outstanding text already in place with All Quiet on the Western Front. Asking teachers to drop that text in favor of The Harlem Hellfighters is a prime example of the difficulty of changing education. For the most part, teachers are doing very good work. That means in order to improve we have to stop doing  very good work in order to do excellent work.

Teaching Hellfighters would be a bold move and I appreciate the difficulty of asking teachers to stop doing very good things to risk something new and unknown, but  there’s a big gap in much US History curriculum. The black experience frequently disappears from the classroom and Hellfighters reminds us that black people didn’t disappear. That is a critical message to send our students.

“Hi daughter/son, what’d you learn about in school today? What are you reading?”

“We’re reading Bitch Planet! It’s a sci-fi comic book about off-planet women’s prisons and repressive institutional patriarchy!”

“I see…”

You have to admit. It’s got a nice ring to it, but the reality of teaching a high school class with Bitch Planet would be challenging at best. Even in the most liberal district in the country you’d be likely told to cease and desist or get fired. It’s a pretty good way to go out though.

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Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s Bitch Planet hits all the flashing red buttons for schools. It’s a comic book. It’s got swears. It’s got nudity. It’s got violence. It’s feminist. One of those you could probably get away with, but all five? Goodnight teaching career! The title alone would get you stopped in most districts.

Here’s the thing though. It shouldn’t be that unbelievable as a high school text. If you take this book and the back-matter essays, match them with some additional academic writing, a film, and a novel you’ve got a really strong basis for a study on the impact of institutional patriarchy women in the United States. A study that a high school student can access. And that is something we desperately need.

We don’t teach about women in high school. Women aren’t in the books. Women don’t take center stage. By not teaching explicitly about women, we teach many lessons implicitly about non-participation and low levels of importance. A colleague recently drew my attention to an article that Martin Luther King Junior’s mother, Alberta King, was assassinated while playing the organ in church. I had no idea that was the case. I didn’t even know her name. I’m a history major. I’m a history teacher. I didn’t know her name, let alone the fact that she was assassinated. The only thing I know about Betty Shabazz is that she was Malcolm X’s wife. I couldn’t tell you about her life’s work. I lived in Washington for over twenty years and I can’t tell you anything about senator Patty Murray’s work (in office since 1993). I know more about Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker and I’ve lived here for six months. This ignorance from the west coast raised, Oberlin-educated, child of political activists. There’s something wrong here and Kelly Sue DeConnick is trying to fix it.

39EBADA0-8FAD-4D45-92EF-7D8E2E32611AWith Bitch Planet, DeConnick is doing dangerous work. She’s claiming the women’s prison exploitation film genre and using it to stick a shiv right in the patriarchy’s gut.

It’s important that Educators speak the language of their students. Paulo Freire states that “the only effective instrument is a humanizing pedagogy…. In a humanizing pedagogy the method ceases to be an instrument by which the teachers can manipulate the students, because it epresses the consciousness of the students themselves.” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed 30th Anniversary Edition, 2000, p. 69) Students are going out to see 50 Shades of Grey. They’re watching Game of Thrones. I had a 6th grader come to school quoting Inglorious Basterds. A casual flip through television and they’ll see more than their fair share of oppressed, abused, and marginalized women. We need to work alongside our students within their context while exposing them to new ideas and broadening that context.

The Hunger Games does a respectable job of putting a young woman in the lead role, but Bitch Planet tells the current dystopian story that The Hunger Games won’t touch. We rarely see the impact of Katniss being a woman. Katniss could be a man and the story would not fundamentally change. Bitch Planet puts gender front and center. Teachers have an obligation to expose their students to new ideas, issues, and values. In the realm of women’s stories we’re underperforming and Bitch Planet can provide some balance.

In terms of media literacy this is the comic book at its underground best: dangerous and subversive. You open the book and think to yourself “only in comics.” While reading it the voice in your head is constantly warning you. It can’t stay this good. No way she’s gonna go THERE. But it stays that good and DeConnick definitely goes THERE. The best part of it all is Bitch Planet isn’t even all that underground. It’s published by Image. You can get it at any comic shop. You can download it from Comixology and Amazon. The only reason you’ll have to hunt for it is if it’s sold out.

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It’s also a really good book. The plot is strong, the characters are meaningful, and the art is fantastic. We’re 3 issues in at this point and the DeConnick’s shiv is honed just as sharp as in the first issue. The plot is ramping up quickly and the characters are deepening. There’s still time to pick up the back issues and get on board before this ship really takes off.

Once you read it you’ll probably decide that it’s not something schools should put in front of kids. (Particularly not the first issue.) But maybe reading Bitch Planet will help you see that we need more stories about women in schools, more stories that explore the woman’s experience. Perhaps you’ll start looking at how women are represented in your curriculum and the messages we send. Perhaps you’ll look for alternatives. That’s definitely worth a few bucks and a trip to the comic shop.

This piece is dedicated to my student Jia Wen (no hyphens). Thank you for pushing me for more women’s stories. You made our class better and you made me a better teacher. Keep the fire burning. 

Calling Ron Wimberly’s Prince of Cats “a hip-hop retelling of “Romeo and Juliet”  is too simplistic.  Wimberly goes beyond retelling, he reinvents and recreates. Like the DJs and graffiti artists he references, Wimberly draws on his influences and builds a new story from his favorite pieces.  In this case the blend is Shakespearean language, hip hop braggadocio, Kurosawa’s samurai, and street art. With these components Wimberly remixes a new tragedy, not of love, but of the inability to love. Wimberly expertly deepens Shakespeare’s timeless story by exploring Tybalt: the titular Prince of Cats.

Prince of Cats wears its references proudly. Basquiat’s SAMO tags decorate Wimberly’s Brooklyn. Sampson and Gregory get into a bloody sword fight on the subway, and then eat takoyaki in a gentrified Brooklyn sushi restaurant.  At the masquerade ball (a block party) Tybalt and Juliet are a strong presence dressed as Michael Jackson and Wonder Woman.

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Members of both houses fight with katanas (Mercuctio symbolically stands apart with a kopesh), but marking territory through graffiti runs as the strongest theme for the power struggle as Montague yellow, and Capulet red war over wall-space.

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In an example of how Wimberly expands on Shakespeare’s original, the previously unseen, Petruchio is re-imagined in the guise of “King of Style” Kase 2, complete with a missing right arm, and his death becomes a central motivation. Wimberly also gives voice the Romeo’s first love, Rosalyn, expanding her character and adding depth to the whole.

Throughout, Wimberly combines Shakespeare’s language from Romeo and Juliet with his own Shakespeare-inspired inventions, infused with urban vernacular while maintaining iambic pentameter.  This helps Prince of Cats read as more than just homage, but as a companion to the original. Tybalt’s story runs alongside the main narrative that we all know, dipping in and out through his interactions with Juliet, Romeo, and members of both houses.

While Romeo struggles to find love, Tybalt struggles to make his mark on society. He is desperate in his attempts for recognition, boldly declaring his desire to maintain Capulet honor at all costs. This is, however, a cover for his deeply broken worldview as Rosalyn exposes in Act 4, saying:

     Thou art a man obsessed.
     I’ve thought about the words you said.
     ..It’s not the crest of Capulet…
     The precious thing thy sword protects…
     …it’s vanity
     …I mean, 
     why risk thy life over and over?
     These self-important suicide attempts
     reveal thy lack of self-regard
 
     —and 
     if they heart were truly concerned

     with those for whom you say you risk death

     you would preserve thy life

     and nurture the happiness of those around you

     —Right?

In reading Prince of Cats if found myself falling in love with Romeo and Juliet all over again. I wanted to go back and re-read the play, to watch the film, to find a production to see. Wimberly is a masterful DJ here, sampling from his most loved art forms to create a new work that is simultaneously a love letter to his influences and a wholly new and vibrant work. Prince of Cats is not a replacement, or a retelling. It is an addition to the original mythology, providing context, background, and new perspective.

With regard to teaching, Prince of Cats is extremely rich. It could easily serve as a prelude to Romeo and Juliet or as a lesson in perspective after reading the original play. In terms of character, Tybalt experiences events of the main story in a very different way than Romeo, and in terms of authorship, Wimberly emphasizes themes that are more subtle in Shakespeare’s original. It would be incredible to use both texts and run a comparison of Romeo’s and Tybalt’s abilities to cope with their environments as a look into how at-risk youth either escape, or are entrapped by their surroundings. Alternately one could explore how Shakespeare’s background informed his lens, while Wimberly’s experiences encourage a different focus.

English classes often use Romeo and Juliet to explore themes of love, conflict, and revenge, but students get easily tripped up by language and the difficulty of reading a play without seeing production. To this end, Prince of Cats can serve as a strong hook, allowing students access through hip-hop’s visual imagery, while retaining the Shakespearean linguistic syntax, and vocabulary. Through a willingness to invent and remix, Wimberly’s Prince of Cats is a piece that can stand proudly alongside Shakespeare’s original work.

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