The Introduction of Multicultural Literature

Mr.+Byars+and+Mr.+Thompsons+students+display+the+art+research+projects+they+recently+completed+%28Photo+courtesy+of+Tina+Dong%29.

Mr. Byars and Mr. Thompson’s students display the art research projects they recently completed (Photo courtesy of Tina Dong).

A year ago, the words “multicultural literature” referred to just compositions that target different cultures and were rarely seen in the classroom. The lack of diversity within classroom literature clashed with growing changes in Gwinnett County’s demographics, and thus ushered in a new era of learning–one that is catered to more than just the white, male audience. At Parkview, this initiative is led by two teachers: Jeremiah Byars and David Thompson. 

Over the course of 15 years, the demographics of the county has flipped in terms of the white to minority ratio, but the curriculum, and more specifically, the literary curriculum has still remained largely the same, which is heavily scaled toward white, male, straight, Christian writers,” Mr. Byars says. “There is a sense that the literature should reflect the population.”

With this in mind, Mr. Byars addressed Parkview’s English department with a presentation explaining why diversifying literature was crucial to the developing language arts courses. 

The county has spent several years developing the idea of the course and writing standards for it, and finally they got it approved sometime in 2019,” Mr. Byars says. “I did not know about this class at all until the beginning of the 2020 school year… After seeing my presentation, the AP of English, Doug Nichols, figured I would be a good fit for Multicultural Literature, so he told me about the class and asked if not only would I be interested in teaching it here, but would I want to write county lesson plans for it, too, for which I agreed to both.”

Eager to take initiative and enact his plans, Mr. Byars considered the many facets that go into teaching a course with this content.

“I come from the perspective that adolescents are skeptics, especially since I was, so when I plan a unit, I try to imagine myself as a person of color, or a girl, or a nonbinary person, or gay, and I ask: “Why should I read this? What’s in it for me,” he says. “But this method sometimes challenges long-held beliefs in texts that have become standards, and when you work with a team, it is hard to challenge age-old texts that have always been taught. Having the chance to teach a new course means there is no pre-ordained system; there is nothing. And out of nothing, one can make whatever kingdom they want. I saw this as an opportunity to not have to answer to anyone in the creation of the material and selections.”

Sharing this sentiment, Mr. Thompson says, “I wanted to take on a new challenge and I was excited to share authors and texts that I had not been able to in other classes. In addition, I was looking forward to exploring new writers and texts as well.”

However, a cloud of controversy remains around the class. While the two teachers dictate most of the chosen literature and pieces that are taught, everything that is chosen must be approved, and not everyone is accepting. 

“Because nothing has been approved yet, I have to get everything approved piece by piece. Even though this class allows for “controversial” topics to be read about and discussed, we still have to tread on water with parents and get permission slips filled out for various things, Mr. Byars says. “Critical Race Theory is an indirect aspect of this class, but because of all of the craziness about that, we have to walk on eggshells when teaching about race. The name of the class literally changed from its original name, ‘Critical Literacy,’ to ‘Multicultural Literature,’ simply because it had the term “critical” in it, which sounds too close to “critical race theory.” 

Despite this, it is the belief of the two teachers that Multicultural Literature is an important class that plays a significant role in providing students with diverse texts and content that they can relate to or gain a better understanding of. 

“I think there are many different authors that need to be explored and the bottom line is I’m trying to teach students reading and composition skills while introducing them to ‘the conversation’ that exists in literature,” Mr. Thompson said. “If students feel that they can identify with the life experiences and perspectives of these authors over other writers, then they are more likely to be engaged. The landscape of Literature is enormous. Why limit the choices that students have in learning to use language to communicate, or, as an art form?”

The implementation of this class is still relatively new, but has begun allowing students to learn more about different cultures, art, and experiences. 

Mr. Byars says, “It needs to be offered at schools with a lot of diversity so the kids can feel represented in their education, and it needs to be offered at schools with very little diversity so that it can educate and expose isolated groups to diversity.”

While there is still a way to go when it comes to diversifying literature, the introduction of the Multicultural Literature class is working to bridge that gap.