Blog Post

Reading the World: A High-School Curriculum in Post-Colonial Literature

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A collaborative project by Alexandra Hartley (alexandra.hartley@icsd.k12.ny.us) and Teodora Buzea (teodora.buzea@cortland.edu

 

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” -Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The Danger of a Single Story”

What is the legacy in 2020 of colonialism, post-colonialism, and neocolonialism? How do authors around the world counter the legacies of colonialism in their work--and how do students in the United States learn about texts in post-colonial contexts? 

Educational scholars who study applications of postcolonial studies and critical race theory in the classroom warn against structuring classroom activities and texts as a decontextualized “tour” of the world, racing to cover “all areas” or stressing themes of human universalness. Some scholars even posit that true, careful study of world literature begins first with looking at the hyperlocal--for example, Duquesne University Professor Emad Mohamatari begins his world literature survey with an examination of the works of Pittsburgh resident August Wilson. With postcolonial literature, it is especially important for teachers to not “depoliticize” the work. By teaching the political and historical context where they are taught, students can fully understand and appreciate the texts, as well as become more informed by global geopolitics and the nuances of the US’s role in the world. 

With this in mind, we have designed this syllabus and course outline to serve as a “resource guide” for a school year-long course in post-colonial literature for students in 11th or 12th grade. For each unit, we include a main text, some supplemental texts, and activity guides. We also have included activity ideas for a final assessment for each unit. However, this is not a formal, set curriculum. We encourage teachers to eliminate texts, add in additional texts, or add in additional activities as necessary to help scaffold their students’ learning of postcolonial theory and postcolonial literature. 

This syllabus was written specifically for use at the Lehman Alternative Community School, which is part of the New York State Performance Standards Consortium and follows a model of “graduation by exhibition.” In each subject area, students complete a certain number of portfolios that follow school and community-based guidelines. This class is designed for students to complete as part of their English portfolio. All classes where students complete the English portfolio require students to read a variety of upper-level texts and engage in four types of writing: writing for self-reflection (personal writing / narratives), writing for literary analysis, writing for invention, and writing for persuasion. As a result, the learning activities and assignments that we include in this syllabus may not  exactly reflect the New York State Standards or Common Core Standards; nevertheless, they consist of robust, challenging texts and activities that seek to engage students in critical thinking, reading, and writing about the world around them. 

 

Syllabus Rationale: 

The materials we have chosen reflect on a diverse world of authors who tell their tales. Some are racial minorities in the United States; others are expressing their sexuality in Africa.These modern voices are not often heard in an English classroom and the goal of this course syllabus is to provide a gateway of discovery. Additionally, the nature of this course allows for chances to go in-depth with some of the various nations presented and to discuss the different ways colonialism continues to affect people. By making this course for an upper high school or dual enrollment/lower level college classroom, the course may also prove to be useful in higher level courses that address some of the featured themes. The ability to pick and choose texts also encourages the making of a unique syllabus that may change year-by-year in reflection to past experiences; as well as using texts in conversation with each other. 

This syllabus is broken down into seven units: an introduction to postcolonial theory; teaching and learning on indigenous land; postcolonialism, colonization, and religion; feminism and colonialism; intersectionality and colonialism; colonialism and global geopolitics; migration in a globalized world. The aim of this syllabus is to facilitate open-minded discussion in a safe classroom space. Some topics may prove to take students outside of the comfort zone and so the variety of potential activities allows chances for different forms of expression and participation. In our fast globalizing world, being aware of the stories and experiences around us can lead us to question our views on power and representation.

 

What does it mean to teach in a postcolonial way?

Due to the central theme of this syllabus, we encourage teachers to explore postcolonial pedagogy. To teach in a postcolonial way means to first deconstruct what postcolonial ideas are. When confronted with the topic of colonialism, Western  textbooks make use of terms like “Third-World” and "Commonwealth" to describe nations affected by colonialism. Rather than “depoliticize” or “sanitize” texts, a postcolonial pedagogy encourages embracing texts that tell narratives honestly and delving into the historical and current contexts that surround them. We encourage educators to choose texts for their literary merit which in turn demotes the “tourism” of  worldly reading. When teaching in a postcolonial way, one aim is to remove forms of colonialist hierarchies of power, as well as understand why they are at play. 

Each unit offers a set of “Potential Learning Activities” that aim to challenge the power hierarchies in traditional classrooms by centering student ideas and creativity, involving students in making decisions about their learning, and involving students in active knowledge production and generating ideas that could lead to larger research projects. In particular, by incorporating seminar-style discussion and student choice in activities, we aim to disrupt the hierarchical nature of the traditional student-teacher relationship. 

Teaching postcolonial literature is a journey of unlimited possibilities. Texts can be chosen and placed in conversation with each other as it concerns focus topics. One idea that University of Alberta Associate Professor Ingrid Johnston suggests is “teaching the conflicts” in which colonial and postcolonial texts are used to broaden the level of understanding. Finally, we have provided a various assortment of postcolonial mediums from books to musical records so that meanings and statements can be conveyed in unique and exciting ways. When teaching in a postcolonial way, our knowledge of language, power, and stories is expanded. 

For the complete list of texts, activities, and discussion questions, please click the link below to a Google Document.

View the Syllabus 

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