Analyzing Rural Curriculum/Reading Choices: A Guide

One of the best things about getting emails from readers is that they usually give me insight into how the content of this online community is helping them or where they could use more support. I recently got an email from a community member about whether or not I had any guiding documents for how to analyze and/or evaluate curriculum choices.

I didn’t then. But thanks to their email – I do now.

One thing that I wanted to mention about my particular approach to curriculum, and book choices especially, is that I believe that every book can be useful (even if it’s not “good”) if taught from a critical stance. If we avoid seeing the problematic representations of any culture or group, then how in the world will we know what to do to make things better? Or what opportunities would we ever have to examine our own complicity in systems of power and oppression? Or when would we ever see our own oppression validated in a way that could make visible the constant gaslighting of larger society in relationship to that oppression?

So, it’s possible that the books on my list might not be considered by some readers to be “good,” but that for me is not the point. The point is – do they offer readers an opportunity to think critically about place, rurality, and the movement of power related to them? Would a reader find them enjoyable? Are there opportunities to learn from them?

This is not to say that I think that every book on my list is for every reader or every classroom, only that I think they all have potential to foster learning in relation to place and rurality depending on the readers, the place, and the community.

So, what follows is a guide of how a teacher could go about analyzing rural books/curriculum for their class. There is also a downloadable version of this here.

Question 1: What do you need/want the curriculum/book to do?

Choosing a book or piece of curriculum, for me, largely depends on what I want students to be able to do at the end of a unit. I use backwards design to plan my units and year, so knowing what I want students to be able to do helps me determine the texts that will support them in being able to do it.

For example, I recently created a Spooky Season Unit in partnership with reThinkELA where students do a genre study of spooky stories in order to learn mood, tone, simile, metaphor, and plot structure. They do a book club in order to study the genre (among other things) and then use what they learn to write their own spooky stories. Since setting is a large part of what makes something spooky, I would want to be sure to include books in my teaching that allowed my rural students to see and consider how rurality is used in spooky fiction. I would be sure to select rural spooky books for the book flood students could choose from – Clown in a Cornfield, Dark and Shallow Lies, The Dead and The Dark, All These Bodies.

So you probably want to ask yourself:

  • What am I using this to help students learn?
    • A particular genre,
    • certain literary elements,
    • a particular setting – literature featuring your state, for example,
    • a certain critical lens?

Based on your answer to this question, you’ll know what kinds of texts you’re looking for. And if you’re wanting to make sure rural perspectives are included in your teaching of that genre, literary element, setting, critical lens, you can ask yourself:

Question 2: What does the Whippoorwill Committee, Reading Rural YAL, The Virginia Tech Rural Literature Library, and/or Literacy In Place suggest?

Once you’ve established what you need the piece of curriculum to do, you can use these resources to help you find a rural book that would help you do that. The Whippoorwill Committee, Reading Rural YAL, Virginia Tech’s Rural Center’s Rural Literature Library, and the Literacy In Place book list all work to curate rural book recommendations of quality literature that include complex and authentic depictions of rural communities and people.

Any book included in any of these resources is going to be a good text for critical readings of the representation of rural cultures, languages, and realities.

Apart from or along with choosing a book from these lists, you can consider:

  1. How are rural places depicted? And does that suit the aim of your lesson/unit?
  2. How are rural people represented? And does that suit your purposes?
  3. How are rural realities and experiences and lifeways depicted? And does that suit the needs of you and your class?

It may be that you want students to look at texts that traffic in the dominant deficit narrative of rurality (e.g., rural people are White, conservative racists and homophobes, toothless inbred hillbillies who love guns and thump their Bibles) – to be able to see and identify stereotypes for what they are and provide some counter narratives to them. If that’s the case, then “bad” rural books that reify rural stereotypes and situate rural people as some kind of redneck punchline may be exactly what you’re looking for. This reminds me of Audra Slocum’s work – Look What They Said about Us: Social Positioning Work of Adolescent Appalachians in English Class

But if you’re wanting rural students to have the opportunity to see their rural cultures, language practices, and selves honored in literature, then you’d want to find books that challenge and nuance representations and understandings of rural people which you are likely to find on the Whippoorwill winners lists, Reading Rural YAL, Virginia Tech’s Rural Literature Library, and the Literacy In Place Book List.

Question 3: Who is here and who is missing?

As I’ve written about before, simply including books and curriculum that work to complexify understandings of rural people and places in our classrooms is an act of social justice in and of itself. But it isn’t enough. Though not often recognized as such, rural people have been historically marginalized by processes of resource extraction and the social and economic policies that come with it. Including their perspectives works to fight against rural erasure.

But along with that, there are certain intersectional rural identities that are missing more than others. So, we need to make sure that we’re offering students a more complete and well-rounded view of the diversity that exists in rural spaces. Once we’ve chosen any one book or any one piece of curriculum, we should audit our entire curriculum map to make sure there is space made for those voices and stories.

This is one of the reasons I chose to organize the Literacy In Place book list the way I did. It makes it easier to find rural YA books that include perspectives from a variety of rural identity intersections including Folks of Color and the queer community.

Ultimately, teachers know their standards, their students, their classroom, and their community better than I do. But walking through these questions should support analysis and critical consideration of what books and curriculum are best for them and their students at a particular time.

Now, I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the very real concerns about the kinds of books teachers can teach in classrooms. In this current cultural moment of book banning and removing the stories of diverse people, essentially white-washing classroom (and in some cases) public libraries, it is understandable that teachers may be hesitant to teach some of the texts they may find on these lists.

These feelings have been validated by instances of teachers losing their jobs over the books they have read or offered in their classrooms. That said, quiet/soft censorship is dangerous, so we walk a fine line of trying to keep our jobs while not erasing the lived experiences of our students who fit the identity markers being banned through the books that tell their stories.

To this I say: All we can do is make the best decision we can with the information that we have at the time.

Elizabeth Gilbert has written about (forgive me, I can’t remember which book or essay) appreciative ways to view healing. We often think that every (or most) things have to get and be better in order to be healed or better, but really, even if one cell in a body is healthier than the day before, we’ve gotten healthier. So, even if we can’t fix it all through the literature we’re teaching in our classroom, any amount of movement or progress we can make is still movement/progress.

We do the best we can. Because that’s all we can do.

Rural Teachers: I’d love to know if you find this helpful or not. What are your experiences with this? Is there anything I’m leaving out or that you find helpful in your own analysis of curriculum? If so, please comment or shoot me a message.

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