Returning to Hope College this Fall semester, I have had the opportunity to work closely with the NEA Big Read Lakeshore that hosts a series of author events through November. This year, the theme is Greek Mythology and the Hero’s Journey. Organizing event details alongside Dr. Deborah Van Duinen, Director of the Big Read, has given me insight to this complex and exciting event.
I was first introduced to the Big Read last year, as I sat in Dr. Van Duinen’s Foundations of Education course. It was there I learned about Social and Emotional Learning as well as Culturally Relevant Teaching in the classroom. Tagged along with the Big Read, which last year featured Poet Warrior by Joy Harjo and Fry Bread by Kevin Noble Maillard, a determination sparked within me to promote literature that reflects the diversity of culture within the classroom.
When I am not studying at Hope College, I take my drive around the lake until I am back home in northern Illinois. Being a transfer student at Hope has widened horizons and provided new experiences. I attended community college before my transfer last year, and there’s not an event quite like the Big Read in my area. The mission of the Big Read was all but foreign to me. Introducing classic stories from alternative perspectives was not only mind blowing, but also made sense. Coming from a high school with a strong Latinx student body, I crave an experience to read classic plays,but with supplements that reflect not only my culture but the cultures of my peers as well. An example would be studying Romeo and Juliet, but reading a book like Shame the Stars by Guadalupe Garcia McCall– a retelling of Shakespeare’s play but set in Texas at the turn of the 20th century.
As a Creative Writing student, I understand the necessity for children to engage with literature that reflects their identities. It’s this desire that encourages what I read and motivates what I write. Working with the Big Read has allowed me to follow this passion in a proactive way. Little Read author Matt de la Peña is visiting Hope College on November 9th to discuss his book The Last Stop on Market Street. Getting to organize this event for students in the Holland and surrounding areas feels like a step towards the mission of my calling.
The behind the scenes work gives me a glimpse of how much dedication it takes to engage with the movement of Culturally Relevant Teaching. While I am not studying to be a teacher, my work with the Big Read is building experiences of how to prove that literature matters. The content we read influences our manner and actions in the world around us. The books that our teachers hand us at formative ages matter. Being given books that don’t reflect ourselves or the communities around us limits our knowledge of our neighbors and the cultures that influence our environment. It also inhibits those of marginalized cultures to view themselves and the individuality of their culture in the curriculum they are presented with. It’s the Miles Morales of the classroom seeing himself as Spider-Man. Seeing himself as the hero makes the web-slinging adventures more fascinating to follow and hope the hero wins in the end.
There are pockets around the country like my hometown in Illinois and Holland where the student body consists of marginalized groups who don’t always receive literature that reflects their cultures or life experiences. By offering literature with alternative perspectives than that of the original text, we allow students to engage fully with the text and give them the opportunity to see themselves as the hero in the story.