The Dilemma of Teaching Students How to Access Mainstream America

The summer is coming quickly to a close, so I’ve been spending the past few weeks planning my curriculum for the upcoming year. I didn’t have any choice in the texts I’m teaching, but I’m planning on using them as an opportunity to build some semblance of knowledge for my students. As I’m compiling related readings and paired texts for analysis, I’m realizing that through our curriculum, we as teachers inherently make judgements about what we think is important to know, and by extension, what we find valuable in our field. There’s a strong push to disrupt the canon and replace it with books that relate to students by way of talking about Instagram and Kendrick Lamar (who I love and is amazing in his own right), but I have conflicting thoughts on this for instruction. While I am all for students reading books that are immediately interesting, and doing activities that are fun but not necessarily having any academic output, I have to remember that mainstream America still exists beyond the walls of school.

Mainstream America is inhabited by people who hold views that have been shaped by their identity and upbringing; these people are overwhelmingly white, middle class men. Whether this viewpoint is bad or not isn’t the point, but these people are our administrators, test makers, and on college boards– any way we put it, these people are the gatekeepers. 

Now I also am also working my way among these ranks in the mainstream. I’m 25 years old and will have a middle class salary, a master’s degree, and a certain level of expertise in literature; I am the first in my family’s history to do so. I’m establishing myself as someone who has something to say, and I don’t make myself small to the appeasement of others. I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that my success is partly due to being able to navigate my family’s culture along with the mainstream discourse, but I would also be kidding myself if I didn’t acknowledge the years of internalized racism from never being shown that my culture was valuable, too. I internalized that I needed to be and “act white” to be successful, when really I just needed someone to explicitly teach me the importance of both.  

If we are ever going to get serious about changing educational outcomes, then we need to get serious and intentional about the purpose of school. School is a place where students are taught knowledge and skills so they can decide what their future looks like rather than have a decision thrust upon them because they can’t read. School is a place of preparation, a place where you learn the codes of the mainstream not necessarily because the mainstream is better, as I believed, but because if you want to make significant changes to any systems, you have to be able to first get in by the gatekeepers’ standards. We can disrupt traditional notions of reading and math all we want, but this does not mean that out students are exempt from the dominant structures of society.  To paraphrase Lisa Delpit, to pretend that the mainstream does not exist is to ensure students do not pass into it.  The fact of the matter is some stuff is going to matter more than others. 

This is not a personal attack. 

This is not teacher bashing.

This is a recognition of what we’ve been taught to expect and accept from poor students and students of color in the name of “progressivism”. Knowledge won’t exempt my students from racism, knowledge won’t “save” anyone, but it’s the one thing that I directly have control of in my classroom in preparing my students for futures as citizens who can understand how reminiscent the speech of Donald Trump is to a fascist uprising. They will understand this not because I have told them what to believe, but because they have the knowledge base to be able to draw the comparisons themselves. 

So we can continue to ask ourselves “who decides?” and “whose knowledge?” and all of the other rhetorical questions, but we already know the answer. Really the question we need to ask ourselves as a profession, as schools, as departments is what we want our students to be able to do and become when they leave our classrooms– Do we want them to bang upon the walls of Troy for 10,000 years or enter as the Trojan horse?

I’m on twitter.

  1. The trojan horse is a metaphor for being able to enact change. Obviously, I don’t want students to ransack and destroy an entire city 🙂
  2. I speak African-American Vernacular English (formerly known as ebonics) and Standard American English. Here I wrote about the implications of that for my instruction.
  3.  I’m borrowing from Lisa Delpit’s definition as discussed in her book Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the ClassroomEric Kalenze also discusses “the mainstream” in his book Education is Upside Down: Reframing Reform to Focus on the Right Problems
  4. This blog is a space where I’m thinking through my practice. If you agree or disagree, feel free to comment, but I ask that you don’t go the route of dismissing my ideas simply citing teaching experience.
  • updates 10/22/2019 to reflect title change


  1. Nice piece. One question. You state: “If we are ever going to get serious about changing educational outcomes, then we need to get serious and intentional about the purpose of school.” Could you explain what “intentional” means here? I see the term increasingly used these days but am not sure of its meaning. Thanks.


    • By intentional I mean that our curriculum, school culture, and teachers are working toward a specific goal.

      Often I think the purpose of school is assumed but that doesn’t mean that teachers across a school are aligned in a vision. This leads to differences in instructional choices and approaches.

      I think that being explicit that “we teach this stuff in this way for this reason” would go far for being “intentional”


  2. You tie together many interesting threads here. Let me reflect upon one: whether students are well-served by reading mostly about their immediate interests. Of course, they do need to read about people who resemble themselves, and especially if they come from marginalized groups. But those “kids who look like me” can come from different historical periods, different parts of the country (or their country of origin). Their parents can be involved in different occupations, There can be a lot of important background knowledge in books like that.

    On top of that, students can learn to like reading about people who are not like them in age, background, and interests, if it’s done carefully. As a child, I got to the point where I didn’t want to read about people whose lives resembled mine; I already knew about that.

    It’s easy to get teens to read about teen drama, especially if it’s loaded with pop culture and plots that are ghoulish or shocking. YA literature is pretty much based on this, and it’s fine as far as it goes. It may help students become willing and more-fluent readers. But it does not broaden their world.

    Good luck with your new teaching assignment!


    • “…students can learn to like reading about people who are not like them in age, background, and interests, if it’s done carefully. As a child, I got to the point where I didn’t want to read about people whose lives resembled mine; I already knew about that”.

      This is exactly what I mean in choosing texts for ELA.

      Thank you for reading.


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