The Textual Lineage of a Teacher

What are the important textual touchstones in your life?

Alfred Tatum writes that our textual lineage includes the things we have read that have been significant in shaping our identities. Scholastic’s Global Literacy Campaign describes textual lineage as “a reading and writing autobiography which shows that who you are is in part developed through the stories and information you’ve experienced.”

That words can shape who we become, that ideas have the intrinsic capacity to change the future, is profound validation for all teachers.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the textual lineage that shaped my identity as an educator. These are some highlights:

I read The Color Purple by Alice Walker years before becoming a teacher. Its feminist theme of knowledge as power, represented in the sisterhood of Celie and Nettie, stirred my consciousness, and I saw how education could be used to legitimate and subvert systems of oppression. Other stories of how learning generates personal and political agency followed me into the classroom, among them The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley and The Miracle Worker. 

When I flirted with law school, I got interested in legal scholar Lani Guinier. Her central point in The Miner’s Canary helped me think about issues of diversity and inclusion more structurally. Rather than further marginalize the underrepresented or stigmatize the less “successful,” Guinier wrote that we should heed their experiences and challenges like we would the health of a canary in a coal mine. Their struggles are, in fact, warnings to all of us that something is wrong with the systems that surround us. It’s not the canary—it’s the mine!

I circled back to this idea in a different context years later when I realized that I’d learned some of my most effective teaching strategies from my special education colleagues. Techniques first introduced to “accommodate” students with IEPs (e.g., scaffolding, kinesthetic alternatives and visual aids) later became “mainstream” best practices that helped me remove obstacles for all kinds of learners. It was through the “miner’s canary” lens that I read Carol Ann Tomlinson’s The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners—a must-have for any teacher’s bookshelf.

The Night Is Dark and I Am Far from Home: Political Indictment of US Public Schools is one of Jonathan Kozol’s earliest works. I read it when I was still a pre-service teacher. In Chapter 3, “Saying No,” Kozol makes the case that American schools are where pint-sized citizens learn to obey rather than think for themselves. In a beautiful defense of critical thinking, he analyzes our all-too-common insistence that students replace self-advocacy and moral indignation with “constructive criticism.”

Kozol’s book helped me understand some of my students a little better. I believe the best teachers strive relentlessly to understand their students and to “crack the code” of their sometimes confusing behavior. The most perplexing and frustrating to interpret, of course, can be those students we believe in but who continue to make what we label “poor choices.” With each outburst, failing grade and discipline write-up, our efforts to make a difference can feel like flailing.

What if we look more closely—or differently—at our students? Are there conditions under which misbehavior or academic failure is a rational choice and not a “poor choice”? I am grateful to have encountered Herbert Kohl’s answer in I Won’t Learn From You: And Other Thoughts on Creative Maladjustment:

“Because not-learning involves willful rejection of some aspect of experience, it can often lead what appears to be failure. … Not-learning tends to take place when someone has to deal with unavoidable challenges to her or his personal and family loyalties, integrity, and identity. … not-learning is a healthy, though frequently dysfunctional, response to racism, sexism and other forms of bias.”

With Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, Lisa Delpit made sure I did not ignore the ever-present dynamics of culture and power in my work. My well-intentioned, liberal-progressive efforts had the potential to unknowingly enact culturally specific rules and codes that undermined those efforts and disempowered my students. Where there were differences between my own background and the community in which I was teaching, I needed to listen more and talk less—to my students, their families and my colleagues of color.

So what? Now what?

Alice Walker inspired my inner teacher. Guinier taught me that if I wanted to improve the system I was teaching in, I needed to listen to the canaries in my classroom. Kozol and Kohl helped me interpret what I heard. Thinkers like Sonia Nieto, Christine Sleeter and Lisa Delpit helped me discover what I could do about it.

What are the most important textual touchstones in your life? What kind of teacher would you be today if not for these big ideas?

Most importantly, are your students being exposed to the kinds of texts that will change their lives?

Use this textual lineage graphic organizer, and reflect on the powerful role reading has had in shaping who you are. Then try it with your students.

Chiariello is a teaching and learning specialist at Teaching Tolerance.