A Tale of Disruption: Teaching The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline – Post by Emily Visness
“We’ve always taught that novel.”
“The lesson plans and activities for that novel are already prepared.”
“I love teaching that book!”
“We have enough copies of the book for all our classes.”
“It’s a classic!”
The reasons, or rather the excuses, are many, but these are some common responses from teachers when the contentious topic of whole-class novels comes up in PLCs. At my middle school, the novel The Pearl by John Steinbeck had been used for years as the whole-class novel for 8th grade Pre-AP ELA students. Students were required to purchase their own copy, lesson plans were waiting and ready, and it was the comfortable choice. Last year, I joined the 8th grade ELA team for the first time as a Gen-Ed/Pre-AP teacher after spending the previous seven years at my school as a Special Education Inclusion teacher. As a new member of the team, I brought my interest in and passion for diverse books, relevant reading, and modern texts to the table. Luckily for me, my colleagues welcomed my input and indulged me when I suggested the use of different texts than those previously chosen. I know that in many schools, other teachers who make efforts to disrupt texts are not met with such open minds.
Disrupt texts, you ask? Here’s some background: A group of educator-leaders (Tricia Ebarvia, Lorena Germán, Dr. Kimberly N. Parker, and Julia E. Torres) started a hashtag to discuss the importance of including culturally relevant books in ELA classrooms, #DisruptTexts, and that hashtag has grown into a movement. By following, and learning from, these educators on Twitter, my knowledge and understanding about the importance of choosing relevant and inclusive books for my students has drastically increased. The passion for diverse books and modern texts was already inside me – but the #DisruptTexts team sparked a confidence in me to challenge and question the status quo in ways I never had before.
As for The Pearl, I didn’t want to teach it. It’s not all that relevant to my students, it’s old, and it’s not an #ownvoices book. Own voices is a term coined by the author Corinne Duyvis and it refers to books in which the protagonist and the author share a marginalized identity. Last spring, I had recently read The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline, a Métis author, and knew that this own voices book needed to be in the hands of my students. The story takes place in the somewhat near future, in a world where global warming has dramatically altered the landscape, climate, and wildlife.
In this futuristic North America, most humans have lost the ability to dream, resulting in madness and death. The only ones who retain this ability are Indigenous people; as a result, they are hunted by the government for their bone marrow, which is harvested and used as an antidote to dreamlessness. The story follows the protagonist, Frenchie, and his companions in their struggle to survive. The exquisite writing, dramatic plot, powerful imagery, dynamic and nuanced Native characters, and disturbing premise with strong ties to Science and History were all reasons I chose this book. When I presented it to my team as an option to replace the Steinbeck novel, they (thankfully) welcomed the challenge. One problem was finding money to purchase copies of the book. My Instructional Coach found some money in the budget to purchase one class set (which we shared between two teachers – one of us taught it in the morning, the other in the afternoon), and I created the lessons. Now, I’ve taught 4th through 11th grade, and in most of those classes I’ve taught whole-class novels. As I enter my fifteenth year of teaching, those whole-class novels over the years really add up. Out of all of them, though, the feedback I received from students on The Marrow Thieves was overwhelmingly the most positive of any of them. My students LOVED this book!
My district now requires an approved book list for all classes that teach entire texts, so I promptly jumped through the necessary hoops to get The Marrow Thieves added to the list. Once that detail was taken care of, and the books were ordered, I set to work creating lessons. In my district, when reading fiction, 8th graders focus on much the same skills as many other middle schoolers across the country – learning vocabulary, understanding figurative language and theme, making inferences, understanding how setting influences the conflict and plot, determining character motivation, connecting the text to self, etc. – so I made sure to include a little of everything in our activities. Students participated in activities such as – using complex vocabulary from the text, identifying and explaining the meaning of figurative language used in the text, examining imagery in the text and then illustrating it (my artists loved that part) – each activity was designed to support and enrich their comprehension of the book and reinforce the literacy skills they are required to learn. In addition to studying this fictional story, we studied picture books and related nonfiction as well. We read the picture book I Am Not A Number by Jenny Kay Dupuis, Kathy Kacer, and illustrator Gillian Newland. We also read When We Were Alone by David Alexander Robertson and illustrator Julie Flett. We read nonfiction articles on global warming, on the forced schooling of Indigenous peoples in North America, and articles about the author and cover model for the book.
Out of all the activities, my personal favorite was reading each student’s “Coming-To” story. In the book, readers discover each character’s personal history through a coming-to story, so I asked students to write their own. It was one of the most powerful activities I’ve ever experienced with students. I found out, after knowing them pretty well all year (or so I thought) who had lost parents or siblings, who lived in a foster home, who was adopted after years in the system, who had suffered various forms of trauma, who had and had not come out to their families, who had medical or mental health issues – their coming-to stories were beautiful, heartbreaking, magical, joyful, and infuriating, just like the coming-to stories of the characters in the book.
I will be teaching The Marrow Thieves again this year, in the spring, to my Pre-AP classes. I’m dedicated to disrupting other texts in the effort to be more inclusive and equitable in my teaching practices. The work is never done – there is so much learning and growing to do, and not a moment can be wasted.
Remember those common excuses many teachers use to protest change? If they sound familiar to you, ask your colleagues these follow up questions in response:
“We’ve always taught that novel.” – Why?
“The lesson plans and activities for that novel are already prepared.” – Which activities are universal? How can I help plan new activities?
“I love teaching that book!” – What value does the book have for your students? Can your students connect to the characters, theme, setting?
“We have enough copies of the book for all our classes.” – How can we purchase copies of other books to diversify our inventory? Can we brainstorm ideas for fundraising?
“It’s a classic!” – So? What qualifies as a classic? Is this book the best, most relevant choice for our students? Or would another book do just as well, if not better, to teach those same skills?
I encourage you to find ways to fight against the status quo at your own schools in order to do what’s best for kids. Follow #DisruptTexts on Twitter and learn from the co-founders and other excellent educators who are dedicated to this work. Push yourself to increase the number of modern, relevant, diverse, own voices texts used in your curriculum.
Question. Challenge. Create your own tale of disruption.
Emily is a middle school ELA teacher and 2018 Book Love Foundation Grant winner who believes in the importance of diverse literature for young people, loves helping students find the right book, and advocates for all students’ right to read. She writes about her experiences, thoughts, and beliefs surrounding reading and teaching on her blog, The Bookish Advocate. You can find her on Instagram (TheBookishAdvocate) or Twitter (@bookishadvocate), or in her classroom, talking to students about books.