Question, Disrupt, Transform: Challenging the Use of Literary Classics, PreK through YA

Educators, librarians and others dedicated to literacy  often find themselves standing at a crossroads between their memories of beloved books from their own childhoods, and the reality of the harmful language, themes and imagery those books may contain.   For many, it is difficult to accept that many “classic” books of the past may need to be critically re-evaluated before being given to today’s young readers. 


On March 2nd, we endeavored to explore this growing unease surrounding “classic” literature by inviting seven passionate and visionary literacy and literature experts to engage in conversation about the power books hold in the lives of young people, and to guide us towards embracing literature as a look towards building a better future.



The day began with our first keynote conversation between literacy expert and advocate Dr. Alfred Tatum and literacy reform leader Cornelius Minor.  Their shared passion for guiding young people towards becoming engaged and action-focused readers and writers was clear as they challenged each other and attendees with probing questions interlaced with thought-provoking anecdotes and plenty of humor.  Dr. Tatum and Cornelius’ honest, thoughtful responses laid a foundation of respect and safety that led to a question and answer session in which attendees felt safe to ask deep questions and to embrace new knowledge and ideas.


We moved on to a practioner’s panel moderated by Research Librarian and blogger Edi Campbell.   Our panel included Cornelius Minor, Kimiko Pettis and Jessica Lifshitz.  Through Edi’s carefully considered questions, panelists shared their  personal and professional  experiences using—or being required to use-- “classic literature”.  They also discussed the ways they restructured their teaching and curricula to confront dated and damaging text and to adopt alternate selections to empower their young readers.





The morning ended with Dr. Robert Moorehead giving a  brief “big picture” talk about the social, political and historical context of works of  “classic” literature.  His talk also encouraged attendees to consider the role of whiteness and systemic racism when encountering racist/prejudiced language and themes in older books they may still be required to use. 


Four roundtable sessions followed in the afternoon.  Attendees each chose one roundtable to join.  Facilitators in each room guided and encouraged conversation with our keynote speakers and panelists joining in as well.   The roundtable themes included:


            -Problematic Text…Now what?

            -How do I Face Whiteness and White Fragility?

            -How do I Maintain a culturally Responsive


            -What Should I Do?: Practical Scenarios


The day wrapped up with our second keynote conversation between inclusive educator and researcher Kass Minor and poet, writer, and Creative Writing professor and educator Naomi Shihab Nye.   The ensuing conversation grew into a bridge between the educational facets of literacy and literature, and the creative, with the overarching focus always returning to the most important part of literacy:  the reader.  

Kass and Naomi speaking.jpeg


Our event concluded with a poetry reading by Naomi.


The challenge of navigating the use of problematic “classic” literature has sparked much emotional and professional  debate and division among educators, literacy experts and parents of young readers.  For an event such as ours, with the focus trained directly upon the challenges of “classic” literature, one might have expected this controversy to  appear.  Instead, attendees were invited into a safe space where they could consider the lived professional experiences of our speakers, ask honest, difficult questions and feel free to engage in discussion and debate. 


Thus once again we find ourselves where we have been after many of our previous institutes:  reflecting upon the community-building power of creating safe, collaborative spaces where people can learn, share ideas and engage in meaningful discussion.  The literacy work that we do in all our varied capacities with young people directly touches the future that we all share.  It is this future that we look towards when we examine writing from the past and recognize the flaws and potential for damage that can be contained within the words.    It is our continuing hope to keep on creating times and spaces where educators, librarians, creators and literacy workers can come together to examine where we’ve been, recognize where we are and meet the challenges we face in guiding  our young people towards the future.