Jeanne Bissonnette, a new School of Education assistant professor, explores how educators teach literature in ways that affirm diverse students. Photo by Ryan Riley.

Bissonnette works to affirm diverse students, increase literacy with classical texts

When Jeanne Dyches Bissonnette taught high school juniors and seniors in North Carolina, she knew it was important to reach her students in culturally responsive ways.

“There’s nothing inherently oppressive about what Shakespeare was doing when he was writing over four centuries ago,” she said. “What has become oppressive, however, is our relentless and often unquestioned reverence for teaching required traditional texts — allegiance that can result, whether we realize it or not, in the privileging and marginalization of students in secondary classrooms.”

For Bissonnette, one reality of a static curriculum is that many students — particularly those belonging to non-dominant groups — are unable to see a reflection of themselves in the literature they are required to study.

“The literature curriculum is seemingly impenetrable,” she said. “It’s just not shape-shifting to reflect our students’ myriad sociocultural backgrounds, lived realities, and modern lives.”

“Over a century’s worth of national studies of required secondary literature tells us that these curricular traditions are unlikely to shift, much less transform,” she said. “Therefore, our ability to apply equity-oriented strategies when delivering these works is critical.”

Teachers as change agents

Bissonnette said realizing that the canon — a list of historically valued works of literature — is a social construction helps students of diverse backgrounds connect with classical literature and strengthen their literacy skills across multiple disciplines.

As a new assistant professor of literacy education in the Iowa State University School of Education, Bissonnette is poised to enrich the literacy education program on campus.

“Dr. Bissonnette brings to our literacy education program strengths in literature and literacy education for middle and secondary school settings,” said Marlene Strathe, director of the School of Education. “There is an increasing interest in disciplinary-based literacy, an area of particular focus for her.”

Bissonnette uses this focus to develop new ways for teachers to consider and evaluate the instructional methods they apply — that is, their pedagogies — to teach their course content.

“Teachers are powerful agents of change,” she said. “They can take these required canonical pieces and through their pedagogy, deliver curriculum in transformative ways that disrupt traditional models of literature instruction.”

Acknowledging sociocultural tensions between teachers and students

While the disruption of traditional teaching models seems like a difficult, or even unnecessary, step to some, Bissonnette said she believes that increased student cultural and linguistic diversity within the United States, coupled with the fact that the majority of teachers remain white and female, makes cultural awareness increasingly important.

“If teachers are always teaching from their paradigms and fail to account for the fact that their students’ lives, realities, and belief systems may starkly contrast with their own, that lack of awareness could potentially create inequitable conditions for students, despite the best of intentions,” Bissonnette said.

“These time-honored literacy practices may not be oppressive in the way that we’ve typically applied the phrase,” she said. “However, teachers are often engaging in traditions and practices that are pushing certain kids to the margins of their classrooms and ultimately to the margins of society.”

In 2014, the United States marked the first time in its history that most students did not identify as white, according to the National Center for Education Statistics in its “Projections of Education Statistics to 2022.”

“It’s exciting — we have a steadily diversifying demographic,” Bissonnette said. “But the required texts we are assigning to and reading with our secondary students are just not evolving. We need to understand the realities of that curricular resistance and most importantly, we need to figure out how to mitigate the effects.”

Moving from today’s conversations to tomorrow’s classrooms

As Bissonnette works with future educators, she creates an environment where her students can question their own presuppositions in an open format of self-assessment.

“It’s important to provide sustained opportunities, conversations, and assignments that allow students to constantly reflect on how they think and teach in multicultural ways,” she said. “They also need time to consider how they can continue to set new goals and aspirations for developing along that continuum. You’re never ‘done’ learning how to be a multicultural teacher of literacy.”

Bissonnette said that to keep these talks productive, they must be ongoing.

“One priority of mine is to create moments of critical thought and dialogue, but I don’t want those thought processes to come to a stop once a student leaves my classroom,” she said. “I want to use my classroom as a space in which we establish a foundation for students to begin to acknowledge and develop their identities as multicultural, equity-oriented educators.”

When teachers lay this foundation, Bissonnette said students are more likely to believe that their unique experiences matter.

“We really need to be explicit in how we conceptualize notions of ‘equity’ and ‘culturally responsive pedagogy’ for and with our students,” she said. “Then, we must consider those conversations in light of how we deliver our canonical curricula.”

By keeping these conversations going, she said, those who educate future teachers can better equip them with the skills necessary to not only strengthen students’ disciplinary literacy skills, but also create opportunities for culturally and linguistically diverse students to see themselves reflected in curricula that is often homogeneous and culturally dismissive.

“These are all conversations that we need to continuously promote, engage, and return to — how we might teach in ways that invite, affirm, and value all students’ voices in our secondary literacy classrooms,” Bissonnette said.