Highlights of Sessions 11 & 12: The Multicultural – Bold Choice Connection

22 11 2011

When we talked about multiculturalism, we first, of course, had to define culture.   I shared the Wikipedia definition and noted that the third option — “set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization, or group” is usually what we think of when we think of culture but that the second — “an integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for symbolic thought and social learning” — has a special significance for us as English teachers who are all about developing “the capacity for symbolic though and social learning.”  The first, “excellence of taste in the fine arts and humanities, also known as high culture,” is right up our alley, too, though we don’t usually think of ourselves as teachers of high culture.  And those not familiar with YA lit might question if there’s any high culture involved.  Know I’m smiling as I write.

On the question of identity-based awards, Bradley acknowledges it as a “question to generate controversy to make us think.”  It proved to be a good question in this respect and led us to each think deeply about what culture is, whose culture might have the edge in publishing, and what cultures should be represented in the literary canon from which we might draw selections for our classes.

Interestingly, when the question becomes what cultures should be represented in the literary canon, then we may be led to reexamine our assumptions about what’s appropriate text to include.  We decided that literature that may even seem repugnant and contrary to our beliefs about basic human rights — Michele offered Hitler’s Mien Kampf as an example — could have value in some teaching contexts.  This could be especially valuable in becoming critically literate and understanding where the power of movements comes from.

book cover of Ellen FosterI shared a collection of “multicultural novels” and everyone agreed that it was a bit of a “culture shock” to see Kay Gibbons’s Ellen Foster listed first in the table of contents.  It’s as ethnobotanist Wade Davis describes in the extraordinary film, “Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden”: we tend to consider our “model of reality” to be the “real world” and those of others are cultures.  It’s, he said, a form of cultural myopia.

So it makes sense that the more “cultures” we’re exposed to that the more we begin to understand that these are all part of the real world.  It follows then that in communities where there is not a diversity of cultures that it typically is more difficult to bring stories of diverse cultures into the English Language Arts classroom.

That’s the multicultural-bold choice connection.  Just as Mrs. Benson, my senior English teacher, made what would have been considered “bold choices” in selecting books like Richard Wright’s Black Boy for a small, rural Southern high school, we will want to think boldly and wisely about the stories that our students need to hear to better understand the diversity of cultures and develop global awareness.

One of the tools that veteran English teacher Valerie Pearson recommended to me years ago at an NCETA conference was the book rationale.  Both groups last night reviewed samples of Valerie’s rationales and came up with three major elements:  information about the book itself — overview, summary, essential questions/themes; how the book will contribute to the class, including the relevant instructional standards; and thoughtful considerations of potentially controversial elements of the book.  Both groups worked on a rationale for Maberry’s Rot and Ruin and discussed that the violence should be addressed and explained as never gratuitous but necessary to tell the story well.  Meg suggested Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth as an alternative selection with less violence though it also contains fewer of the serious themes than Rot and Ruin does.

When we discussed what might be wise to include in a book rationale, I mentioned the State’s Standard Course of Study/Common Core for English Language Arts and that the NCTE / IRA Standards for English Language Arts complement these and may be especially helpful for beginning teachers.

We decided that the wise English Language Arts teacher would publish these book rationales on her class website with an invitation for parents to join in the reading. Michele added in the chat that “My favorite parents are the ones who read along with us.”  I have had a student (Cynthia) create an intergenerational project that included an online discussion for students, parents, and grandparents.  The texts were books about WWII and the grandparents (probably great-grandparents by now) could share of their first or secondhand experiences.

Another thing to include on your website might be the state’s recommended “Request for Reconsideration of Instructional Materials” (see Nov. 21 session)  that Frances mentioned in her discussion on intellectual freedom and censorship in a participatory culture.  The purpose is to encourage parents to read the book in its entirely and consider the rationale you’ve provided for the book before they question its appropriateness.  All of these are efforts to open the communication lines, build trust in your judgement as a professional, and encourage a thoughtful dialogue.

Creating Social Justice Projects

Kim Wilkins shared at the recent Global Education Conference her Justice Project.  This middle school project includes a WebQuest with tasks that have students learning about what other students have accomplished with real-world projects designed around social issues, interviewing individuals and organizations within their communities to learn of their work and the communities’ needs, creating their own plan, and implementing it.  It’s a wonderful project and one we can learn from.  What we’d like to do at our next class is consider the dystopian novels that we’ve read (and others) to think about YA lit that might make a contribution to Kim’s project and imagine other projects inspired by our books.

I also shared my all-time favorite social justice project — the Empty Bowls Project.  The project itself has been around for years — begun in the 70s by an art teacher and his wife — and has gone global.  The implementation that I know and love is done by Asheville Middle School.  The unit focuses on world hunger and food insecurity to make students aware of inequalities and hunger in their own community as well as developing countries.

Strategies for Collaborative Reading of Texts

We also in our Session 11 LIVE Class discussed one of the most researched reading strategies of all times — reciprocal teaching.  It’s much more structured than a book club and more focused on developing reading skills than a literature circle.  Students learn through practice the big four reading processes of predicting, questioning, clarifying, and summarizing and practice them in their groups until they are self-sufficient and internalize these processes.

Next class we’ll enjoy sharing our dystopian novels, ideas for how they might be included in the curriculum, and prepare for our meeting with Jonathan Maberry.

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