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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School

Critical Pedagogy: Octavia E. Butler and Ruthanne Lum McCunn Teaching Strategies

  • News Groups / Public Letters
  • Cultural Exchange
  • Group Persona / Tea Party
  • Personal Essay

News Groups / Public Letters

Description
A personal essay is an argument or narrative that uses private experiences to comment on a larger cultural issue.

Teachers may want to use this strategy as a follow-up to a detailed investigation of a politically-oriented text. After students have reflected on the political issue raised by the text, teachers should ask them to list all the ways in which this political issue impacts their own communities. For example, teacher Sandra Childs asks her students to list the various ways people in their communities struggle with cultural ideals of beauty. Then, teachers can ask students to share some of their listed items with the class so that each student is introduced to new ideas and is pushed to think more imaginatively about how the political issue affects them.

When the class discussion has ended, teachers should ask students to write a free-form essay about one of the items on their own lists. Students should be encouraged to describe their personal experiences in as much detail as possible and to think about how their experiences have been affected by the larger political question they are studying. If applicable, students should use their personal experience as the basis of an argument or a proposal for political action.

Finally, teachers should ask students to read their essays aloud. The class can then spend time comparing the arguments put forth in various student essays, noting how the ideas of others have affected their own perspectives on the issues.

Benefits
When students use their own experiences to make arguments about larger cultural issues, they recognize how the political questions they study affect their lives. This encourages students to find connections between their private struggles and larger political struggles, and they may find ways in which they can join with others to create change.

By sharing these personal essays, students also learn to speak in public about the ways political issues have affected their private lives. By encouraging this kind of openness, teachers create a space for students to connect with one another, to recognize their common goals, and to work together for positive change.

Cultural Exchange

Description
Group research involves presenting an issue or question about a text to a small number of students and allowing them to work together to find information. Students may use the library, the Internet, or a given set of texts to research their subject. After researching, students should compile and synthesize the findings of the group.

Teachers can begin a Group research project by dividing the class into groups of four or five and giving each group a specific area or issue to investigate. (These issues should be different from one another, but all should relate to the text.)

Each group should find primary sources that give them insight into the issue at hand. If there is time, teachers may ask students to interview people who have firsthand knowledge of the subject, or to record sounds and images that detail some aspect of the issue they’re investigating.

The groups should then compile their information and create a brief presentation for the class as a whole. The presentations may be textual, or they can be dramatic, involving image, movement, sound, and spoken stories.

The class as a whole should discuss how the information presented changes their understanding of the literary work they’re reading.

Benefits
By allowing students to find answers independently with the aid of their peers, Group research teaches students to be proactive in their education. Instead of listening to information “packaged” by a teacher, students learn to find information and process it for themselves.

Group research also encourages students to rely on each other’s experiences and to develop respect for their peers’ perspectives. By using the findings of each member to create a group presentation, students learn to build consensus and to synthesize various ideas.

Group Persona / Tea Party

Description
A group persona is a character created by a group of students. Usually, this character is based on a person who appears in the reading that the group has examined, but the character can also be based on a person who appears in a painting or photo. In any case, the persona created by the group is reflective of a value system and a set of historical circumstances that the group has studied together.

During a “tea party,” each class member acts out the persona created in his or her group, and then, while still in character, all the class members mingle and meet the other personae. They can then compare their experiences in a creative, free-form way.

Teachers should begin by dividing the class into groups of four or five and giving each group a different text to study. The text can be an essay, a poem, a chapter from a novel, or any articulation of an individual’s cultural experience. It’s important, however, to choose texts that give students a strong impression of both an individual author and his or her cultural milieu. That way, students can better understand how an individual can be part of a community while working to change it. (Students should be reminded that acting a part only provides an imaginative glimpse of another’s life; this exercise should lead students to develop further questions about the character’s cultural milieu.)

Once students have read their texts, they should note the qualities of the text’s author and explore how these qualities either support or subvert the author’s cultural norms. They should try to imagine the way the author might behave in his or her daily life. In order to crystallize these impressions, teachers should ask each group to summarize what their author is trying to say. Then, each group can write a paragraph or poem in the voice of the author they have imagined, expressing the author’s concerns about a particular cultural issue.

Finally, the teacher should ask each student to assume the identity of the author his or her group has studied. The teacher should then reorganize the class into new groups, each containing one student from each of the previous groups so that the “authors” can interact with one another. While acting out these identities, students mingle with their classmates in a “tea party” situation: They can introduce themselves, in character, to members of the group and try to find common interests. It may be useful for the teacher to act as “host” in this situation, introducing students to one another or suggesting topics of conversation. Teachers should then lead a class discussion in which students reflect on their experiences. (If teachers want students to articulate their impressions of this exercise in written form, they can ask students to write a thank-you note in the voice of the persona he or she has assumed. The student might reflect on how his or her persona would have reacted to the various characters he or she met, noting which other “tea party” guest — or character — he or she most enjoyed meeting.)

Benefits
By creating a persona, or character, students learn to humanize and relate to the people whose cultural experiences they’re studying. They recognize how cultural and historical circumstances impact personal lives. But students also recognize how all communities are made up of numerous individuals, individuals like themselves, who have the power to change cultural practices. When students mingle and meet other personae, they recognize how much individuals from different communities have in common.

Personal Essay

Description
A personal essay is an argument or narrative that uses private experiences to comment on a larger cultural issue.

Teachers may want to use this strategy as a follow-up to a detailed investigation of a politically-oriented text. After students have reflected on the political issue raised by the text, teachers should ask them to list all the ways in which this political issue impacts their own communities. For example, teacher Sandra Childs asks her students to list the various ways people in their communities struggle with cultural ideals of beauty. Then, teachers can ask students to share some of their listed items with the class so that each student is introduced to new ideas and is pushed to think more imaginatively about how the political issue affects them.

When the class discussion has ended, teachers should ask students to write a free-form essay about one of the items on their own lists. Students should be encouraged to describe their personal experiences in as much detail as possible and to think about how their experiences have been affected by the larger political question they are studying. If applicable, students should use their personal experience as the basis of an argument or a proposal for political action.

Finally, teachers should ask students to read their essays aloud. The class can then spend time comparing the arguments put forth in various student essays, noting how the ideas of others have affected their own perspectives on the issues.

Benefits
When students use their own experiences to make arguments about larger cultural issues, they recognize how the political questions they study affect their lives. This encourages students to find connections between their private struggles and larger political struggles, and they may find ways in which they can join with others to create change.

By sharing these personal essays, students also learn to speak in public about the ways political issues have affected their private lives. By encouraging this kind of openness, teachers create a space for students to connect with one another, to recognize their common goals, and to work together for positive change.

Resources

Appleman, Deborah. Critical Encounters in High School English: Teaching Literary Theory to Adolescents. New York: Teachers College Press, 2000.
Appleman’s book provides strategies for teaching critical pedagogy, reader response, feminism, Marxism, and deconstruction in literature classes.

Christensen, Linda. Reading, Writing, and Rising Up: Teaching About Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools, 2000.
These lesson plans and essays offer teachers strategies on how to control the political implications of their writing classes.

Edelsky, Carole (ed). Making Justice Our Project: Teachers Working Toward Critical Whole Language Practice. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1999.
Whole-language teachers consider the political implications of their work.

Graham, Maryemma, Sharon Pineault-Burke and Marianna W. Davis (eds). Teaching African American Literature: Theory and Practice. New York: Routledge, 1998.
Teachers discuss their reasons and methods for teaching African American literature in middle school, high school, and college English classes.

Menkart, Deborah et al. Beyond Heroes and Holidays: A Practical Guide to K-12 Anti-Racist, Multicultural Education and Staff Development. Washington, DC: Teaching for Change, 2002.
These strategies and resources are aimed at advancing the teaching of multicultural materials in pre-college classrooms.

Olson, Carol B. Reading, Thinking, & Writing About Multicultural Literature. Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman, 1996.
These lesson plans for multicultural literature classes includes studies of authors like Chief Seattle, Amy Tan, Tecumseh, Jade Snow Wong, and Laura Esquivel.

Series Directory

The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School

Credits

Produced by Thirteen/WNET. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-676-6