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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School

Cultural Studies: Ishmael Reed and Graciela Limón

Emphasizes the exploration of a text's cultural and historical context.

About the Video

In Part I, Betty Tillman Samb and her students at Raoul Wallenberg High School in San Francisco, California, explore Ishmael Reed’s poem “Railroad Bill, A Conjure Man” and related texts. Reed visits the class and reads excerpts of the poem. In Part II, Bobbi Houtchens and her students at Arroyo Valley High School in San Bernardino, California, discuss excerpts from Graciela Limón’s novel about Chiapas entitled Erased Faces. Limón reads passages from her novel and shares stories of growing up in East Los Angeles and visiting the Zapatistas in Mexico.

About the Workshop

Welcome to Session 5: Cultural Studies, featuring selected works by Ishmael Reed and Graciela Limón. To enhance your teaching of multicultural literature in high school we have provided:

  • An overview of cultural studies theory
  • Lesson plans corresponding to each video program
  • A guide (downloadable PDF) to the workshop session activities
  • Cultural studies teaching strategies
  • Biographies of featured authors along with synopses of their work and further resources
  • A bibliography of additional resources

Theory Overview: Cultural Studies


Cultural studies examines the complex ways in which societal beliefs are formed. It is particularly valuable for teachers of multicultural literature because it focuses on the social divisions of class, gender, ethnicity, and race. Cultural studies looks at the ways in which meanings, stereotypes, and identities (both collective and individual) are generated within these social groups. The practice of cultural studies almost always involves the combination of otherwise discrete disciplines, including literature, sociology, education, history, philosophy, communications studies, and anthropology. An interdisciplinary approach is key to an understanding of these issues, because it allows students to study and compare multiple, varied texts that deal with the culture and history of a particular group.

Impact on Teaching Literature

In the classroom, a cultural studies approach usually combines literary readings with social and historical analysis. By reading texts in this way, students achieve a deeper understanding of how historical circumstances, social traditions, and the media work together to create a cultural milieu in which certain sets of beliefs are either reinforced or questioned. When the right texts are brought together, students can begin to see literature as a social product with a specific history and a particular agenda.

Incorporating Reader Response in the Classroom

The central teaching strategy of cultural studies is intertextual reading: comparing each literary text to culturally related texts. By reading literature in the context of other cultural works, students learn how the literature they study both creates and reflects cultural beliefs.

Texts for this practice may be drawn from almost any source: advertising, television, historical documents, visual artwork, legal documents, theological writing, etc. It’s best to contextualize literature with primary sources or compilations of primary sources. Teachers should also look for texts that raise issues with which their students can identify. For example, in this session, Ishmael Reed’s poetry and Graciela Limón’s novel both look at transformative journeys, which students may relate to their own experiences.

When using this intertextual approach, teachers will want to brief students before giving them materials to read. It’s usually helpful to explain that students will be asked to look for ways in which the different texts address similar issues; it’s also useful to explain that students will be asked how these texts reinforce or challenge our ideas about those issues. Teachers may also want to offer general information about the texts: when they were written, by whom, for what purpose, etc. Finally, teachers may want to provide background about the characters and images they’ll find. For example, when teaching Reed’s “Railroad Bill, A Conjure Man,” teachers can describe the trickster figure and his role in African stories, African American folklore, and legends before encouraging students to look for trickster references in the poem.

Benefits and Challenges of Using a Reader-Response Approach

Cultural studies exposes students to a wider range of texts and media than traditional literary studies; it can also help them to focus more completely on the issues affecting one particular culture or social group. Moreover, by examining the social and political forces that have impacted a particular text, students learn to question the social and political forces that impact their daily lives.

Ultimately, a cultural studies approach aims to give students choices. By recognizing how beliefs and mores have come to seem natural in a given cultural context, students are better able to reflect on the cultural messages they encounter in their own lives.

Culminating projects for assessment may consist of papers, multimedia projects or performances that combine research with literary analysis, ethnographies (including interviews and observation), and personal reflections.

Theory Resources

During, Simon (ed). The Cultural Studies Reader. New York: Taylor & Frances, Inc., 1999. This collection of essays covers major cultural studies methods and theories. It provides an overview of the practice from its inception through recent developments in areas of technology and science, globalization, post-colonialism, and cultural policy.

Eagleton, Terry. The Idea of Culture. Maine: Blackwell Publishers, 2000. This book serves as an introduction to debates about the various definitions of culture. Included is a critique of postmodern “culturalism,” and an exploration of the complex relationship between culture and nature.

Easthope, Antony. Literary Into Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, 1991. A consideration of some of the main areas of literary cultural studies, this book includes sections on New Historicism, British cultural studies, and cultural materialism.

Cultural Studies
This site explains the field of cultural studies, including its theories and methods.

Additional Resources

Allender, Dale. “Building a Schematic Bridge Across World Mythology and Multicultural Literature,” Multicultural Review. March 2002, Vol. 11, Number 1.

Allender, Dale. “The Myth Ritual Theory and the Teaching of Multicultural Literature,” English Journal. Illinois: NCTE, 2002.
This article teaches students about myth, ritual, and philosophy and its role in multicultural literature.

Andrews, W. (ed), et. al. The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Oxford University Press, 1997.
This reference book is a source of information about African American writers and their literature.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony and Henry Louis Gates Jr (eds). The Dictionary of Global Culture. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1997.
This dictionary presents cultural information about societies from around the globe. It is distinctive in that it gives equal voice and space to non-Western, European, and North American societies. Regional experts from five continents, including non-Western and Western scholars who have studied other cultures, developed entries.

Berry, James R. and Rebecca Davis. The First Palm Trees: An Anancy Spiderman Story. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.
The West Indian trickster Anancy tries to persuade the spirits of Sun, Water, Earth, and Air to create the world’s first palm trees so that he can collect a reward from the king.

Burciaga, Jose A. Spilling the Beans: Loteria Chicana. Santa Barbara: Joshua Odell Editions, 1995.
This collection of journalistic essays addresses various aspects of Chicano and Mexican culture.

Burciaga, Jose A. Drink Cultura: Chicanismo. Santa Barbara: Joshua Odell Editions, 1993.
This collection of short, humorous essays explores Chicano culture.

Courlander, Harold. “Hungry Spider and the Turtle” from The Cow-Tail Switch and Other West African Stories. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1987.
An example of an African trickster tale.

Daniels, Harvey. Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs & Reading Groups. Portland: Stenhouse Publishers, 2002.
This offers strategies, tips and examples for using literature circles.

Deren, Maya. Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. Kingston, NY: McPherson & Co., 1984. (Film version, 54 minutes, 1947-1951, released 1977.)
An anthropological book exploring West African religion in Haiti.

Dunbar, Paul Laurence. “We Wear the Mask” from The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1993.
This classic African American poem explores identity and double consciousness.

Edwards, Gary and John Mason. Black Gods: Orisa Studies in the New World. Yoruba Theological Archministry, 1998.
This book explores Orishá, Orixá or Orisa, general terms for one of the many secondary deities in the Yoruba tradition. The Orishás may be personal spirits or general deities representing natural forces.

Fatunmbi, Awo Fa’Lokun. Esu-Elegba: Ifa and the Divine Messenger.*com/art_esu.html
This article explores the spiritual force of Esu and helps to give a broader understanding of Esu as a force in nature.

Ford, Clyde W. The Hero With an African Face: Mythic Wisdom of Traditional Africa. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing, 2000.
This collection of African myths tells of the creation of the world, the hero’s journey, and our relationship with nature, death, and resurrection. These tales come from the Ashanti people in areas including Uganda and the Congo. They explore themes of grief, love, creation, destiny, and personal discovery.

Grobman, Laurie. Teaching at the Crossroads: Cultures and Critical Perspectives in Literature by Women of Color. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 2001.
This book offers strategies for teaching literature by women of color.

Hamilton, Virginia. A Ring of Tricksters: Animal Tales From America, the West Indies, and Africa. New York: Scholastic Press, 1997.
This is a collection of 12 trickster tales that shows the migration of African culture to the Americas via the West Indies.

Harris, Joel Chandler (as retold by). The Story of Brer Rabbit and the Wonderful Tar Baby. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990.
This is a version of the classic African American folktale.

Hughes, Langston and Arna Bontemps, eds. Book of Negro Folklore. New York: Dodd, Mead, & Co., 1958.
This classic piece of African American folklore was edited by premiere Harlem Renaissance writers.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Mules and Men. New York: HarperPerennial, 1935.
Folklorist Roger Abrahams calls this “simply the most exciting book on Black folklore and culture I have ever read.”

Hurston, Zora Neale. The Sanctified Church. Berkeley: Turtle Island, 1981.
This anthropological collection of stories focuses on observances and rituals in the African American South.

Jolley, Susan Arpajian. “The Use of Slave Narratives in a High School English Class,” English Journal. Illinois: NCTE, 2002.
This teacher shows how she incorporates nonfiction work into her high school curriculum.

Marcos, Subcomandante. The Story of Colors (La Historia de los Colores). Mexico: Ediciones Colectivo Callejero, 1996.
This folktale in English and Spanish from the jungles of Chiapas has illustrations by Mayan artist Domitila Dom�nguez.

Masden, D (ed). Post-Colonial Literatures: Expanding the Canon. London: Pluto Press, 1999.
This collection of essays explores multicultural American literature through a post-colonial lens.

Oliver, Eileen. Crossing the Mainstream: Multicultural Perspectives in Teaching Literature. Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English, 1994.
This book offers a consideration of curriculum development, teaching strategies, and literary questions for multicultural texts.

Owomoyela, Oyekan. Yoruba Trickster Tales. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.
This volume offers a representative collection of 23 trickster tales that introduce the folk culture of the Yoruba tribe of West Africa. These Yoruba trickster tales come out of the tradition of evening storytelling, a popular form of entertainment in traditional African societies.

Roberts, John W. From Trickster to Badman: The Black Folk Hero in Slavery and Freedom. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989.
This work demonstrates how African American folk heroes and stories about them are part of a creative process meaningful only when viewed from the vantage point of the cultural values of people of African descent in America.

Salaam, Yusef. Brer Rabbit Escapes Again, or Brer Fox Bites off More Than He Can Chew, from Brotherman: The Odyssey of Black Men in America. Boyd, Herb and Robert Allen (eds). New York: Ballantine Books, 1996.
In this short work, Yusef Salaam liberally applies stories from this African American folk hero in a contemporary urban setting. Teacher Betty Tillman Samb uses the story intertextually in a literature circle with Ishmael Reed’s “Railroad Bill, A Conjure Man.”

Scheub, Harold. A Dictionary of African Mythology: The Mythmaker as Storyteller. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
This is one of the most recent books on myth from the African continent by a celebrated scholar.

Tedlock, D (trans). Popol Vuh: The Definitive Edition of the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods and Kings. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.
A translation of the Mayan book of cosmology, this volume contains commentary based on the ancient knowledge of the modern Quiche Maya.

Thompson, Robert Farris. Black Gods and Kings: Yoruba Art at UCLA. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1976.
This book highlights Thompson’s exhibit of African art at the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History in Los Angeles, California.

Thompson, Robert Farris. Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. New York: Random House, 1984.
Thompson, an art historian/critic, explores West African mythological motifs in African art.

Ugorji, Okechukwu K. The Adventures of Torti: Tales from West Africa. Africa World Press, 1991.
This book describes the escapades of a grand old tortoise in Africa known for his wisdom and games.

Willis, Arlette Ingram. Teaching and Using Multicultural Literature in Grades 9-12. Norwood, NJ: Christopher Gordon Publishers, 1998.
A guide to teaching multicultural literature in the high school classroom.

Chiapas and the Women
Visit this site for a collection of documents concerning the presence and condition of women in the Chiapas conflict.

500 Years of Oppression
This project concerns the war that the Zapatista army declared on the Mexican government on January 1, 1994. The site includes information on the Zapatistas, American involvement in the conflict, neo-liberalism, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and links to a wealth of related resources.

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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School


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