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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School

Cultural Studies: N. Scott Momaday and Russell Leong

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

About the Video

In Part I, Betty Tillman Samb’s students study the mythological themes and historical shifts of Kiowa culture through N. Scott Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain. In Part II, Bobbi Houtchens and her students tour LA’s Chinatown with poet Russell Leong and explore the relationship between poetry and Tai Chi. Leong reads excerpts of his poem “Aerogrammes” and leads the class in creating Japanese Renga poems.

About the Workshop

Welcome to Session 6: Cultural Studies, featuring selected works by N. Scott Momaday and Russell Leong.

An overview of cultural studies theory was presented in Session 5. Refresh your memory by reading the overview again.

To enhance your teaching of multicultural literature in high school we have provided:

  • 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 Cultural Studies 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

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 the entries.

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. Oxford: 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.

Cultural Studies Central
This site offers a wealth of cultural studies resources and activities.

University of Washington Cultural Studies Database
This site provides a directory of recent academic essays that use a cultural studies approach.

Additional Resources

Ask Asia Website Materials/Readings/index.htm
This site compiles numerous resources — historical, literary, and cultural — on Asian American culture in general, along with resource guides about specific Asian cultures.

Becoming American: The Chinese Experience
This Web site provides a wealth of information about Chinese immigration to the U.S. and Chinese American life.

Charles, Jim. “Contemporary American Indian Life in The Owl’s Song and Smoke Signals,” English Journal, 2002. /0903-jan01/EJ0903Contemporary.pdf
This article on teaching cultural studies looks at works with young-adult Native American protaganists.

Chin, Frank, et al (eds). Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian American Writers. New York: Mentor, 1974.
This first Asian American literature anthology was a seminal book in Asian American and multicultural literary history.

Circle of Stories
This Web site contains information about storytelling traditions, including material from N. Scott Momaday.

Francis, Lee. Native Time: A Historical Time Line of Native America. New York: St Martin’s Griffin, 1996.
This cross-referenced timeline deals with the history, literature, religion, and politics of Native Americans.

Hubbard, Jim (ed). Shooting Back From the Reservation: A Photographic View of Life by Native American Youth. New Press, 1994.
This collection of photographs evolved out of a project that gave Native American adolescents cameras to take interpretive photos of their environment.

Index of Native American Resources on the Web
This Web site offers handy links to sites about Native American history and culture.

Kim, Elaine H. Asian American Literature; An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context. Philadelphia: Temple University, 1982.
This general introduction to Asian American literature also supplies classroom teaching tips.

Lee, Robert A. “Imagined Cities of China: Timothy Mo’s London, Sky Lee’s Vancouver, Fae Myenne Ng’s San Francisco and Gish Jen’s New York.” Critical Mass, 4:1 (Fall 1996).
This article compares Russell Leong’s poetry to the work of other contemporary Asian writers.

Lim, Shirley Geok-lin and Amy Ling (eds). Reading the Literature of Asian America. Philadelphia: Temple University, 1992.
This guide contains tips for teaching Asian-American literature.

Ling, Amy. “Teaching Asian-American Literature.” From Heath Anthology Newsletter. Georgetown University: 1996.
This essay offers analysis and strategies for bringing Asian American texts into the classroom.

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

Native Americans – Searching for Knowledge and Understanding index.html
This Web site offers lesson plans for middle school classes about history and culture.

Native American Storytelling
This Web site offers lesson plans about Native American storytelling for elementary level classes.

Oliver, Eileen. Crossing the Mainstream: Multicultural Perspectives in Teaching Literature. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1994.
This book focuses on curriculum development, teaching strategies, and literary questions for multicultural texts.

Takaki, Ronald. A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America. Boston: Back Bay Books, 1993.
Takaki examines of the multicultural history of the United States.

Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. New York: Penguin, 1989.
This historical overview draws on letters, journals, newspaper ads, and other historic artifacts to tell a broad story of Asian American history.

Willis, Arlette Ingram. Teaching and Using Multicultural Literature in Grades 9-12. Norwood, NJ: Christopher Gordon Publishers, 1998.
This guide to teaching multicultural literature focuses on instruction in high school classrooms.

Wong, Sau-Ling Cynthia. Reading Asian American Literature: From Necessity to Extravagance. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993.
This text focuses on the inclusion of Asian American literature in the classroom.

Yang, Jeff, et al. Eastern Standard Time: A Guide to Asian Influence on American Culture From Astro Boy to Zen Buddhism. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
This very visual and sometimes humorous book explores the influence of the East on Western culture.

Series Directory

The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School


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