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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School

Cultural Studies: N. Scott Momaday and Russell Leong Teaching Strategies

  • Cultural Artifacts
  • Group Research
  • Cultural Immersion
  • Renga

Cultural Artifacts

Description
Renga
is a medieval Japanese form of linked verse poetry in which a group writes a poem together. Generally, each participant adds one line at a time, but in contemporary adaptations of the form, poets sometimes write the lines all at once and then compile them. The term itself means “linked images,” and, naturally, the beauty of the form lies in its surprising links and variety. A great renga, scholars say, should contain all the surprises and variety of life itself.

Renga have been written for perhaps a thousand years, though the form reached its peak in the work of the Japanese poet Bâsho (1644-1694). In classical renga, verses of 14 to 17 syllables, each evoking a season, are combined to form a poem of about 100 lines.

To use renga in the classroom, teachers should have students write down a list of sensory impressions about a particular place or experience. Students should then choose one of these impressions and write one sentence about it on a note card. The sentence can be any length, but it should be based on the student’s immediate reaction to the impression; no judgments or explanations are necessary. Teachers should encourage students to be precise with their descriptions. For example, when teacher Bobbi Ciriza Houtchens works with a student to develop a poetic line, she encourages the student to describe the smell of egg rolls in Chinatown in very specific words instead of relying on the general understanding of what egg rolls smell like.

Working in groups, the students should shuffle the note cards so that nobody’s lines are given precedence. The groups can decide how they want to read the cards. Teachers may also choose to pass out musical instruments or ask students to clap to keep rhythm as they recite their collective poem. Bobbi Ciriza Houtchens’ students creatively used chopsticks as accompaniment to their collective poetry reading. Students will be excited to see how the seemingly disparate lines tend to fit together into a coherent, meaningful poem.

Benefits
By writing a poem as a group, students recognize how literature can arise from a group experience. When students combine their private sensory impressions into a collective expression of a place or experience, they recognize how the personal aspects of literature are related to public aspects. Moreover, renga encourages students to work together creatively.

Group Research

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.

Cultural Immersion

Description
During Cultural immersion, all the members of a classroom — teachers, students, and guests — share a sensory experience of the culture being explored. Whether this involves teaching students a traditional dance or taking them on a tour of a neighborhood or community, the goal is to immerse the class in an authentic experience of the culture.

In beginning a cultural exchange, teachers may want to look for environments that are representative of the culture. For instance, teacher Bobbi Ciriza Houtchens took her class on a tour of Chinatown. If possible, teachers should also bring along a “guide,” someone familiar with the culture and area who can lead the class through the experience, providing commentary and insights to which students might not otherwise be privy.

It is understandable that not all classes can take such field trips; still, there are many other ways to offer students an authentic experience, and teachers should consider all the resources available to them. They can bring in artifacts, photographs, artwork, music, literature, food, and posters to transform the classroom as much as possible. It might be a good idea to invite some knowledgeable guests, preferably members of the culture being studied, who can provide their own artifacts and stories. Whatever approach is taken, teachers should make sure that the environment stimulates the students’ senses in terms of the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells of the culture.

Once the students have been introduced to the new cultural experience, teachers should ask them to glean information about the culture by using their senses. Students can list sensory information about how the environment feels, how it smells, what it looks like, and what it sounds like. Students can then use these descriptive words to write a poem about the new place they’ve discovered.

Benefits
By immersing themselves in rich, authentic cultural environments and utilizing all of their senses, students learn that every experience can help them to understand and appreciate other cultures, whether that experience is reading a book, eating a meal, or participating in a traditional ritual.

For students of literature, this sensory method of learning is particularly valuable because it encourages them to perceive how reading — often a private, intellectual pursuit — is contextualized by the communal, living aspects of a culture.

Renga

Description
Renga
is a medieval Japanese form of linked verse poetry in which a group writes a poem together. Generally, each participant adds one line at a time, but in contemporary adaptations of the form, poets sometimes write the lines all at once and then compile them. The term itself means “linked images,” and, naturally, the beauty of the form lies in its surprising links and variety. A great renga, scholars say, should contain all the surprises and variety of life itself.

Renga have been written for perhaps a thousand years, though the form reached its peak in the work of the Japanese poet Bâsho (1644-1694). In classical renga, verses of 14 to 17 syllables, each evoking a season, are combined to form a poem of about 100 lines.

To use renga in the classroom, teachers should have students write down a list of sensory impressions about a particular place or experience. Students should then choose one of these impressions and write one sentence about it on a note card. The sentence can be any length, but it should be based on the student’s immediate reaction to the impression; no judgments or explanations are necessary. Teachers should encourage students to be precise with their descriptions. For example, when teacher Bobbi Ciriza Houtchens works with a student to develop a poetic line, she encourages the student to describe the smell of egg rolls in Chinatown in very specific words instead of relying on the general understanding of what egg rolls smell like.

Working in groups, the students should shuffle the note cards so that nobody’s lines are given precedence. The groups can decide how they want to read the cards. Teachers may also choose to pass out musical instruments or ask students to clap to keep rhythm as they recite their collective poem. Bobbi Ciriza Houtchens’ students creatively used chopsticks as accompaniment to their collective poetry reading. Students will be excited to see how the seemingly disparate lines tend to fit together into a coherent, meaningful poem.

Benefits
By writing a poem as a group, students recognize how literature can arise from a group experience. When students combine their private sensory impressions into a collective expression of a place or experience, they recognize how the personal aspects of literature are related to public aspects. Moreover, renga encourages students to work together creatively.

Resources

Carey-Webb, Allen. Literature and Lives: A Response-Based, Cultural Studies Approach to Teaching English. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2001.
This book uses classroom anecdotes to illustrate reader response and cultural studies methods. The author makes numerous connections between canonical works and multicultural writers, popular culture, politics, history, and contemporary youth issues. It is full of useful information about literary scholarship and theory, and provides extensive annotated bibliographies for multicultural literature.

Harvey, Karen, et al. How to Teach about American Indians: A Guide for School Library Media Specialist. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1995.
This book provides insightful and practical information on teaching about Native American history and literature.

Lee, Carol D. Signifying As a Scaffold for Literary Interpretation: The Pedagogical Implications of an African American Discourse Genre. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1993.
Lee explores African American discourse patterns as they are enacted in conversation and African American literature, and discusses ways of facilitating African American students’ literacy development through this discourse.

Lee, Enid; Deborah Menkart; and Margo Okazawa-Rey. Beyond Heroes and Holidays: A Practical Guide to K-12 Anti-Racist, Multicultural Education and Staff Development. Washington, DC: Network of Educators on the Americas, 1998.
This discussion of the ways in which school curricula promote racism includes practical ideas for transforming classroom instruction and school culture.

Maitino John R (ed). Teaching American Ethnic Literatures: Nineteen Essays. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.
This collection of essays describes college-level approaches to American ethnic literature and includes critical analysis, teaching strategies, activities, and a bibliography.

Olson, Carol B. Reading, Thinking, & Writing about Multicultural Literature. Glenview, IL: ScottForesman, 1996. The California Writing Project put together this collection of 29 writing exercises, each one based on a text. Texts studied include The Bluest Eye, The House on Mango Street, Like Water for Chocolate, and The Joy Luck Club.

Singh, Amritjit (ed). Memory and Cultural Politics: New Approaches to American Ethnic Literatures. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996.
This collection of essays features critical analysis and teaching strategies for American ethnic literatures.

Susag, Dorothea M. Roots and Branches: A Resource of Native American Literature — Themes, Lessons, and Bibliographies. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1998.
This book provides analytic and pedagogic ideas for teachers of Native American literature.

Witalec, Janet and Joseph Bruchac (eds). Smoke Rising: The Native North American Literary Companion. New York: Visible Ink Press, 1995.
This teacher’s reference guide focuses on traditional and contemporary Native American literature.

The American Indian Quarterly
http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/american_indian_quarterly/
This is the online home of American Indian Quarterly, a peer-reviewed, interdisciplinary journal of scholarship featuring archived materials along with new articles.

American Pictures
http://www.american-pictures.com/english/
This multimedia presentation on racism and oppression is ideal for teaching reading through storytelling, and using pictures to address social and cultural issues.

Teaching Resources: Literary Lessons
http://home.att.net/~teaching/litlessons.htm
This site provides useful materials for literature circles, such as literary lesson files and graphic organizers.

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