Engaging Cultural Literacy

Two weeks ago I attended a school-wide Professional Development session on Culturally Responsive Teaching, the basic message of which was this: teachers need to do a better job embracing the diverse cultures of their students.

In fact, the NC Teacher Evaluation rubric offers the highest mark of “Distinguished” for the teacher who “Capitalizes on diversity as an asset in the classroom.”

I see the importance, of course. In a world whose cultural differences lead to numerous conflicts, cultural literacy, and the acceptance and embracement of many cultures is necessary. But, how exactly does one “capitalize” on diversity?

My classroom certainly qualifies as diverse. My students, close to 100 in total, represent a wide array of cultures.  A number of them immigrated to the U.S. within the last few years; even more are first-generation Americans. Many others have spent time living abroad, or are extensively traveled.

But, here’s the trouble: I’ve never been outside the United States. My family has been rooted in this state for six generations or more (we’ve kinda lost count at this point). The closest I’ve come to experiencing life in another culture is the World Showcase at EPCOT.   How do I, a person with little experience with other cultures, talk to a culturally diverse group about culture? Is this even a valid discussion coming from me?

I have always been a sensitive person, and I’ve always felt that I’m sensitive to others’ cultural differences. But, the training made me realize I am missing one key element: In my efforts to be sensitive to the cultural differences of my students, my method up to this point has been to simply avoid addressing them altogether.  It’s the elephant in my classroom. And it takes up a lot of space.

It’s a touchy topic. As NPR writer Rhitu Chatterjee says of discussing culture in the U.S, “there seems to be an awkward silence around cultural differences. Some American friends have said they worry about offending people from different backgrounds by pointing out differences.”

It’s true. As fascinated as I am about other cultures, I usually just turn to Google to discover more about them rather than risk offending someone by asking. Perhaps my own culture is coming into play here — after all, Americans seem to be downright offended by pretty much anything these days. And the thought that I could potentially offend someone as a result of my own ignorance is embarrassing. So, it seems safer not to say anything at all.

Oh, and let’s not forget the fact that literally all of my students have smartphones capable of recording anything I say and broadcasting it all over the Internet. One harmless statement taken out-of-context could make me a YouTube and Twitter sensation in the worst possible way.

See… it’s kind of no wonder teachers steer clear of this topic. It’s hard. But, as a responsible and responsive teacher, I can’t steer clear. And, if I make curriculum decisions based on what I think I know, am I not just relying on cultural stereotypes and assumptions to drive my choices?

So, how do we open a conversation that I (and so many other teachers like me) am afraid to have?

This week I took the first step as we started our second unit: Character, Place, Culture, and Identity. In it, we will explore the question of what a person’s (or character’s) culture means to their identity. By the nature of the unit, I have made the conversation unavoidable. But, oh…it still feels like such a prickly one to have.

And as it turns out, this week it was a very one-sided conversation. As in, I did all the talking, and very few of my students did any volunteering of information. It occurred to me that perhaps they, too, have become conditioned to avoiding cultural discussions in the classroom. Or, It could be that, at 14 and 15 years old, many of them are at the age where fitting in with those around them is more important than acknowledging differences, cultural or otherwise. So, they might just prefer that I keep quiet about the topic.

Since my first attempts at conversation failed, I’m hoping to strike a happy medium with the rest of this unit’s activities: using literacy to engage cultural literacy. This week we read excerpts of works (The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian, The Joy Luck Club) that deal with characters who are trying to navigate cultural stereotypes and bridge multiple cultures. We read Chatterjee’s NPR article about the same ideas, and connected it to the 2006 Mira Nair film The Namesake.

Over the next couple of weeks, we will research and write informational narratives about people, places, and celebrations of cultural significance, then turn them into podcasts linked to an interactive Google map. I’m not requiring my students to investigate stories from their own culture — and I don’t think I should. After all, it may be beneficial to them to explore a different culture, and maybe in doing so find similarities to their own.  Or, maybe they are not ready to address their own culture yet. And I am okay with that.

Hindsight being 20/20, though, already I am seeing my mistakes and reevaluating for next semester.  Why did I choose to make this a unit rather than a semester-long conversation? Because, really, this is a topic I should be addressing throughout my curriculum rather than over a three-week time period. Maybe by addressing it throughout the semester — by incorporating literature, discussion, film, and current events — I won’t be met with deafening silence whenever I broach the topic. Maybe by trying so hard  to not be culturally ignorant I’m actually being, well, culturally ignorant.

These are the ideas upon which I will reflect as we make our way through the rest of this unit. My hope is that, at the very least, this unit is perhaps a means of opening this conversation and making all parties (myself included) more comfortable with the idea of addressing culture in the classroom.

And, while it certainly won’t be perfect, at least it will be a chance to engage with the idea of cultural literacy. In order to lose the fear, we have to start somewhere.

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4 thoughts on “Engaging Cultural Literacy

  1. thomasunc October 9, 2016 / 11:29 pm

    At the first of your post I was thinking, “Engage in the topic. Ask kids questions. You don’t have to go there to find out about someone” As I kept reading I realized you were learning the thoughts in my head. At the end you realize the most important element, “addressing it throughout the semester.”
    I am not speaking as an expert, but as someone with experience. What has worked for me is knowing my students. Taking time to talk with them, eat lunch with them, and ask them questions about topics they introduce. But of course as I write this, I realize I have the luxury of being with my kids all day and the fact that they are not teenagers.
    You mentioned some examples of stories with kids struggling with identity. I think that is the road to take. “Characters” Maybe they will help the conversations happen.

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  2. Anna Doyle October 10, 2016 / 10:19 pm

    It’s sad that we have come to a point where seeking information has become offensive, although I certainly have seen the other side of questions that become offensive in my personal life. I think making these conversations organic parts of the lessons is the best way to avoid being offensive, and as students learn to trust that this classroom is a safe space to discuss some of the differences they have noticed between their own culture and what seems to be typical of this new environment, or the culture of characters they are encountering in their lessons, they will likely open up more without being asked direct questions. My personal experiences related to this come from being repeatedly asked questions about things that are quite personal. In many circumstances, I have no problem talking to people about these topics, but when asked a direct question about them, particularly when it’s not being asked within what feels like a “safe” conversation or just asked too many times, the questions do sometimes become offensive and become more likely to cause me to shut down that talk about them. More indirect questions that don’t single a person out are less likely to offend someone. Maybe one or two students wouldn’t want to talk about, for example, how their culture encourages large families and why that might be. But if you’re asking the group about whether or not a character in a book being the youngest of six children is important or how it relates to that character’s culture, you might still get some insight from one of those students that would be valuable to other students who aren’t part of a culture that encourages large families because now the question isn’t about them personally.

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  3. susanedu450 October 12, 2016 / 6:12 pm

    My class that I am taking hit on this topic and it was my group who talk about it. So one of the things that we thought that we should do in order to cover this topic. Is to incorporated into the whole yr rather then just 3 weeks as you can do different things like Black history month or native american or whatever that month is..you will have to research what month is what but you can base some of your lessons around this topics of that given month. I hope this helps with some ideas and I will try to check back as I have to think back what other ideas our group hit on and can pass that along to you 😉 good luck!

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  4. dezvillalobos October 12, 2016 / 6:54 pm

    This is a very complicated subject to address to say the least. I think you are already on to something though. Perhaps since you are worried about teaching it (understandably so. I think all of us are), maybe you can remove some of the accountability by facilitating the students own learning about different cultures. I was actually thinking about this subject the other day and this is the conclusion that we came to. I do like your idea about addressing cultural literacy throughout the semester versus doing it all at once! I think since you are thinking about it so much that whatever you come up with will be great!

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