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Reading Outside Our Cultural Comfort Zones

This post was written by NCTE member Kathryn Fishman-Weaver.

 

An article I saw in a well-respected newspaper referred to Washington Irving as “America’s first short story writer.” The earlier discussions my students and I had had on honoring and valuing indigenous voices gave them the context to view this claim from a critical distance: “Was Irving really America’s first short story writer, or was he the first short story writer from a specific cultural background?” These are the types of questions I want students to explore in their quest to become culturally responsive readers.

As educators, we have the responsibility to teach and celebrate a multiplicity of stories. To do so, we must consider whose stories get told, studied, and celebrated, as well as which stories are missing. As an educator, I want all of us to cultivate the practice of reading outside of our cultural comfort zones. We read to learn, connect, and understand, and I often encourage students to choose texts that teach them about the lived experiences they haven’t lived.

This work requires a radical reimaging and expansion of the texts we teach as well as the authors we mark as critical reading for young people. It also requires specific strategies for engaging with literature. In analyzing text, I teach context, connection, and critical thinking as culturally responsive reading response strategies:

 

Culturally Responsive Reading

Literature is a reflective and contextualized dialogue across the collective lived experiences of individuals and communities.

Context
How does culture, community, identity, and history impact this text? What voices are included? What voices are missing?

Connection

How is this text in conversation or conflict with other texts, your own lived experiences, and the context identified above?

Critical Thinking

What questions does this text elicit? Based on your reading, what do you want to challenge, extend, or explore?

 

While I strive to employ this framework across a multiplicity of lived experience stories, recently a group of teachers challenged me to consider whether this framework could also have utility with stories that have traditionally been canonized. After iterating our curriculum for representation, our language arts team asked for some support with two stories written by white male authors in the 1700–1800s.

First, we discussed whether or not we needed to keep these stories in our curriculum at all. This is a valid and important question. In this case, the team decided these stories were important to the course sequence and standards; however, we knew they needed to be taught in new light. So instead of pulling them, we paired them with additional literary voices and used them in our ongoing dialogue about representation, culture, and history.

Here is how we used the context-connection-critical thinking framework with both of these short stories.

Story 1: The first story utilized color symbolism, and assumed that readers would associate black with evil and white with innocence.

  • Context: We started by talking about how assigning specific meanings to specific colors is a tool artists have used across the visual and written arts for centuries. It is also culturally-specific—that is, just like race and gender, color meanings are culturally contextualized.
  • Connection: I asked the students, “What colors do you associate with the passing of a loved one?” Many students thought of black clothes worn to funerals. However, we talked about how in many East Asian cultures, white is associated with mourning, and in Mexico, on Dia de los Muertos, people often wear a bold array of colors to honor and celebrate their ancestors and those who have passed on. I shared that when my own grandfather passed my grandmother chose a dark dress with bright flowers to wear to his service. Personal connections like this inform our reading and also strengthen our class community.
  • Critical Thinking: This conversation opened up opportunities to research color symbolism and meaning across cultures, countries, and communities. I further challenged the students to consider how symbols are used in literature and what those symbols mean in cultural terms. We explored how current and historical movements for racial justice are disrupting the symbolic assumption we saw in this story.

As we put these ideas together, I asked the class if color symbolism was problematic. Are colors simply a literary tool? By pulling apart how structure and form are influenced by culture and context, literature becomes a reflective dialogue. Reading, writing, and lived experiences are reciprocally connected and intertwined. Our valid and varied experiences influence how we read a story as well as the stories we choose to write.

Story 2: The second story students studied included a more explicit racial stereotype and an outdated term. We used this story as a teaching moment for how to respond critically to stereotypes and then we explored the language. Together we engaged in a conversation about how language, like culture, evolves and shifts. As students explore these rhetorical changes across works of literature and broaden their understanding, they begin to view stories as products of cultural and historical contexts.

  • Context: This story was written during the American Revolutionary War. Some of the questions we posed included: What were race relations like during this period? What did this mean for indigenous people? What did this mean for people of African descent? What connections can you make between this story, your Social Studies classes, and also our current events?
  • Connection: We then compared aspects of this story to Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, which was written in a different context but also set during the American Revolutionary war. Miranda, a contemporary writer, drew on his own context and culture by making artistic choices that flip some of these stereotypes on their proverbial head—for example, by casting  African American and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) as the “Founding Fathers” of the United States.
  • Critical thinking: I asked students what statement they thought Miranda was making. What cultural lessons are embedded in this artistic work? This conversation then opened a window to a deeper exploration into how race and racism are or aren’t adequately addressed in this musical.

Knowing that literature is part of an ongoing conversation about life, I asked students to draw connections between this story and our earlier conversations on color symbolism. Soon, rather than considering two short stories, we were engaged in a rich examination of multiple works by authors from many different contexts.

Culturally responsive reading, much like culturally responsive teaching, is a practice we must continuously commit to, accepting that, at best, our progress will be continual rather than sudden or complete.

With hope, our classrooms can show us and our students that literature is a vehicle for intercultural understanding, and students can use this lesson to author their own literature—contemporary stories that serve as an important bridge across experience and possibility.

 

Kathryn Fishman-Weaver holds a faculty position at University of Missouri, College of Education, where she serves as the Interim Executive Director for Mizzou Academy. She is the author of Wholehearted Teaching of Gifted Young Women, When Your Child Learns Differently, and Brain-Based Learning with Gifted Students. Twitter:@kfishmanweaver

 

 

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