ALAN v25n3 - THE DIVERSITY CONNECTION- Taking Responsibility for What We Teach

Volume 25, Number 3
Spring 1998

Taking Responsibility for What We Teach

Eileen I. Oliver, EditorVolume Two, 1991-1996
Washington State University, Pullman, Washington

Last year in a nearby high school, a very unpleasant situation occurred as a result of what I will call "multicultural backlash." In the English department's zeal to infuse its curriculum with diverse literature, an unfortunate scenario was created, that all of us interested in teaching multicultural literature should recognize. It seems that one of the instructors introduced a Toni Morrison excerpt with very little in the way of curricular planning beyond the significance of symbolism and language choice.

What occurred, then, was a misrepresentation of "the message" that students were to receive. Not only did the European American students misinterpret the text, but also, according to the half dozen students of color in the class, the instructor was ill-equipped to handle the discussion and those in the minority felt victimized. As a result, feelings were hurt, accusations were made, and no one found the experience a positive one in any way. Further, the handful of students of color found themselves defending issues and explaining various cultural values - tasks that should have never fallen on their shoulders.

In addition to a failed opportunity to enjoy excellent literature, this incident was a powerful lesson for teachers in how stereotypes can dictate our attitudes and impressions in negative ways. What went wrong? Why did this teacher have such a difficult time? Why did this situation erupt, cause an uproar among many factions, and create bad feelings among students within the class and across the campus?

I would like to use this example as a metaphor to represent a growing concern among scholars and teachers interested in bringing diversity into the classroom. That is, when we bring in issues that most certainly will create discussion and introduce alternative perspectives, we must also be sure we are prepared to recognize and value differing perceptions. We must be prepared not only to provide diverse literature in our curricula, but also be willing to take an honest and open look at how we teach it. We should expect and encourage the issues that are raised - both positive and negative - by our students. In the case of this poor teacher, she introduced a volatile piece of literature without any pedagogical grounding beyond strict textual analysis. She also was ill-equipped to deal with issues of race, class and gender.

Indeed, many examples exist both in the literature and with anecdotal evidence of individuals who sit as minorities in classrooms, victims of the insensitivity and lack of awareness of their teachers and classmates. What I would like to present here are other prototypical instances where such scenarios have occurred, not for the purpose of criticizing our colleagues, but instead to alert us to some of the sensitive areas that we sometimes overlook. Then I will offer suggestions and examples of how we can use the large corpus of young adult literature that exists to bridge the gap between misinterpretation and understanding.

The Best Laid Plans...

Let me give one more illustration of a good idea gone bad. I know a wonderful, dedicated teacher who wanted to show her students how wrong and harmful racism can be. For some reason - and for the life of me I can't figure this out - she chose Mark Twain's Puddin'head Wilson. This is the story of two men - one mixed race African/European American who passes for "white," and one European American - who are switched at birth. The "white" character grows up thinking he is a slave and conducts himself accordingly; the mixed-race character grows up thinking he is a slave owner and also behaves as such. In the end, their respective identities are revealed and the mixed-race man, now a slave, is sold down the river to an evil master.

Where is the lesson here? I'm not sure what the teacher had in mind, but I do know she was in earnest. However, the two African American students in the class took one look at the first use of the word "nigger" and refused to read any farther. The teacher allowed these two students to read another Twain book - A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court - which, of course, they didn't read either! These students were extremely hurt, and the rest of the class didn't understand what the "big deal" was.

Confronting current discontent with the teaching of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, a frequently chosen high school novel, Ricker-Wilson (1998) realizes that teachers must not only "address how readers read about someone other than themselves, but how readers read about themselves as marginalized other, even if authorial intent might have been to critique such marginalization" (p. 69) She tells us to be cautious in assuming that the moral positions of the white characters neutralize the demoralization African American students may feel. Her experience in a racially-mixed class was that the "subject-specific understanding of, and engagement with" the reading was troubling. She encourages the use of Mockingbird along with a choice such as Mildred Taylor's Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, which depicts racism from an African American author's point-of-view.

Without realizing it, we sometimes put students in uncomfortable positions where they are viewed, or at least felt they are viewed, as "different" and "lessor" in some way. Instead of bringing issues to the fore and exposing everyone to diverse perspectives, we further isolate some while allowing others to miss the point. We must remember that, when teaching literature, it is important for students to locate themselves within their classrooms. We must also recognize that this is not an easy task. Students often have competing levels of identity which they may not even understand themselves. In discussing "location" of students in her class, Elizabeth Ellsworth (1989) describes students who

expressed much pain, confusion, and difficulty in speaking, because of the ways in which discussion called up their multiple and contradictory social positioning. (p. 312)

The multiple levels of gender, national origin, race, disability, and so forth compels students to make difficult choices about who they are. And we must provide them with the support they need to make these determinations.

Valuing who we are is crucial in our learning to accept others. Desai (l997) discusses the reaction of a fifth-grade Jewish girl to her teacher's question, "Is there anyone in the class who is Jewish and could bring in a menorah for Chanukah?" To this point, no one knows that the girl is Jewish. Should she respond? Slowly she does. No one reacts and the girl wonders why she hesitated. But at some level, she knows that there may exist some antisemitic feeling that she does not want to encounter.

Teacher and author Marilyn Levy (1975) talks about her experience as a student in a high school English class tackling The Merchant of Venice. The teacher offered no preparation or background regarding the plight of the European Jew during this period, provided no information about how Jews were forbidden to own land or to carry out otherwise normal means to earn a livelihood. There was no information about how Jews were used by those in power to collect money; and, therefore, they were made to be usurers.

I became very conscious of the way others perceived me, and at times I went out of my way not to fulfill what I now understand as a stereotype…. Indeed. And how do our students, a growing number of whom are not from the "mainstream" of the Northern European Protestant group, feel about the characters in such literature? If our purpose is to create a safe environment for our students, we must be wary of the places we ask them to go.

Teachers Use Diverse Literature Both To Teach and Empower Students

As English/language arts teachers, we are in a position to empower students with the lessons embodied in literature. Describing the successful reading of Walter Dean Myers' Fallen Angels, Mitchell (1998) reports that her tenth graders "pounced on that novel and read it in big gulps." She reminds us that using literature "that is far removed from the interests or concerns of [students] is just another way of telling them that school is not real." Fallen Angels discusses race and raises questions about why there was a "disproportionately high number of minority soldiers who saw front-line duty" (pp. 163-6). And in doing so, all students, African American and everyone else, are allowed to enter into thoughtful considerations of race in the United States.

Inter-racial children are a growing population in this culture, yet ''location'' is seldom dealt with in this context. Mourning Dove's account of the Native American/Caucasian characters in Cogewea: The Half Blood treats this issue while offering young readers an historical account of the old west. Though not a new young adult novel, this book introduces a subject not often discussed in the classroom. Careful work with Cogewea yields extremely rewarding results.

Concerned with the paucity of Jewish literature presented to students other than stories about the Holocaust, Sandra Stotsky (1996) recommends that teachers use some post-Holocaust literature that shows

. . . how Jews survived, successfully rebuilt their lives and their communities, here, in Israel, and elsewhere, and triumphed over an act of barbarism that is still incomprehensible. (p. 58)

Stotsky suggests a number of literary titles for young readers on Post-World War II Jewish life.

Christa Goldsmith (1998) works with her fifth-grade students in a year long project entitled "Who Am I? What Is My Heritage?" She recommends Journey of the Sparrows by Fran Leeper Buss with Daisy Cubias and Night Journey by Kathryn Lasky to illustrate immigration themes. She also recommends Letters from Rifka by Karen Hesse, Friedrich by Hans Peter Richter, Immigrant Kids by Russell Freedman, and The Star Fisher by Lawrence Yep.

All students want to read literature that they can connect with and find relevant to their lives. Those who read Maureen Crane Wartski's A Long Way from Home, the sequel to A Boat to Nowhere, learn what it is like for an immigrant child to enter an American school for the first time. This book allows international students the chance to express their feelings while students born in the United States gain a more informed perspective. Danny Santiago's Famous All Over Town helps students connect with life in the barrio; Luis Rodriguez's Always Running: La Voda Loca (My Crazy Life) gives students a first-hand account of growing up during the rise of Los Angeles gangs. The treatment of anguish and desperation experienced by the characters paints a different picture from what is usually cast on television and in the movies.

With the multitude of diverse titles for young adults, teachers can make excellent choices for their classrooms no matter who their students are. Louise Garcia Harrison (1998) teaches white middle-class high school students. Working on the narrative as a bridge to writing, she uses Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Graham Salisbury's Blue Skin of the Sea, Gary Soto's Living Up the Street, and Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street and Women Hollering Creek. Mitzi Witkin's (1998) eighth grade ESOL (English Speakers of Other Languages) uses Anne Frank as a book to show parallel experiences of students who are recently refugees from turbulent countries themselves. Team-teaching an eighth-grade English/history course, Denise Emery (1998) provides young adult novels that are effective with World War II study. She chooses uplifting themes that show people surviving adversity so that stereotypes are confronted and dispelled. She provides an extensive list of young adult titles that "uplift and broaden one's view on struggles."

Learning to Teach Against the Grain

In her article "Learning to Teach Against the Grain," Marilyn Cochran Smith (1991) encourages us to be "change agents" and embrace teaching as a political activity. She urges that we not continue the replication of standard school practices but, instead, choose alternative modes and allow students to explore their own feelings and address issues that they are confronted with as they read and learn about others. She invites us to work together - new teachers and expert teachers - to find ways to collaborate with our students whoever they are. We must empower them with lessons that allow them to enrich their own worlds through honest and open dialogue.

In Teaching to Transgress, Bell Hooks reminds us that this is no easy task. She describes her own students as they begin to address the joys and pains of those who are different. And she asks us to work with them as they begin to grow through this experience:

. . . it is necessary to practice compassion in these new learning settings. I have not forgotten the day a student came to class and told me: "We take your class. We learn to look at the world from a critical standpoint, one that considers race, sex, and class. And we can't enjoy life anymore." …

Au (1993) calls upon us to use multiethnic literature to affirm the cultural identity of diverse students, and to assist all students in valuing others. She points out that literature to which students can relate improves their literacy skills, and choosing culturally conscious literature allows us to address issues of color, language, origin, etc. in constructive ways. Au describes how teacher Paula Reynolds uses the Virginia Hamilton novel The House of Dies Drear to create positive reading experiences not only for African American students, but European American students as well (Spears-Bunton cited in Au, 1993 ). When attending to canonical requirements, she teaches "The Perils of a Slave Woman's Life" by Harriet Jacobs (1998) in addition to The Scarlet Letter.

...the experiences of Reynolds' class suggest that culturally conscious literature can lead to improvements in students' attitudes towards the reading of literature and to new ways of thinking about one's own ethnic group and the relationships among ethnic groups in the United States. (pp. 184-l85)

Whatever choices we make for our students, we must remember that many of them bring into the classroom the fears and negative expectations that have been learned in their homes, their neighborhoods, and their homelands. It is our job to provide them with excellent literature. It is also our job to assist them in making good connections with what they read. We must give them the support that they need to realize their own "location" and identity in a complex world. And we must show them that diversity is what makes us strong. Rather than tell them how they should read, we must teach them to appreciate the way others view the world and that multiple perspectives enrich us all. And finally, we must show them the wonderful world of literature, which can unlock for them the beauty of the language and help them appreciate the diverse ways it can be used.

Young Adult Novels Cited

Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Bantam, 1970, 1997.

Buss, Fran Leeper, with Daisy Cubias. Journey of the Sparrows. Dell, 1993.

Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. New York: Random House, 1994. Women Hollering Creek & Other Stories. Random House, 1994.

Frank, Anne. Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. Herron. 1973.

Freedman, Russell. Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade against Child Labor. Houghton Mifflin, 1994.

Hamilton, Virginia. The House of Dies Drear. Macmillan, 1968.

Hesse, Karen. Letters from Rifka. Holt, 1992.

Jacobs, Harriot. "The Perils of a Slave Woman's Life from Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl." In M. H. Washington, ed. Invented Lives: Narrative of Black Women, l860-1960. Anchor Books, 1988, pp. 16-69.

Lasky, Kathryn. Night Journey. Puffin, 1986.

Lee, Harper. To Kill A Mockingbird. Popular Library, 1962.

Mourning Dove (Hum-Ishu-Ma). Cogewea: The Half-Blood. University of Nebraska Press, 1981.

Myers, Walter Dean. Fallen Angels. Scholastic, 1988.

Richter, Hans Peter. Friedrich. Puffin, 1987.

Rodriguez, Luis J. Always Running - La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A. Simon & Schuster, 1993.

Salisbury, Graham. Blue Skin of the Sea. Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1997.

Soto, Gary. Living Up the Street: Narrative Recollections. Dell, 1992.

Taylor, Mildred. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Penguin, 1991.

Wartski, Maureen Crane, A Boat to Nowhere. Westminster, 1990.

. A Long Way from Home. Westminster, 1980.

Yep, Lawrence. The Star Fisher. HarperCollins, 1975.

Works Cited

Au, Kathryn H. Literacy Instruction in Multicultural Settings. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993.

Brown, Jean E., and Elaine C. Stephens, eds. United in Diversity: Using Multicultural Young Adult Literature in the Classroom. NCTE, 1998.

Cochran-Smith, Marilyn. "Learning to Teach against the Grain." Harvard Educational Review, August 1991, 61: pp. 279-310.

Desai, Laura E. "Reflections on Cultural Diversity in Literature and in the Classroom." In Theresa Rogers and Anna O. Soter, eds. Reading Across Cultures: Teaching Literature in a Diverse Society. Teachers College, Columbia University, 1997, pp. 161-177.

Ellsworth, Elizabeth. "Why Doesn't This Feel Empowering? Working Through the Repressive Myths of Critical Pedagogy." Harvard Educational Review, August 1989, 59: pp. 297-324.

Emery, Denise R. "Using Literature to Combat Stereotypes." In Jean E. Brown and Elaine C. Stephens, eds. United in Diversity: Using Multicultural Young Adult Literature in the Classroom. National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). 1998, pp. 81-89.

Goldsmith, Christa. "Who Am I? What Is My Heritage?" In Jean E. Brown and Elaine C. Stephens, eds. United in Diversity: Using Multicultural Young Adult Literature in the Classroom. NCTE 1998, pp. 54-6.

Hooks, Bell. Teaching to Transgress. Routledge, 1994.

Levy, Marilyn. "Reflections on Multiculturalism and the Tower of PsychoBabble." The ALAN Review, Spring 1995, p. 15.

Mitchell, Diana. "Connecting with Students through Multicultural Young Adult Novels." In Jean E. Brown and Elaine C. Stephens, eds. United in Diversity: Using Multicultural Young Adult Literature in the Classroom. NCTE, 1998.

Ricker-Wilson, Carol. "When the Mockingbird Becomes an Albatross: Reading and Resistance in the Language Arts Classroom." English Journal, March 1998, pp. 67-72.

Stotsky, Sandra. "Is the Holocaust the Chief Contribution of the Jewish People to World Civilization and History? A Survey of Leading Literature Anthologies and Reading Instructional Textbooks." English Journal, February 1996, pp. 52-59.

Witkin, Mitzi. "Parallel Lives: Anne Frank and Today's Immigrant Students." In Jean E. Brown and Elaine C. Stephens, eds. United in Diversity: Using Multicultural Young Adult Literature in the Classroom. NCTE, 1998.

by TG