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Subject-Specific Resources

Building Respect in the Culturally Diverse Literature and Language Arts Classroom

Literary study is an important venue for preserving, recording, and revealing culture. From Homer's Odyssey to Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street, literature is an important bridge between cultures.

As the United States becomes increasingly diverse, so too does the literature studied in American classrooms. The study of Chaim Potok's The Chosen, Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn might each have a relevant place in any given secondary English classroom, along with other culturally diverse titles.

Thus, while English teachers have a multitude of responsibilities, they must pay close attention to the cultural factors that might promote or prohibit student achievement. This is especially true in classes where the student body is as diverse as the literature studied.

Strategies to Incorporate
Students are more likely to benefit from literature in an environment that appreciates and respects diversity. Teacher regard for the cultures represented in the classroom builds a respectful, trusting climate—one where literature can function to bring very different people to common ground. Literature teachers of culturally diverse students should:

  • Select literature for class study carefully. Literature that offers culturally diverse protagonists who are learning to function in the United States mirrors the struggles and successes of students. It provides them with ideas about how to function in a new culture while preserving important ideals from their native culture.

    Select literature representative of a variety of cultures, and of how those cultures function in the United States when possible. When students are presented literature representative of their culture and such literature is taught with respect and acceptance, the self-esteem of students is increased.

  • Develop realistic goals for classroom discussion and involvement stemming from literature. Research and understand cultural beliefs that might condition student behavior in response to literature. While American students are expected to evaluate the motivation of characters, and often to draw conclusions about that character based on such evaluations, in some cultures, students are not expected to form or voice opinions.

    In such situations, one goal of the teacher might be to encourage students to express opinions, or to present students with a variety of opinions and ask them to select and support one. In these cases, it is essential that students understand that there is no one correct response.

  • Recognize and respect students as individuals when presenting culturally implicit literature. This important teacher behavior begins with tasks as simple as learning how to pronounce student names correctly, and involving the entire class in this undertaking to promote camaraderie and acceptance.

    In addition, teachers should never ask students to speak for his/her race, gender, or culture when responding to literature. While it is okay to solicit responses based on experience, it is unacceptable to expect answers based on stereotypical expectations. Within any culture, people experience and observe as individuals, and that must be recognized and respected.

  • Use literature to teach students appropriate ways to respond to cultural differences. Rather than avoid literature that might foster diverse responses based on culture, teach students how to respond with tolerance and contemplation by raising awareness of culturally biased generalizations or assumptions. Practice having students:
    • formulate responses to controversial statements on paper.
    • evaluate for relevant contributions.
    • excise bias.
    • discuss as a class the variety of responses to the situations presented in the literature.

  • Vary the instructional methods used to present literature. Just as in any classroom, students in a culturally diverse literature classroom will learn in a variety of modes and under a variety of conditions. Vary instructional methods to include:
    • individual and group work.
    • seated and interactive activities.
    • culturally affirming writing and discussion activities.
    • culturally diverse writing and discussion activities.
Choose teaching methods that foster peer relationships. Design instruction to be rich with concrete examples and visual cues that build on personal knowledge and student experience whenever possible.

Behaviors to Avoid
Just as there are specific actions a teacher can take to foster a positive learning climate using culturally diverse literature in a culturally diverse classroom, there are some behaviors considerate teachers avoid in order to promote student achievement and to foster contemplation and camaraderie.
  • Avoid literature that relies on use of non-standard, informal English. While teaching classic literature rich in dialect, idioms, slang, and colloquialisms is appropriate in a variety of English classrooms, such literature presents special challenges for culturally diverse students. Many students from other cultures speak one language at home and use formal English at school. A text rich in American culture that is presented through informal English can foster confusion and should be used sparingly.

  • Avoid single-modality literary teaching. While it may be appropriate to ask traditional American students to read and respond to a literary selection, culturally diverse students will benefit from instruction delivered through at least two modes, primarily visual and auditory. Literature that is read and discussed, or read with film clips interspersed, will take on meaning that may be lost through reading alone. Be certain to utilize visual aids, such as graphic organizers, to aid comprehension.

  • Avoid using literary examples that are exclusive to a single culture. Examples that come easily are often those that come from our own experiences; be certain not to assume all students share such experiences. For example, notice when many of your examples are based on cultural or regional knowledge, hobbies favored predominantly by one gender, or political or historical knowledge unfamiliar to those from other countries. Encourage students to share with the class their experiences that are relevant to the literary example.

  • Avoid assuming that quiet students do not understand. Being quiet and not speaking out in class are considered signs of respect in many Asian cultures. For some women and people of color, silence in the classroom may have been learned in response to negative experiences with participation (e.g., being interrupted by others, not getting credit for their ideas, having others talk to them in a condescending or dismissive way). Know which students require formal invitations to respond and which need private encouragement to speak out.

  • Avoid humor that can be misinterpreted. That which we find humorous is relative and personal. Use humor cautiously.
Literary study is a wonderful avenue to affirm the rich variety of cultures that comprise American culture. Considerate literature teachers have a wealth of resources at their disposal to both demonstrate appreciation for other cultures, while deepening acclimation to American ways of life.

Careful teacher behaviors will prevent embarrassment and isolation stemming from literary study. Instead, they will foster understanding and, hopefully, tolerance and acceptance. Both are crucial to personal and academic growth.

This article was contributed by Janice Christy, M.Ed., English Department Chair, Louisa County High School, Louisa, Virginia.

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