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Joy Hanson

© 2001

Action Research

Connecting White, Suburban Students to Multicultural Literature: Making Multicultural Literature Valuable

(Article on this project from The Christian Science Monitor)

I teach at a suburban, middle to upper-middle class high school where the majority of the students are white. In my 11th grade Literature of the Americas course, I try to teach novels that are more representative of our nation's population, even though our school does not truly reflect the idea of the great American melting pot. In addition to Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, and selections from Hemingway's In Our Time, we read Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima, August Wilson's Fences, selected short stories from Braided Lives, and several other multicultural stories and poems. Some of my 11th graders seem to enjoy the diversity in the literature, but many are reluctant readers to begin with, and having to read about people with whom they "have little or nothing in common" only makes the task more frustrating. In particular, students struggle a great deal with the Southern black dialect in Their Eyes Were Watching God; they say, "this isn't English" (to which I respond, "It isn't your English"). In reading Bless Me, Ultima, some students have either expressed that they feel they are being cheated by missing out on some of the words and phrases that are written in Spanish. They get so focused on trying to understand the Spanish that I think they miss the beauty of the language and story. And usually the Spanish phrases are explained or are surrounded by contextual clues so students can understand them. In general, many of my students last year appeared disconnected from the readings, particularly those whose main characters were people of color.

I am interested in experiences other teachers have had in teaching multicultural literature, and I'd like to know how they handle readers who seem especially resistant to multicultural literature. I want to know what I can do to engage my studentsÑall my studentsÑin reading literature by writers of color.

When I was in college I imagined myself teaching in a diverse school. I was (and I continue to be) excited by the idea of working with kids from a variety of cultures and backgrounds because it makes for more interesting and enlightening discussion. Even though (and possibly because) I teach in a relatively homogeneous school, I find great value in teaching literature by writers of color to provide other voices. But somehow the students I work with don't want to hear these other voices or hear their experiences. They say they've heard them before; they have read multicultural literature before (they are more likely than not to have read some multicultural lit. in 9th and 10th grade), and they express, either vocally or through body language, that they are tired of reading about racial issues. The problem is, I don't think all multicultural books are "about" racial issues. Certainly, I doubt that a young person of color lives in the United States without thinking about race at some point. My main goal, however, is for my students to see multicultural literature as life stories, just as any other piece of fiction or non-fiction is somehow about a person's life. At the same time, I want them to find value in a culture different from their own.

I want them to appreciate people who areÑin their eyesÑdifferent from them. I perceive my students' vocal and physical resistance as a defensive instinct: they feel like the course is preaching to them about being politically correct, that I am going to force something down their throats and make them proclaim that they absolutely love and appreciate every soul on earth. That's not what it's about. I just want them to see life through someone else's eyes. Certainly, approaching a text that speaks of unfamiliar places, people, and experiences can be a challenge for some students. I find that some of my students find these differences to be "wrong" and/or "stupid" or "weird" instead of just being different. I'd like my students to get past those gut instincts and find that they have something in common with the characters in these books, plays, and stories. And even if they don't share the same life experiences as the characters, I would like to think that they can understand a character's thoughts about love, family, education, anger, or sadness.

Chan, Connie S., and Mary Jane Treacy. "Resistance in Multicultural Courses: Student, Faculty, and Classroom Dynamics." American Behavioral Scientist 40.2 (1996): 212-221. This study addresses different types of student resistance (active, passive, conforming) to multicultural courses. The authors stress that instructors should expect some resistance, and that resistance, particularly when it's expressed verbally, should be viewed as an opportunity for students to explore how they connect with or relate to a text. They stress the importance of the instructor being "emotionally present" in the classroom (215). In addition, they emphasize that instructors should evaluate the quality of a student's work, not on the viewpoint they express in the work.

Higginbotham, Elizabeth. "Getting All Students to Listen: Analyzing and Coping with Student Resistance." The American Behavioral Scientist 40.2 (1996): 203 Ð 211. This article addresses a multicultural course rather than a literature course that teaches multicultural literature. Nonetheless, Higginbotham speaks of some interesting theories. She points out that it's important for instructors to have a clear vision of their course, and to prepare students from the beginning to enter into the study without anxiety of being attacked or being forced to change their beliefs. She also discusses that instructors need to recognize their own position of power as "a variable in the equation of classroom dynamics" (205). She identifies three types of resistance to a multicultural curriculum: vocal resistance, silent resistance, and absenteeism.

Noskin, David and Angela Marshalek. "Applying Multiculturalism to a High School American Literature Course: Changing Lenses and Crossing Borders." English Journal 84.6 (1995): 80-86.
This article takes us through a thematic unit on "The American Dream," incorporating F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby with Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place and Gary Soto's Baseball in April, along with other texts by writers of color. One of the first things teachers must do, according to Noskin and Marshalek, is to get white students to see their whiteness as a racial identity; in other words, help them see how their race gives them privileges they may not be aware of and/or want to admit to. They say it's important to get students to recognize their own stereotypes. Then they can move toward individual and social change to understand and appreciate multiculturalism.

Ruzich, Constance. "White Students' Resistance to Multicultural Literature: Breaking the Sullen Silence." Teaching English in the Two-Year College. 26.3 (1999): 299-304.
This informative article connects white students' resistance to multicultural literature to their struggles with their own identity. Ruzich states that many white students may feel "the literary text and the goals of the course are oppressing them and restricting their identities" (300). She then describes a writing assignment that allows students to address the writer of a literary piece andÑusing that writer's language and styleÑexpress their own experiences in response to those in the text. They "rewrite" the text to "express themselves and their understandings of human experience" (300). She says she has found success with this assignment.

Plan of Action
I have learned I need to state outright at the beginning of the course that we will be dialoguing at great length about multicultural literature, and that I want to hear their voices in response to the writers' (or characters') voices. My hope is that multicultural literature will not just be something they read, but that it will be something they interact with on a personal level.

In order to do that, I need to get my students to talk about their own ideas of race, especially their ideas of how they perceive their own race. This is something I struggle with a bit more. How do I do this? I feel sometimes as though I have no ethos in talking about the experiences of people of color. I am a member of the dominant culture in the U.S. so I worry about whether my students will find strength and value in my opinion. But, as a few of my references stated, I must consider my own position of power in the classroom. I hope with further reading I can begin to do that.

There is one project I am especially looking forward to implementing this school year. Melissa Borgman (another member of this Institute) and I work in very different schoolsÑhers is much more racially diverseÑand we have discussed a plan to have dialogue journals via e-mail while we read a text, either Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God or Wilson's Fences. I believe that if my students can have some real dialogue with a peer, outside the bounds of the classroom walls, they can find greater meaning in the text.

Melissa and I agree that both groups will probably have preconceived notions of who their dialogue partner(s) will be, what attitudes they will have, and what kinds of life experiences they have. Our goals in this collaboration are 1) to break down some of those stereotypes and 2) to engage students in the text through real dialogue.

I also plan to have students look more closely at the language in the texts. I hope to include Ruzich's writing assignment in which students write in the style and form of the writer to communicate their own thoughts and ideas. As Ruzich indicated in her article, it forces students to become familiar with the writer's voice; at the same time, it provides them with the opportunity to express their own ideas about multiculturalism or multicultural issues.

Although my own knowledge of this subject is still in the developmental stages, I am enthusiastic about the possibilities of greater success.


Creative Writing

Nanzen-ji: Five Centuries of Peace

A man hid here once. His haven.
Nestled in the rich green hills of Mt. Hiei-zan.

His crime now-forgotten.

Centuries ago.

Once caught, boiling water brought him death.

I pay 300 yen to enter the garden inside the gates of Nanzen-ji.

Such a surprise.
Finding this place,
In the midst of a city of three million people.

An intruder. That's how it seems.
At first.

But it easily becomes my own.
Downtown Kyoto evaporates. Trains, exhaust, and noise

Replaced by nature's soothing heat, and cicadas buzzing in pleasure.

Now it is only me.

Perfectly placed stones, my walking path.

One for each step.

Combed sand. White.

Like peace laid out on the ground.

A swirl in the sand guides my gaze to the right:

More of this paradise lies beyond the small wooden gate.

Crossing over a man-made pond on a low stone bridge.

Wide enough for only one.
Only me.

Only me.

I am the only one.

Besides the massive gold carp who rise to the pond's surface with the clapping of my hands.

Now silence.
Wanting not to speak.
Quiet water.
Bubbling with fish's breath.
Rocks crunch quietly underfoot.
The hollow knock of slender, silver-green bamboo trunks. Their own call to the fish.

And to me. Yes. To me.

A call to see solitude.

To feel peace.
To hear silence.

Sweat like salt on my shoulders. My wrists and fingers, too.
Somehow it is sweet. Because it is mine.
And here I am, in a city of millions.
In solitude.
In the heat of July.

I don't want anyone else to know of this place.

Only me.
Only me.