Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Seeing Ourselves in the Texts We Read

I was touched by a former student’s reflective note shared in the English Education article included in this week’s Ideas section:

I am teaching in West Somewhere High School. The school is 75 % Euro-American and 25 % Latino/a. Kids are the same in this small community as they are in a bigger one . . . . One girl actually told me that I was the first teacher who had introduced any Hispanic authors to her and said that I was the first teacher she has ever had who made her proud to be Hispanic, instead of ashamed of it. (275)
The quoted teacher reveals a situation that occurs all too frequently—a student of color who has completed at least 9 years of schooling and has never had the opportunity to see her own culture in the texts she reads in the classroom.

Why does it matter? Reading texts that are culturally relevant is vitally important to all students, but especially so for language learners. When students see themselves in the texts that they read, they are more interested in reading and often increase their reading for pleasure. Further, they connect with the text in significant ways that lead to deeper comprehension.

In the Talking Points article “Connecting Students to Culturally Relevant Texts,” Yvonne Freeman and David Freeman explain that such language learners “easily construct meaning from a text that contains familiar elements because their background knowledge helps them make predictions and inferences about the story” (7). In her research on the influence of culturally relevant texts, Yvonne Freeman “found that students made higher quality miscues and produced better retellings with the culturally relevant story” (7).

To explore the importance of culturally relevant texts in your own classroom, try the ReadWriteThink lesson plan Assessing Cultural Relevance: Exploring Personal Connections to a Text. This lesson plan draws on the explanation of cultural relevance outlined by Freeman and Freeman to encourage students to look for texts they connect to.

In the activity, the class evaluates a nonfiction or realistic fiction text for its cultural relevance to students personally and as a group (the lesson uses the picture book ¡Sí Se Puede! Yes, We Can! Janitor Strike in L.A.). After completing this full-class activity, students search for additional, relevant texts; each choose one; and write reviews of the texts that they choose. Students are highly encouraged to identify books, documentaries, television programs, or films that are personally relevant to themselves and their peers.

The activity is presented as a secondary lesson plan, but can easily be adapted to other academic levels. A picture book can be used as the basis of any class review to kick-off the lesson. Teachers can also share multicultural short chapter books, novels, poetry, or drama. Additionally, multiculutural films or other multimodal texts. The particular text used is not as important as the clear cultural relevance of the characters and events it includes. Once we invite these culturally relevant texts into the center of the classroom, we can ensure that we meet the needs of all students in the classroom. All we have to do is look for our students in the texts.


Teri Lesesne said...

Having culturally relevant materials for our classes is a luxury that I did not have in my first ten years or so of teaching. I still recall walking into my first classroom. I was the 3rd teacher the kids had that year (it was only December). I knew how to use Huck Finn from my college classes but took one look at the faces in front of me and realized it was NOT the way to introduce myself to these kids most of whom were African American and Hispanic.

Thanks to YA literature in particular, I have a wealth of diversity in texts to use. And that would also have been helpful when I did my student teaching in a classroom where kids had never heard of bagels and had never driven "all the way to Houston" (about 20 miles away).

Thankfully, my kids see themselves in the texts I bring home for them. Sadly, they do not see themselves in much of the literary canon they are forced to read for high school classes.

Teri Lesesne

Gloria Jacobs said...

It is important for students to be able to see themselves in the texts they read. I remember my own joy when I first found myself in a character.

However, introducing culturally relevant texts goes beyond "seeing yourself in the text." We need more than a mirror. We need a window at times. We need to learn to see the other. I wouldn't use texts with just white characters in schools that are predominantly white, and I wouldn't use texts with just Black or Latino characters in predominantly Black or Latino schools. Students need to see positive representations of a variety of people so that they can move beyond the stereotypes too often reinforced by mass media and popular culture.