Thursday, September 27, 2012

Reading and Writing and Language

"According to Foster (2003) it is important to read a text from the stance that the author intended. He also argues that it is important to have a reader’s perspective and a worldview. Given the multiple tasks that readers must accomplish, in what ways can literature help us to better understand others and ourselves?"

Today's blog post is brought to you by my need to get homework done! So here we go, answering my professor's prompt in the format of a blog post, in a blog. 

Professor Willis, please enjoy.

So everyone has probably read some sort of text in high school that's by an author from another culture or race than they are. For some people it's The Kite Runner or The Color Purple and for minority students it just happens to be the vast majority of the curriculum.  Most of the time, those few minority texts get thrown in there because at some point in the year teachers go "oh shoot, I have to include some form of multicultural text." 

Of course, this is not the best reason to include multicultural texts. We should read these texts because they give us insight to how the rest of the world works. Surprisingly enough, the rest of the world does not look, think, or act like you. In fact, there may be students who are not of the same culture right in your class! Right now! Heck, some of them might not even speak English as their first language!

Shocking, but true. So as educators, what are we supposed to do? Well, first and foremost we have to include multicultural literature not just because we have to, but because we are supposed to meet the needs of ALL our students, not just the white, middle class ones. Besides, there's a lot you can do with a really good multicultural novel that will expand your students' minds. 

Jim Burke, the author of our textbook, The English Teacher's Companion writes that "Stories offer the one place where we can meet and, through these narratives, better know ourselves and those sitting at the table with us" (Burke 405). So what does that mean? It really means that even though at first glance, your students might have nothing in common with the characters in the novel, but dig a little deeper and you can find a wealth of common experiences. 

A person in a class two years ago said that he couldn't relate to the story because he wasn't a Chinese woman. No, you can't relate because of that, but you can relate to the fact that the caracter had problems with her mother, or had difficulty with relationships, or some other emotional factor. What many students fail to realize is that just because a character on the surface doesn't resemble them doesn't mean that we can't relate. Look at all the success we see with the Harry Potter series! Am I a wizard? No. Do I fight evil? Probably not. But can I relate to the fact that even now we struggle with personal relationships and discovering ourselves? You bet I do.

Another good reason to pick a multicultural text for your classroom: English Language Learners. This is one of the fastest growing groups in today's schools, according to a No Child Left Behind policy brief. What a lot of educators think when they find out that they have ELL students in their classrooms is that they have to give up reading literature, especially multicultural literature. 

I only have this to say to those educators:

You CAN still include multicultural literature in the classroom, even though you still have ELL learners in there! The No Child Left Behind article actually states that "Students need to learn forms and structures of academic language, they need to understand the relationship between forms and meaning in written language, and they need opportunities to express complex meanings, even when their English language proficiency is limited" (NCTE 4). Multicultural lit is perfect for this because it not only expands these students' minds, but it still allows them to access those common experiences in literature.

That, and we have to make sure that all students have access to the same curriculum, or at least one that covers all the same basic points outlined by state standards. There have actually been lawsuits over this very fact, with parents and students arguing that the district needed to provide "a meaningful curriculum for children who were limited in their English proficiency" (Hakuta 2) and that not doing so "violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964" (Hakuta 2). These students have the same rights as a native English speaker and as such, deserve to be educated using the same texts you would use if they were native speakers.

But what about those students who speak English, but they don't speak the Standard English that every educator wants to see so badly on an exam or paper? How do we deal with them? My answer is that we still use multicultural texts to reach them. They speak a little differently, they didn't come from another planet! An book I read states that "some writing teachers have jumped to conclusions about AAE due to a lack of reliable or sufficient information" (Redd and Webb 3), and it's true. Many educators aren't quite sure how to handle African American English or other dialects because it's different. Many educators have the view that we need to correct it. When interviewed, an educator told researchers that one of the biggest problems they had  " definitely like issues with standard English versus vernacular English. Um, like, if there was one of the few goals I had this year was to get kids to stop sayin, um, 'he was, she was...'" (Alim 185).

Okay, this was me as I read this exerpt:

Yes, I know, I shouldn't be laughing at this person but they're criticizing their students for improper speaking English when their own language is peppered with 'uh', 'um', and 'like'. I just couldn't take her seriously. Not that any of you take me seriously right now, but that's where I'm at. We shouldn't necessarily squash our students' language because it isn't Standard English. I think we can preserve both. Faltis and Coulter describe a scene where a classroom of English Language Learners are doing a read around of their own work. One student writes his stories in his native language of Russian, then paraphrases for the class and on later drafts, will most likely revise into English.

Students can read and respond to literature in any way or language that they like. That's the way they'll connect best with the material, so don't try and fight it. Roll with it and make it work for you. Make sure that students know that yes, they can respond to the multicultural readings in any way they like for the rough draft, but know that the ultimate goal will be to have a paper in Standard English. That way, they'll be able to get all their ideas and thoughts onto the paper while still working towards that ultimate goal. Everyone ends up happy.

Now maybe this won't work perfectly in every classroom due to administration or what have you, but as educators, isn't it our job to at least try and make sure that all students have access to literature and language that they can relate to?