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May 1, 1994
Vol. 51
No. 8

Books Offer Entry into Understanding Cultures

Books of many cultures help students broaden their knowledge of the world and learn more about themselves in the process.
Wow!” This book is easy to read and the stuff is about the Motherland. Way to go, Mrs. Van. I can take this assignment!”
Ngugi Wa Thiong'o's Weep Not, Child had sparked some interest in Jerome. A nonreader, a reluctant student, a young man with an attention deficit—and with a parole officer—Jerome was eager to read this assignment. We had struggled through Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, and now we moved on to this novel of revolution set in 20th century Kenya. The themes, characters, and plot parallel Dickens' tale of the French Revolution, and the novel's setting spoke to Jerome's African roots.
But could Jerome's enthusiasm be sustained? The painful answer in his case was no. The next day he brought a withdrawal slip for me to sign, turned in his books, and told me he was off to a new school, off to live with a relative because Mom couldn't handle his behavior anymore. As he walked out of the room, I whispered to myself, “Just let him be touched again by someone, something, in his new school. Don't lose him.”

Validating Students' Lives

I teach in an inner-suburban community rich in diversity. Located just outside St. Louis, University City borders the wealthiest suburbs on one side and low-income areas on the other. Demographically, the community has an equal number of blacks and whites, as well as a large variety of people from throughout the world—from poor refugees to middle-class professionals working in local businesses and universities. The Delmar Loop contains a wide variety of ethnic restaurants and multinational art galleries and book stores.
Just a year ago, the “real” world intruded upon our community again and again. Since April 1992, six students have died. Mark was killed in a random shooting at the local park; a senior girl, caught in a drug deal that went sour, was murdered; Steve died of unknown causes in the pool during a water polo tournament; Natasha, a bright senior bound for Purdue, shot herself; Kenny played Russian roulette and lost; and Erin was killed by a drunk driver. These deaths left our emotions raw and our curriculum on hold. Perhaps this is not an average suburban scenario, but it is becoming far more common than we may care to believe.
The need to make classroom materials relevant to the students' world and to speak to the future world students will face weighs heavily in my daily routine. Our classroom, which mirrors the diversity of ethnic groups and nationalities in our society, demands that I expend more energy and demonstrate increased sensitivity in order to address students' differences. I must find materials in the many voices not included in a traditional curriculum if I am to reach these students; if I am going to create opportunities for them to increase their self-esteem and expand their minds; if I am going to speak to their world as well as the conditions they will find throughout our planet; if I am going to give them the skills they need to survive and the hope to persist.

Building a Curriculum for Diversity

A relevant curriculum must contain more than short stories, essays, and grammatically correct sentences. I realized long ago that revitalizing the curriculum had to begin with me, and so I began to gather an extensive repertoire of materials and experiences with different voices. Now my library spans the seven continents, my address book overflows with foreign addresses, and my wardrobe contains an array of ethnic clothes. As I encounter writers from all over the world, filling gaps in my own education, I know I am continuing my own growth.
Have I read all the books I've bought? No, not yet, but students often borrow books for their required outside reading and share their content with me. One of these students is Sara, a particularly spirited freshman, who asked me early in the school year for a book about India. Her mother had suggested Markandaya's Nectar in the Sieve, and I was able to lend her my copy. Sara quietly explained to me that she had been adopted from India as an infant and knew nothing of her birth culture, so her mother thought this would help her begin to find out.

Exploring the Good and the Bad

So, how does Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities fit into our classroom curriculum? “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ...” becomes the lead sentence in a timed writing in which my students explore paradoxes of “good” and “bad” in their own lives. They are encouraged to be personal or universal in their response, whichever is more comfortable. Their responses vary dramatically between these two poles; for example: “nuclear energy provides necessary power, but also produces toxic waste,” as well as “my father is so much fun, except when he's drunk.” These writings go into their journals along with other responses to philosophical statements in the novel.
As we read and discuss A Tale of Two Cities, students discover human rights issues that are relevant to today's world. They explore these issues as part of cooperative learning projects in which they seek out places in the world where peoples' rights are abused. One group of students prepared a presentation in which Dr. Manette's 18-year secret imprisonment was compared to the disappearance of children in Argentina and their mothers' protest march in the town square. Other students relate the hunger of the people in St. Antoine to the hunger of those dying in Somalia, and they participated in the school's annual fast for world hunger and collected can goods for the local food pantry. A discussion of Sydney Carton's alcoholic behavior led to a classroom seminar with a recovering alcoholic on the realities of the disease. Jerry Cruncher's abuse of his wife, depicted by Dickens in a comic light, became the basis for a report on local self-help programs and hot-line phone numbers for abused spouses.
As the students read the novel and gather their information, they respond in their daily journals. They are encouraged to write anything, and may fold over pages they do not want me to read. This allows for privacy or cries for help, as they choose. They know I am legally required to refer any concerns I might have about serious problems to outside professionals, but they also know this will occur only after I have a conference with the student.

Communicating One on One

It is in these journals that the one-on-one communication between my students and me happens. For those who choose to reveal the real sufferings in their lives, I become an advocate or intervener. It is here that I experience, cooperate with, and live their lives, not as an intruder but by invitation. I make no judgments, but question, refer, suggest, and support. Some beautiful and sensitive writing has come out of this assignment, and several entries have led me to make suicide and abuse interventions as well.
To address multiculturalism and affirm the root culture of most of my students, we read Weep Not, Child. The effects of Kenya's revolution in the 1950s upon the lives of Njoroge's village family parallel the effects of Dickens' French Revolution on “these small creatures of our chronicle.” Students discuss the similarities between the Mau Mau rebellion and St. Antoine's Jacquerie. More specifically, they compare Boro, Njoroge's disillusioned older brother, to Madame Defarge, vindictive leader of the revolutionary women, recognizing their common flaw: an unquenchable desire for revenge.
In Weep Not, Child, students see Njoroge's desire for an education thwarted by the needs of his family, much like their own experiences as they struggle with the demands of their family relationships. Many comment in their journals that Njoroge's devotion to school is so different from how they themselves feel about school. Because education in the U.S. is a given, they do not respect it in the same way as Njoroge, who must struggle to attain his education. They cite this lack of respect for education as a weakness in the culture of the U.S. and in themselves.

Doing What We Can

Rather than bemoan the task that society seems to place on us—that is, saving all our students from the many negatives that invade their lives—we as educators need to dig in and do what we can. Literature is rich in explorations of the human condition and can actually provide an avenue for healing.
To keep going, I seek out support from my colleagues. Together we share ideas, lament the failures, and celebrate the successes. I read, grab inservice opportunities, and continue my own growth. One of the most supportive groups has been the International Education Consortium, a St. Louis CHART project.
Through this project, I have met exciting educators who have become important friends. I have attended institutes and workshops on international and multicultural education, I have read non-Western literature and discussed it with area English teachers. I have earned mini-grants to buy books and to finance an international awareness week for 2,500 students.
After traveling to Senegal, West Africa, and to India on a Fulbright grant, I wrote an article on “Images of Africa for American Students,” which appeared in a professional journal. I feel empowered as I participate in panels and lead workshops for the National Council of Teachers of English and Teachers of English as a Second Language, sharing what I do in the classroom. Each time one of these experiences comes my way, I thrive.
The other afternoon, I was exhausted after a particularly difficult day. We had been doing research in the library and the teacher-as-coach was in full swing. The students had made less progress than I had hoped for, and I was discouraged. I had even begun to entertain some dreary thoughts of looking for a different job, when suddenly Theresa appeared at the door. “Ms. Van, I just stopped by to tell you I decided not to run away from home 'cuz of what you said in my journal—thanks!” And then she was gone. Her brief thank you showed me that I am in the right place after all.

Barbara Wass Van Ausdall has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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