Fostering Complexity in the Age of Oversimplification: Teaching American Culture in 90 Minutes or Less, Part Two

Check out Part Two of Theresa Dietrich’s ideas about teaching in Norway. Dietrich writes about discussing immigration and multiculturalism and making connections between Norway and the U.S. You can find Part One here

In Part One of this post, I offered a few strategies for facilitating productive, rather than reductive, classroom conversations as a Fulbrighter teaching American politics and culture in Norway. I wrote about using images as an opening for discussion, as well as the conversational rewards of grounding discussions of the fraught American present in accounts of the past. Here is one final idea with accompanying lessons that address immigration and the meaning of multiculturalism in both American and Norwegian contexts.

Movers & Shakers: Students as Artists, Activists, and Policy Makers

One final way to meaningfully probe contemporary problems is to ask students to come up with solutions and empower them to imaginatively implement them. This pushes the discussion beyond identification—the refugee crisis is a problem—to application—what should we do about it as individuals and as a society?

I frequently ask students to imagine themselves as artists, activists, and policy makers. In a lesson on global migration, students analyze Norway’s refugee policy before rewriting it.  The lesson begins with a rhetorical analysis of this interview with Norway’s conservative, controversial (and recently resigned) immigration minister. Through independent research, students create a table comparing the refugee policies of three countries: Norway, Germany, and the U.S.,  answering the questions:

  • How many refugees will this country take per year?
  • What are the requirements to qualify as a refugee?
  • What kind of vetting system is used? How does this country decide who to let in?

All of this leads to a discussion about the responsibility of developed countries to asylum seekers in the rest of the world. But the most interesting part comes at the end when students are invited to imagine that they are the Norwegian Minister of Immigration and re-write Norway’s refugee policy in light of what they have learned. Because they are armed with both the factual (via research) and ideological (via the interview) motivations for Norway’ policy, they are able to be considerably more critical, detailed, and thoughtful.

Creative Invitations: In a lesson called “The Melting Pot: America’s Multicultural Past and Norway’s Multicultural Future,” students explore the metaphors that America has used to describe shifting attitudes towards multiculturalism over time before creating their own metaphor to capture what they see as the future of Norwegian multiculturalism. Asking students to think through metaphors exposes ideological layers of meaning that are sometimes inaccessible in a more literal, factual discussion of this topic.


The lesson begins by giving students the vocabulary they’ll need to discuss the metaphors. We define the terms assimilation, integration, cultural monism, and pluralism. Next, we analyze two visual iterations of the melting pot metaphor: the 1889 political cartoon “The Mortar of Assimilation and the One Element that Just Won’t Mix” which deploys the metaphor to target Irish immigrants and another from 1919 entitled “We Can’t Digest the Scum” which draws on the metaphor to target perceived radicals in the context of the Red Scare. We spend time teasing the metaphor out: What sort of multiculturalism does it promote (monism, pluralism)? Does this metaphor represent the kind of multicultural society that you’d like to live in? Students are generally critical; they astutely point out the metaphor’s desire to dissolve difference, the forceful assimilation it promotes, and the troubling image of boiling immigrants in a pot. Next we look at the metaphor of the Salad Bowl as an alternative, using this image. We investigate the implications of the metaphor in detail: What is the lettuce? What does the dressing stand for? Students prefer this metaphor: salads are delicious because they are heterogeneous; the elements maintain their distinct integrity, but they come together to make something better.

Finally, students create their own metaphor and accompanying cartoon to capture their vision of multiculturalism for Norway’s future. Some memorable examples include: a burrito in which the ingredients remain distinct, are enhanced by one another, and are enveloped in a protective tortilla. Another student offered an umbrella in which discrete panels formed a resilient, protective structure. Interestingly, there are often implications of protection in the metaphors, a sense of national identity in which everyone is looked after. When we probed this trend, students pointed to pride in Norway’s legendary welfare system.

I ask students to present their metaphor and accompanying illustration without comment. The rest of the class discusses the implications before the artist comments on their vision. The metaphors can reveal unconscious values: often the class finds meaning that was unforeseen to the artist.

The larger point about America (and Norway) that I hope to come to in this lesson is that debates over multiculturalism and national identity are at the heart of contemporary division. The changing ethnic and cultural makeup of many nations have revealed the hypocrisy of societies which claim to value “multiculturalism” but cling to a racist reliance on ethnic kinship to define national identity in the face of a truly diverse society where everyone gets a seat at the table.

The question of how we become societies which truly value diversity, in both word and in deed,  can’t be answered in 90 minutes. But asking students to express the way we should relate to our fellow human beings through a metaphor has generated insightful critiques and visions for the future of both American and Norwegian multiculturalism.



Theresa Dietrich is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Norway where she facilitates an academic writer’s workshop at the University of Bergen and offers weekly lessons designed to engage Norwegian teens in discussions of American history and culture.

Dietrich completed an M.A. in English and teacher licensure program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She looks forward to teaching English Language Arts in a Boston-area public school next year. You can read more about her teaching and learning in Norway here.



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