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.



Pairing Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” with Richard Blanco’s “One Today”

Richard_Blanco.jpgTwo years ago, Middlesex Community College (MxCC) hosted a reading by Richard Blanco. Before attending this event, I did not know much about Blanco or his work, other than vaguely remembering his participation in the 2013 Presidential Inauguration. Named by President Obama as the fifth inaugural poet in American history, Blanco is “the youngest, first Latino, immigrant, and gay person to serve in such a role.” His reading at MxCC was both incredibly thoughtful and thought-provoking, especially during the moments in which he explored his experience with different parts of American culture. During this event, I quickly realized how much I wanted to teach Blanco’s poetry in my upcoming English 102: Literature and Composition course.

After reading “One Today,” the poem that Blanco read at the 2013 Inauguration, I knew it would fit perfectly in my poetry unit for English 102. I designed this unit for students who have not spent a significant amount of time reading poetry in the past; therefore, I assign poems with similar themes for each class period. This way, the theme becomes our class’s starting point to discuss and identify the various poetic devices used in each poem. I decided to pair Blanco’s “One Today” with Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” when designing the following lesson plan, one that builds on this past activity, to help students further practice critically analyzing poetry while introducing them to the basics of New Historicism.

“I Hear America Singing”

I start this activity with “I Hear America Singing” because I have found its content to be very accessible to students, regardless of their previous experiences with poetry. Since reading poetry out loud can help students to hear certain poetic devices at work, I have the class read this poem out loud—as a group. This idea of using chorale reading was first introduced to me through the Teach This Poem series from, at which Blanco serves as a contributor.


After the chorale reading, I ask students to spend a few minutes writing down their reflections on reciting the poem together as a group. I ask them to explain how the activity has changed their understanding of the poem’s content. I also ask them to take note of:

  • Which words are repeated in the poem
  • The people who are named in the poem
  • The activities that are described in the poem
  • Their take on the last three lines of the poem

Students are quick to point out that they noticed the repetition of the word “singing.” This observation leads to a discussion of how the idea of singing makes the workers seem happy or as if they have a sense of pride in completing their work. We also discuss how the phrases “the varied carols I hear” (Whitman line 1) and “each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else” (11) show the idea of difference, or uniqueness, while the repetition of the word “singing” shows a commonality in these different workers. Students often take note that the professions named are all ones in which people work with their hands. We then discuss the implications of why Whitman may have chosen to highlight these jobs and how the idea of work is celebrated in the poem.


“One Today”

Since the genesis of  “One Today” is so closely tied to a specific event in American history, I begin this part of the in-class activity by having my students watch Blanco read his poem at the 2013 Presidential Inauguration. While watching this clip from PBS via YouTube, I ask students to write down their observations of the actual event, how Blanco presents himself, and how he reads the poem.

Then, I have students annotate their copies of “One Today.” During this process, I ask for students to take note of:

  • Any words that are repeated throughout the poem
  • Images in the poem that stand out to them
  • Any words or phrases that evoke specific senses
  • The use of -ing words
  • Allusions to Blanco’s personal history
  • Allusions to events from American history

My goal during our discussion of “One Today” is for students to understand how Blanco constructs a depiction of America that celebrates the unique qualities of its citizens while still emphasizing the importance of unity. To do this, we spend a lot of time thinking through what language in the poem shows unity and what language shows difference. For example, I often start with the second stanza of “One Today,” which begins with “My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors, / each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:” (Blanco 7-8). Through the use of “my face” and “your face,” Blanco acknowledges the different people living in America, yet by the second line we are “crescendoing into our day.” This shift in pronouns is a small detail, one that students new to analyzing poetry may not catch. Throughout the discussion, I make sure that students see how important these choices, no matter how seemingly tiny, are and that these choices are what help Blanco to craft his portrayal of America in “One Today.”

Analyzing the Concept of America in Both Poems

After discussing both poems, I provide my students with a brief introduction to New Historicism. Since theory is not a focus of English 102, I do not spend too much time covering the intricacies of New Historicism; instead, I share with students this overview from The Purdue OWL. I focus my mini-lesson on the questions posed at the bottom of the web page, which are designed to guide students through considering the ways in which the cultural events that occurred during a time period in which an author is writing may influence a text’s content.

To further explore this connection, I have students spend a few minutes researching, either on a computer if we are in the lab or on their phones, what was happening during the time periods surrounding 1867 and 2013, the years in which “I Hear America Singing” and “One Today” were published, respectively. Obviously, students are much more familiar with major events that happened during the beginning of this decade. Refreshing themselves on what life was like in the years leading up to 2013 helps students to have a better foundation for analyzing the ways in which Blanco portrays America in “One Today,” and if this portrayal reflects a realistic portrait of America, even with (or in spite of) the positive tone that the genre of an occasional poem requires.


Conversely, students often possess a wide range of background knowledge on the 1860s, with some history buffs having a clear sense of the time period and other students knowing almost nothing about it. Some students are very surprised to learn that The Civil War occurred during this decade, especially when considering the fact that “I Hear America Singing” does not mention slavery. This observation leads student to question Whitman’s portrayal of America as a united country and to explore why Whitman may have made the decision to emphasize this united front in “I Hear America Singing.”

This lesson plan is designed to not only help students analyze “One Today” and “I Hear America Singing,” but to also prepare them for the next poems that I teach in this unit, Langston Hughes’s “I, Too” and Claude McKay’s “America.” These poems will help students to further develop their critical reading skills while continuing to analyze the concept of America in poetry.