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

We are pleased to have a guest post this week from Theresa Dietrich. Dietrich is currently a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Norway and writes about her experience planning lessons for classes she will only meet once. How do you teach students about a topic in one class period? Dietrich shares two examples below and more ideas in Part Two

In thinking about the quality of the classroom conversations I have been having as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Norway, I am reminded of philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah’s discussion of the idea of conversations. “Conversations,” he says “begin with the sort of imaginative engagement you get when you […] attend to a work of art that speaks from some place other than your own. [Conversation is] a metaphor for engagement with the experiences and ideas of others. These encounters, properly conducted, are valuable in themselves.”

One of my roles as an ETA in Norway is traveling around a secondary school offering lessons designed to engage students in discussions of American culture and politics. These are one-off, 90 minute lessons meant to address staggeringly big topics, many of which have been generated in response to student questions like: Why do Americans love guns? How did Donald Trump win the 2016 election? How unequal is America?

I have thought a lot about how to facilitate productive conversations about these topics within a 90 minute timeframe. The challenge has many dimensions: after all, in an age where it seems that wars can be waged via Twitter, how do we foster classroom conversations which resist oversimplification and foregone conclusions? How can we avoid reducing gun violence, economic inequality, or systemic racism to statistics, sound bites, or recapitulations of what students already think or know?

In the way of some insights, I offer strategies with accompanying examples from lessons that I’ve taught in Norway to audiences of 15 – 18 year olds and adult immigrants.

The One that Stands for the Many: From Particular to Universal

In response to my early worry that class discussions were only scraping the surface—we couldn’t seem to get beyond headlines and notions of America’s present as a kind of cartoonish disaster—a wise colleague offered this piece of advice: You have to find the one that stands for the many. What he meant, I think, is that I needed to find the rooted particular in order to facilitate any kind of meaningful discussion of big questions about America’s troubled present. Students needed a limited initial lens through which they could view larger issues, something they could really dig into—to inhabit, to analyze, to critique—before group discussion.

Below are strategies for finding meaningful openings for discussion: a photograph, a political cartoon, a protest sign, a first-hand account, a poem. I’ll give examples of these openings, as well as the ways in which they can be used as a springboard for larger discussions.

A Picture is worth 1,000 words: Visual Analysis of Primary Source Documents

Because we rarely have time to read and analyze literature or nonfiction articles in class, provocative photos and political cartoons are a great opening for discussion. Visuals are also accessible to English language learners at many different levels. Some students may doubt their ability to analyze a poem they are encountering for the first time, but many can make an observation about an image.

In a lesson which attempts to capture the Civil Rights movement, we focus on the Little Rock Nine to illustrate the intense resistance that accompanied de-segregation. This exercise is taken and adapted from the excellent resources at Facing History and Ourselves.

Students are given various photos of segregationist protesters and the Arkansas National Guard physically blocking the entry of the Little Rock Nine on their first day of school with the accompanying questions:

  • Where are people standing? How are they relating to one another?
  • If you were there, what sounds might you hear?
  • Why do you think the guards are there? How are they relating to the students?

Students usually guess that the guards are protecting the students from the protesters. One student predicted that the guard was pointing a lost Elizabeth Eckford in the direction of her class. They are shocked to learn that something quite different is happening in these photos: the guards are keeping the students out instead of ushering them in.

When students have their imagined narrative contested, when they learn that the enrollment of nine African American teens to a high school in 1957 (almost 100 years after slavery was abolished) was accompanied by a National Guard blockade, vitriolic protest, and an armed escort by federal troops—they begin to understand that the business of abolishing racism in the U.S. has been tragically slow-going.

Cultural Memory: Linking the Past to the Present

I have found the Little Rock Nine exercise a good “opening” for talking about the continuous oppression born of slavery in the Civil Rights era and the present. Contextualizing the problems of the American present with the injustices of the past is essential for promoting thoughtful discussion. To borrow the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates commenting on police brutality, it is vital that students understand that “this conversation is old […] It’s the cameras that are new. It’s not the violence that’s new.”

By 10th grade in Norway, students have learned quite a bit about American history: they know about Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks. They also follow American news and know of police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. But what they have a hard time grasping is the concept of systemic racism and the ways in which race continues to matter in America. Everyone agrees that racism is wrong, but some student don’t view it as a pressing challenge in Norway, and they wonder: Why is it still such a big deal in the U.S.?

The topic is also accompanied by diffidence and uncertainty: students are sometimes unsure about the language they should use: much of the vocabulary we have to talk about race in America (thanks to scholars of color) hasn’t made its way to Norway and doesn’t have a cultural equivalent. Some students seem to have thoughts that they aren’t sure how to give voice to, and others genuinely don’t think race is very relevant in the happiest country on earth. Shouldn’t we focus on the ways in which we are the same—our common humanity—rather than how we are different? seems to be a common refrain.

However, students are comfortable discussing race in the context of American history, as something that has existed in the past, but the transition to the present (or to its relevance in Norway) is more challenging. I have found contextualizing the present through first person accounts of the past to be productive. In the Little Rock Nine lesson, students hear from the woman in the photo with this audio resource (also from Facing History and Ourselves): “In Her Own Words: Elizabeth Eckford.” As a white person, (who is often having this discussion with white audiences), it is vital to ground our conversations in the words, artistic expressions, and terminology developed and articulated by people of color.

In the latter half of this lesson, we examine the continued relevance of the topic by looking at school resegregation and its dire consequences. There are excellent resources from Nikole Hannah-Jones on this topic. With their historical knowledge of the Little Rock Nine in mind, students are able to draw conclusions about what has changed in America, what hasn’t, and why that matters.




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.


Fulbright Workshop: Black Lives Matter, Part Two

In Part One of the discussion about teaching Black Lives Matter, I wrote about how I planned for the Black Lives Matter workshop and considered the discussions I both was and wasn’t prepared for when beginning to teach about race in the U.S. in Norway. In this part, I will outline some of the ways I introduce and teach the topic, and I will provide some resources that I have found especially useful.  

In Norway, the movies and novels that come up in a discussion of race in the U.S. are quite varied from texts that have received a lot of critical acclaim to texts that have been critiqued for whitewashing race in the U.S. (For reference, here are texts that come up a lot in discussions: The Help, Crash, The Butler, 13th, Selma.) Because students have a mixture of entry points into this discussion, one strategy that I have leaned heavily upon for this workshop is to use as much primary material as possible. I have decided to do this to emphasis historical material over fictional accounts of events, but I have also done this in part because of my position as a white woman talking, not always but often, to primarily white audiences. I want to discuss Black Lives Matter and provide historical context for the students I’m working with, but I also don’t want to talk over and gloss over the work of black men and women. I try to use examples that do not put me or other white people at the center.

Below I outline some of the points I highlight in the Black Lives Matter workshop and provide some additional resources that helped me put the workshop together.

The workshop starts with a bit of the background of Black Lives Matter itself. The level of knowledge about Black Lives Matter amongst students really varies. Some students know about it and other entire groups have never even heard of it. So we start by looking at the origins of Black Lives Matter and the three women, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors, at the center of its founding.


When asked for resources about Black Lives Matter, I point to the TED talk below because I think it could be easily shown and discussed in class.

To gather information myself, though, I found Wesley Lowery’s book, They Can’t Kill Us All, really useful, and I have spent a fair amount of time with The Black Lives Matter Syllabus from Frank Leon Roberts at NYU. I point to Roberts’ syllabus in particular if teachers want to contextualize the movement within larger cultural issues and phenomenon in the U.S. and around the world.

In the workshop itself, I start by introducing not only the founders of Black Lives Matter but some of the big events that lead to its founding and growth. Because students are often not familiar with Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown I discuss their deaths. Students gain a sense of where this movement began, how it became a national conversation, and why so many people feel that Black Lives Matter is a vital movement right now.

Because these workshops last between an hour and an hour and a half, there isn’t a lot of time to read texts, but I have found the poem, “Not an Elegy for Mike Brown,” by Danez Smith can be a useful way to show students that the movement for black lives is not about singular instances of violence but about larger systematic issues. The poem is both an elegy for Mike Brown and not one because it is also a lament for all of the other young black people who have been killed needlessly. Smith writes of the preparation to compose the elegy, “bring the boy. his new name/his same old body.” Student quickly understand that the “same old body” refers to the fact that this kind of mourning is one the speaker is very familiar with.

This poem also works well because the first section of the workshop often is me telling them about something. Having them read and think about the poem on their own gives them a little space to formulate their own ideas about what Smith is outlining in their poem and how that connects to the larger conversation.

Another text that emphasizes the point that this is a systematic issue is the song “Hell You Talmbout” by Janelle Monae featuring Wondaland Records. The sheer number of repeated names in the song makes a statement about how many people have been affected by police violence.


After an introduction to Black Lives Matter, we discuss the idea of police brutality, and why the Black Lives Matter protests have focused on police and policing in the U.S. A useful resource for discussing police violence in the U.S. is the Fatal Force database compiled by the Washington Post. The image below from the database is particularly useful for showing the scope of the issue. This is a map of every person shot by a police officer in the U.S. in 2017.

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In this section of the presentation, I try to open up a discussion that gets to some of the other threads of the conversations around police violence. For example, students know that overall gun violence is much higher in the U.S. than other countries we routinely compare ourselves to. They sometimes want to discuss gun culture in general in the U.S. Some classes have also been interested in police training and whether police officers should carry guns. (Police in Norway do not regularly carry firearms.)

I encourage this conversation not just to make simple comparisons—Norway/good: U.S./bad—but to consider that one conversation often leads to another. It is hard to talk about police violence without talking about overall violence. It is hard to talk about rates at which black people get killed without talking about racism on a larger scale. It is hard to talk about racism without talking about the history of the U.S. The students and I can only make mini-forays into these conversations with the time that we have, but hopefully I am presenting them with a sense of how one issue can rarely ever be discussed in isolation.

I also try to make space for questions and conversations that might run counter to the narratives presented by Black Lives Matter. For example, students are often familiar with the phrase “All Lives Matter.” I sometimes hear them murmuring it to each other before the presentation starts as they look at the title card. Instead of just ignoring the impulse to bring this up, I ask them why they think people want to say “All Lives Matter” and then I ask them what they think Black Lives Matter would say in response to All Lives Matter. Having them discuss these issues in groups with each other and then having a larger group discussion allows students to consider these questions and not just get answers from the teacher but have a genuine dialogue with each other about what they think.

Students often want to know information about how much more dangerous it is for black people to interact with police officers. I have found that this Vanity Fair article, which links to a variety of studies about police violence to be particularly useful. I use one of the statistics on a slide in the presentation. I have found this slide to be clear at communicating the point that police violence disproportionally affects non-white people.

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How do Norwegian students generally react to all of this information? Honestly, they are often horrified by how frequently people are killed by police and how the numbers breakdown along racial lines, but I do get some push back. Here are some questions that I often get asked, which I think are similar to questions that you would get in the U.S.:

  • Do only white cops kill black people?
  • But weren’t these people doing something wrong?
  • What about black on black crime?
  • But don’t black people have higher rates of poverty and therefore live in area where more crimes are committed?
  • Is Black Lives Matter anti-cop?

It has been interesting to ask students where they get their information about race in the U.S., and I have found that they hear about these issues often from commentary on YouTube. The ins and outs of what teenagers are watching on YouTube is an eye-opening conversation, and I have found that many teenagers are get a large chunk of their information in this way. I’m not anti-YouTube, but I try to provide a more thorough approach than one you might see in a short video often made for entertainment.

Depending on the time, we end the presentation in a couple of different ways. For example, in one version of the presentation, we also discuss the global aims of Black Lives Matter and their guiding principles. In another, we talk about Civil Rights, and sometimes we make protest signs of our own. I mix and match these endings based on the time I have with students and the level of the class. Hopefully, overall, the information I have gathered to present to students gives them some things to consider and provides a full picture of the issues discussed by Black Lives Matter.