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.

 

 

BIO

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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From CRLA 2017: Synthesizing Primary Texts, Secondary Texts, and Protest Songs

Screen Shot 2017-11-12 at 9.02.46 PMFrom November 1 through November 4, I attended the College Reading and Learning Association’s 50th National Conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As stated on their website, the College Reading and Learning Association (CRLA) consists of “a group of student-oriented professionals active in the fields of reading, learning assistance, developmental education, tutoring, and mentoring at the college/adult level.” As an organization, CRLA serves to “provide a forum for the interchange of ideas, methods, and information to improve student learning and to facilitate the professional growth of its members.” In honor of Pittsburgh’s iconic geography, the theme for this year’s conference was “Celebrating 50 Years of Building Bridges.” All of the sessions related, in some way, to the idea of “building bridges” between teaching, tutoring, and other support services in order to help students succeed. The majority of the sessions that I attended focused on best practices related to teaching reading, writing, and critical thinking skills.

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One session, however, provided a perfect “bridge” between my role at MxCC and the topics I cover for PALS. Jessica Slentz Reynolds and Stephanie Jarrett’s “Using Protest Music to Increase Students’ Awareness of Fake News” (Session 32) was the first session I attended at the conference. Both Jessica and Stephanie are students in Texas State University’s Graduate Program in Developmental Education — Jessica is a third-year doctoral student and Stephanie is finishing up her master’s degree. Their presentation included an overview of the theoretical and practical rationale behind their assignments before describing three specific projects. For the first project, students analyze primary and secondary sources as well as protest music in order to write an expository essay on some aspect of the Civil Rights Movement. In the second project, students select a similar topic that has recently been the subject of “fake news” to analyze in an oral presentation and a written reflection. The final activity involves analyzing a visual image to help students understand the importance of considering audience when consuming a text.

These projects were developed for an Integrated Reading and Writing course, the highest level of Developmental Reading at Texas State, and, specifically, to pilot teaching the course as a co-requisite with a history class.  While I am eager to use all of these assignments in the future, the first project from Jessica’s class can work especially well as part of an introductory literature course. The rest of this post will outline Jessica’s assignment in detail before describing an in-class activity that uses similar strategies to help students better understand the time period in which A Raisin in the Sun takes place.

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Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. During the presentation, Jessica said that students especially responded to Dylan’s songs.

For the second major project in Jessica’s course, students write an expository essay on one topic from the Civil Rights Movement, using one primary source, one secondary source, and one song as evidence. She includes a comprehensive list of topics for this project on its assignment sheet; some ideas include “looking at the experience of African American college students in the South (or in the North), what life was like for Migrant Farm Workers in California and Texas, and Native American/American Indian experiences during the Civil Rights Era. Jessica also includes a comprehensive list of where to start researching this era’s music, including articles from NPR, NewsOne, and AXS.

Students then work on this assignment over three weeks of their accelerated ten week course. During the first week, students are introduced to the Civil Rights Movement, important reading strategies, and an overview of primary and secondary sources. Jessica then models this assignment through a separate activity on grit and discusses how to use sources to help develop an essay’s main idea throughout the second week of the project. Students spend the final week outlining their essays, completing a peer review, and developing the assignment’s rubric as a class. Through this process, Jessica has found that students will effectively synthesize multiple sources when writing an expository essay.

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The original cast of the 1959 Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This project can easily be adapted to help students analyze sources in an introductory literature course. To do this, I plan on assigning an in-class activity that still focuses on finding and analyzing a secondary source and a protest song, but that uses A Raisin in the Sun as its primary source. While other short stories, plays, or poems written during the Civil Rights Movement could be used with this lesson plan, I chose A Raisin in the Sun because it was first produced on Broadway in 1959 and because of Lorraine Hansberry’s own connection to the Civil Rights Movement.

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Sam Cooke, whose “A Change is Gonna Come” could be one song used in this project. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

During the class period before we discuss the play, I will have students, in groups, research one of the following topics: housing (de)segregation, Black feminism, and race riots in Chicago during the 1950s. Then, as a group, they will be responsible for finding one article from our library’s databases that addresses their assigned topic and one protest song that relates to the topic in some way. Each group will create a brief oral presentation in which they use quotes from the article and the protest song’s lyrics to help present information on their assigned topic. These oral presentations will become the starting point of our larger class discussion on A Raisin in the Sun; that way, students will have a clear understanding of what was happening during the time period in which the play takes place before discussing its content. 

After spending multiple class periods discussing the play in depth, students will return to these groups. Together, each group will write an approximately 500-word response paper that uses quotes from all three sources as evidence for an analysis of how their previously assigned topic influences one character’s actions in A Raisin in the Sun. For example, students who presented on housing desegregation could analyze Mama’s purchasing of the home in Clybourne Park. I hope this activity leads to the same outcomes that Jessica and Stephanie saw with their assignments, so that students finish the unit with a better understanding of the time period in which Hansberry was writing and how to engage with a variety of sources.

After attending CRLA 2017, I returned to Connecticut with so many ideas for how I can better teach and support my students. Thanks to Jessica and Stephanie’s inspiration, I already have one new activity ready to go. I’m now counting down the days to Albuquerue, and, in the meantime, look forward to applying what I learned in Pittsburgh to my work at MxCC.