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 look out for further ideas from Dietrich in a second post to come on April 25th. 

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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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 Poets.org, at which Blanco serves as a contributor.

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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.

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“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.

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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.