The Necessity (& Trials) of Teaching Cultural Texts in a Small Town

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I wouldn’t trade teaching in a rural, small-town district for all the money in the world.

I’ve taught in several districts during my teaching career and there is nothing that quite matches the compassion of students who grow up in a small town. Their hearts are big, even if their parents’ pocketbooks may not be.

The majority of my students live in absolute poverty and the story behind most of their lives brings me to tears each time I hear them. I couldn’t single-handedly fix the brokenness of their lives, but rather than dwell on that kind of hopeless thought, I decided to give these kids something that their small town couldn’t. World culture.

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I can promise you, the first time I introduced a cultural novel to my English 12 class, I was met with an onslaught of insensitive and culturally crude remarks from a few of my more rowdy pupils. These students had NEVER been asked to read a novel set somewhere like the Middle East. They had grown up hearing negative remarks about anyone from the Middle East, stemming from the aftermath of the September 11th, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. Yes, I know that was a while ago, but mindsets are very set in a small town where ideas tend to lay stagnant with very few opportunities to change them. Yet I knew that culturally-aware kids became culturally-tolerant adults, so I continued pushing forward.

Everyday, I addressed any sort of comments that came up and flipped them in to teachable moments. I would correct the child’s remark and launch into a conversation about where such ideas stem from and how they are SO incorrect. At first, my students grumbled because the very ideology they had grown up with was being challenged.

I remained persistent in course-correcting them, and I noticed the remarks and slights ceased entirely. I exposed the students to a wide variety of non-fiction texts, video clips from YouTube, and gave them a basic but profound foundation on the culture found in these countries that we were about to read about in our class novels. Slowly, their comments turned into questions and I knew they were ready to begin.

I taught novels such as The Kite Runner by Khalid Hosseini, Life of Pi by Yann Martel and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. They soaked up the narratives, explored the character’s inner trials and tribulations and often would come into my room before class to exclaim over what had happened to a favorite character of theirs. On the surface, I was teaching novels set in a different location but what I was REALLY teaching was compassion, empathy and a deep-set understanding for those who are not exactly like them.

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It was not always easy to gain support from the parents of my students either. I was once confronted by a parent who requested that I teach something more to the interest of their child, something they could use once they had graduated. When I asked what the parent would suggest, they mentioned reading articles on dirt bikes or mechanics since that was what their child was mostly interested in. The crazy thing is, I UNDERSTOOD where the parent was coming from. I understood that their child was more interested in motors and going fast, and that was definitely what they would do after high school. But these novels weren’t just assigned reading-they weren’t meant to just be “interesting”. They were skill building. They were explorations into cultures that these students may never get the opportunity to explore on their own or in person. If no one opened their eyes to the beauty of cultures in other countries, would these students spend the rest of their lives in fear of cultures other than their own?

I had to justify using these texts in my classroom several times to my administration, and in the end IT WAS WORTH IT. It was worth every single meeting explaining the purpose behind the novels, every single eye-roll from a student when I would announce a foreign author’s name, every single angry parent-email demanding to know why their child was reading non-fiction that taught them the founding principles of a different religion prevalent in a culture.

Why? Because my students were transformed. They weren’t making those same insensitive comments they did when they first were introduced to new cultures. I had given them one small opening to a new perspective on life in different parts of the world, and so many of my students flourished after that.

As the years have flown by, I have gained the trust and admiration of the community and I don’t receive those angry phone calls, upset emails or demands for meetings with the administration. The changed thinking of many small town students speaks for itself – all through choosing to teach them even ONE cultural novel that widens their understanding of what it means to be human.

Here’s to making the world a little bit more tolerant of each other, one cohort of small-town minds at a time.

The Genius Educator TeacherPayTeachers Resources for Cultural Units

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