Cultural Texts That Expand Student Thinking

What is the purpose of an English teacher?

Some might say, “To teach students about sentence structure and grammar” or “To help them recognize words in a text and comprehend those words.”

True. Yet, dare I say, that is only the tiniest fraction of our work.

The purpose of an English teacher is to get texts in the hands of their students that expand their current patterns of thinking, and make them start questioning the world around them.

As a little girl, I grew up in a very small, rural district. In one building, we housed grade K-12. One of my earliest memories of school, in fact, was walking into our cafeteria and having a pretty senior girl run over and give me a high-five because we had the same first name. We were a close-knit community, everyone knew everyone else’s names (and business), and I soon learned the unspoken game of having to honor families whose roots ran deep in the history of our town.

On the outset, this way of life was peaceful and safe for parents raising a family. Most people were simple in this place, content with knowing about the plot of land their house stood on and not concerning themselves with the world at large. Open-mindedness was often non-existent, and differing beliefs were seen as a threat to the smooth flow of everyday life. What the collective whole believed in our community was accepted as truth.

Yet, without much exposure to other cultures, ideas and ways of thinking, this kind of blind acceptance can be quite dangerous. I left my small-town and headed to college, where I devoured every book I could get my hands on that told stories about other cultures. Once I accepted my position at my current, small-town, rural district, I knew I had a responsibility to my students: to expose them to the idea of other cultures.

While I have several favorites, one author who I cannot recommend enough for high school-aged students is Khaled Hosseini. Born in Kabul, Afghanistan, Hosseini writes beautifully of the conditions of Afghanistan before – and after – the Taliban destroyed their country. Crafted through the lens of fictional characters, students will get a glimpse into Afghani culture, true world-events and have their heartstrings tugged throughout Hosseini’s novels.

My Top Recommendations from Khaled Hosseini

The Kite Runner

This novel is first on the list for the way it reveals the inner culture of Afghanistan. The main character, Amir, takes the reader on a heart-wrenching journey as he grapples with his own identity and his need to prove himself worthy to his legend of a father, Baba. The conditions of pre-Taliban Afghanistan are wonderfully described, and a childhood friendship painted for our own enjoyment. Our own moral compass is spun on its head as Amir makes contradictory choices, and spends the rest of his life trying to make amends. I would highly recommend The Kite Runner for introducing Afghani culture to your students, as well as creating rich discussion about morality and the power of deep-rooted loyalty.

Disclaimer: This novel has direct reference to a scene of rape with Amir’s boyhood friend, Hassan. High-level juniors and seniors would be an appropriate age for this novel. If you teach at a conservative district, take the necessary steps to get approval from your administration.

A Thousand Splendid Suns

This novel by Hosseini paints the picture of Afghanistan through the eyes of women pre- and post- Taliban era. Switching between a harami and the daughter of a former university professor, the reader can grasp how the freedoms of Afghani women were stripped from them completely during this tumultuous time. American students will grasp how the men of Afghanistan have ultimate power over their wives and daughters, which could open rich discussion about the power of having equal rights for all. The ending of this novel can also open discussion about the morality of Mariam’s choice, and whether it was an acceptable action after the treatment from her husband throughout their marriage.

Disclaimer: One of the main characters experiences miscarriages, which could be a difficult topic for some. Be sure to provide ample discussion about the struggles of fertility with students before encountering these scenes.

Some cultural texts are contradictory. They hold ideas that are so foreign to those our students experience that they may cause abrupt and slightly uncomfortable discussion. Read them anyway.

The point of education is to get our students asking questions, to contemplate the world that surrounds them. Some students are stuck in small-town bubbles, others sheltered from other cultures through sheer lack of exposure. It is our duty to find the best texts and to give them a glimpse of these other worlds, even if it is only for a moment.

What author(s) would you say are tantamount to teaching students about the cultures of the world?