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?


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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Using Paint Strips to Teach Connotation

Connotation: an idea or feeling that a word invokes in addition to its literal or primary meaning, according to Google. Connotation, to me, answers the question, “How deeply does this word make me feel a certain emotion? The word “bad” has a negative connotation to it, yet so does the word “devastating”. Yet, English teachers can’t deny that the negative feeling associated with the word “devastating” is magnified in comparison to the word “bad”. This is what teaching connotation is all about.

Understanding connotation is a multi-step process that most students will not grasp with a basic PowerPoint and worksheet. I know…I tried that avenue. I failed. Thankfully, these students were vocal about my dismal failure because it pushed me as an educator to think outside the box for a way to truly reach them with this topic that is ESSENTIAL to creating inventive and thoughtful writers.

Step One: Teach Students About Synonyms

You cannot skip this step. Students must know what a synonym is and often do not (or they need a refresher). Practice using a simple word that everyone in the room knows. I use the word “bad” in my own practice lesson. Students will need to brainstorm to come up with synonyms of the word “bad” and write them down.

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This is the scaffolded version of my Connotation Sunburst Worksheet

Step Two: Teach Students About Levels of Connotation of a Group of Synonyms

Next, students must begin the process of understanding that the connotative meaning of a word has to do with the feeling that is associated with that word. Explain to students that the word “good” has a positive connotation, or feeling, associated with it, while the word “bad” has a negative connotation associated with it. As a group, or in pairs, students should come up with another example of two words that have opposing connotations, or feelings associated with their meaning.

Step Three: Rank Group of Synonyms According to Connotation

Students should rank each synonym that they previously found. I choose to have students rank the words on a plain worksheet the first round, mainly to get them used to the process without any color or further directions. They then must explain their ranking choice in writing. Students LOVE to try to say, “Well, this one just seems more negative!” but I do not let such a lackadaisical explanation slide. Prompt them to use the other synonyms in their explanation, and push them beyond basic answers.

Step Four: Repeat Finding Synonyms with a New Word – Then Rank Using Paint Strips

I always teach this lesson in two rounds. The first round is wonderful for students to practice their rankings, explanations and to work with the teacher and their classmates as a sounding board for their ideas. It’s very energetic, and they get the opportunity to hear their classmates logic as well as the teacher’s.

The second round, give the students a new word that they may be working with in their unit lessons. I provide a vocabulary word that they have been learning. Then, have them find synonyms for their vocabulary word in small groups, this time limiting the voices that are guiding their answers.

Then, students will rank the connotative meaning of these synonyms independently using the paint strips to guide them. Pick up paint strips from a hardware store, or use the ones in my TpT resource and have students rank the words (words with a more positive connotation should be written in the lighter hues, while words with a more negative connotation should be written in the darker hues). Then, have the students explain their reasoning for their ranking either on the backs of the paint strips or on a separate sheet of paper.

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Paint Strips Ranking Worksheet

Note: It is difficult to write on real paint strips with pen or pencil. Permanent Markers work fine.

Step Five: Teach Students to Critically Consider Word Choice in a Sentence

From here, you may choose where to lead students. I use a worksheet where students place the synonyms they came up with for “bad” into the same sentence and answer questions about sentence meaning. Another great further practice would be to teach students about author’s purpose. Then, provide students with an author’s purpose and have them alter words in a pre-written paragraph to meet the specified purpose. This is higher-level thinking that will challenge even your most excelled students.

If you want to use the worksheets and handouts that I have found to be effective in my classroom, you may download my Connotation Lesson from TpT.

Don’t make my mistake. Don’t assume that students know how to slow down and think critically about how a word is appropriate for the context of a sentence. These students are learning and growing in a world where getting information out quickly is highly valued. Word choice takes a back seat to slang, text talk and who can speak the quickest. Slowing down to consider their purpose for writing or speaking is a skill that must be taught to this generation. Teach it with patience and care, and understand that this may not come easily to many of them. Yet, it is so critical for them to have this skill in the future, simply because so much stems from being able to speak and write with purpose in mind.

I hope this helps guide some of you to reach even more of your students this year!


How To Challenge The “Good Enough” Mentality

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“Ms. C, I finished my paragraph. Is this good enough?”

When I first started teaching at my small, rural school, this phrase was practically set on repeat. Student after student would approach me with their work, asking if it was “good enough”. I would look at the page and see that the student was calling two sentences a full paragraph. I would encourage them to write more. They would return to their seat, write, and come back up to my desk. “Okay, is it good enough now?”. I would glance down at the paper and see that they had added one additional sentence to their paper. Cue blood-curdling scream and commence tearing out my own hair.

I couldn’t understand why these students didn’t intrinsically WANT to try harder, why there wasn’t this inner drive to produce work that they could actually be proud of. Even the phrase itself, “good enough”, set my teeth on edge. Good enough for what? Whenever I heard a student utter that phrase, I wanted to retort, “If you have to ask, then you already know that it isn’t” (Okay, I may have said something like this to a student once). It’s maddening, mostly because we assume that they know what their work is lacking, and we think the only reason the work isn’t being done can be boiled down to pure, unfiltered laziness. Whoops.

When Enough Was Enough

I suffered through a year or two of listening to the “good enough” refrain, until one day in class I was approached by a top-achieving student. This student turned in the day’s written assignment and when I looked down at it, I was shocked. There was barely any writing on the paper. I called the student back to my desk and asked if they did not understand the assignment. Here was the reply:

“No, Ms. C., I understood the assignment. I’ve seen what some of my classmates have been turning in, and it is NEVER as much as I do. So, I guess I just don’t see the point of doing more if it doesn’t matter.”

I. Was. Stunned. This student’s words sucker-punched me right through the gut and left me feeling kind of dizzy. It was me. I was the reason that kids were aiming for “good enough”. Now, that’s kind of harsh considering there are other factors such as home environment and the student’s choice of friends that play into their drive to succeed. Yet, I knew at that moment what the power of a teacher’s expectations had on student performance. I was rewarding laziness by allowing sub-par answers, and students that worked hard to truly answer the questions were noticing. That was the day I decided that “good enough” was dead.

How I Transformed “Is This Good Enough?” to “Is This The Most Relevant/Analyzed/Thoughtful Answer?” 

How do young children learn how to act? They watch adults and model after their behavior. This can be a positive thing, depending on the adult that the child is watching. The same rule can be applied to how children learn how to write – they read writing and imitate it.

So, the very first thing I did was create models of exemplary paragraphs. I showed these to students. We went through these paragraphs to identify topic sentences, located relevant evidence, and discussed whether the explanation was thorough enough. We studied these paragraphs. Every time I assigned a new type of writing assignment, we repeated this process of modeling work and going through the model to point out all of its best features. Students had a CLEAR idea of what was considered acceptable.

I no longer accepted basic vocabulary in their answers.

Once my students got used to modeling exemplary work together, I decided to set my expectation bar even higher. I stopped accepting written work with vocabulary such as “very”, “many”, “good”, “bad”, “things” and “stuff”. We created synonym charts for these words and I saw kids having fun as they started “leveling up” their vocabulary – a term that I started using. A vast majority of my students love video games, and so the idea of gaining a new “level” was enough to get them giggling and trying to find a better word than their original choice.

I Stayed Consistent

Bottom line? I would not let a paper even be considered for grading if it was not written correctly or I found any basic terms in it. The students learned quickly to complete the work right the first time, or they would be revising the work over and over until it was right. I cannot tell you how many times I heard a child whisper to a classmate, “Ms. C. won’t take that like that” and I just smile because they’ve started to not only recognize weaknesses in their own writing, but also in the writing of their peers. That, my dear friends, is powerful.

Does this get tiresome as teacher? Yup. Do you consider accepting their work after six failed tries and one frustrated child? Yup. Don’t fall to temptation. The reward is SO worth it once they learn the techniques and apply them.

Improvement

Through modeling, I empower my young learners. Instead of just slapping failing grades onto dismal assignments, I let them explore writing as a guide for their own. As more and more time goes on, I watch them break away from the samples and start taking risks in their own writing. I notice that the students who had been motivated even before this paradigm shift are striving to accomplish even more now that they see that putting in the effort is being celebrated.

I no longer have students coming up to me to ask, “Is this good enough?”. Instead, they ask, “Did I place the comma in the right spot here for my evidence?”, “Is this the strongest piece of evidence for my topic?” or “Does this sound like a good transition to the next paragraph?”.

Guys, I teach middle schoolers. Let that sink in for a moment.

Maybe students aren’t just lazy, unmotivated and apathetic. Maybe they haven’t seen enough of what GREAT looks like. Maybe they’re just waiting for someone to say, “No, that’s not good enough. Yet.”


How Students Who Grow Up In Trauma-Households Learn Differently

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Imagine that one time that you went to reach for your wallet and realized that it was no longer there. A blanket of cold dread pushed from your scalp to your toes, your heart rate increased, and you may have felt momentarily dizzy. This was your body’s quick reaction to intense stress. It may have only lasted for a few seconds until your body leveled off the stress hormone and you could think rationally about the whereabouts of your lost wallet.

Now, imagine having that flood of stress multiple times a day, every… single… day. Our students who grow up in trauma-households are experiencing this constant overload, whether that be from physical abuse, verbal arguments that are psychologically scarring, all the way to a parent withholding love from the child as a punishment. Eventually, the child learns unhealthy ways to cope with the trauma.

  1. Regression

If your student utilizes regression (learned helplessness), you may notice that when faced with difficult tasks or consequences for their actions, they revert to babyish actions. They may even speak in baby talk. This tends to happen with children who did not receive much physical touch nor loving care as a child. The student may have acted babyish when younger to frustrate a caretaker, forcing the caretaker to become physical with them and provide that physical touch (though not in a positive way).

How to teach these students: If you notice a student practicing regression, first and foremost, view them as the courageous soul that they are. Can you imagine having never experienced physical touch or care, and yet still being brave enough to seek it out? These types of students won’t just “grow up” if we toss that careless expression at them. They require our gentle, yet firm understanding as they eventually move through this stage in their life. We, as educators, cannot provide the physical touch they crave, yet we can provide a safe haven for them while they work through their past traumas. Gentle reminders of how the student should act may encourage them to begin acting as they should for their age level. They will slowly realize that they receive praise from adults when they act as they should, and not when they regress to childish actions.

Dramatic Reactions

Place yourself back to the time when you thought you had lost your wallet. That stress reaction that occurs is what we refer to as the “survival brain”. You cannot think rationally when your brain is in this state. Students who face trauma often are trapped in survival brain mode, and the slightest further stressor can either cause them to become angry, explode in tears, or want to flee (fight or flight). Something as small as a wrong look from a classmate could be enough to set off a dramatic reaction.

How to teach these students: Create a plan for these students in the case that their stressors become too much. Often, the reason these students explode dramatically is that they can’t handle everything at once and are unsure of what to do. By sitting down with them and setting up a solid plan during these moments, the student not only feels supported by an adult but has a safety net for situations that are overwhelming. This empowers the student as well as teaching them healthier coping mechanisms. The eventual goal is for the student to not need an adult to guide them when they are facing these extreme stressors, so having the student create their own coping plan is essential to further growth.

NOTE: Some students may try to escape their reality at school by overusing their coping method. Be sure to set very clear expectations that they follow their plan only when the student is overwhelmed to the point of being unable to cope.  

Disassociation

Some children learn how to basically shut down and disassociate from the negative situation. Their brain “zones out” until the terrible experience is over which, to an educator, can look like defiance and flat-out insubordination. The child may have developed this coping mechanism to the point where they are unable to speak once their brain shuts down, and may stare straight ahead until they are able to escape the potential threat.

How to teach these students: If a child shuts down, there is only one action to take – send them out of the room to the guidance counselor or another adult equally as soothing. The child cannot be allowed to sit in class and not complete the tasks that you have set forth, but becoming frustrated and trying to force them to work will create a hostile environment for the child. They need you to be calm, patient and understanding at all times, even when they’ve shut down. As time goes on, you may work with the guidance counselor and the student so that the student can build up more and more trust in you. They may get to a level of trust with you where gentle coaxing during class could bring them out of their “zone out” to join their classmates. As the student ages, they should be working to come out of their disassociation on their own without an adult’s help.

 

Ultimately, wonderful teacher, these students need a caring heart and an understanding ear as they work through the traumas of their past and present lives. Their thoughts may frequently return to the trauma they are afraid will be waiting for them at home. Be gentle when reminding them to get back on task. Remember that you probably can’t save the child from experiencing the trauma, but you can be the warm smile they see each and every day they come to school, the kind tutor who guides them through their schoolwork, and the encouraging voice that helps them to recognize their own unique talents… maybe for the first time in their life.