The topic of multiculturalism in the classroom has been striking a chord with me over the past few days as if the hands of fate were carefully planting seeds for what this blog might become. As a lifelong insomniac, it is a semi-regular occurrence that I might wake up at four o’clock in the morning and either go for a walk or turn the television on looking for a movie that I could hopefully, but unlikely fall back to sleep to.
This morning that movie happened to be American History X, which has always been one of my favorite movies for its emotional depths and societal nuances that it navigates harshly, but fairly. In the movie, a young, impressionable Derek (Edward Norton) is raised by a father who is a racist. Derek’s character attends a school with an African American professor (who I believe was a Phd in the movie) as his mentor. At first, Derek is impressed by the perspective this professor offers and what the books he is reading, including Native Son, offer in terms of a deeper understanding of a culture entirely different too his own. I had not read Native Son the first time I saw this movie, and did not remember its mentioning until seeing that seen again this morning. Last year while working at a school with a fairly multicultural student population, the book was recommended to me. To say the book devastated me was an understatement. Seeing that seen today maybe me realize just how tragic Derek’s story was as he went from someone who went from being interested in the ideas and plights of others to taking his father’s racial ideations to an extreme, becoming a neo-nazi skinhead, a group of people I am somewhat familiar with, having grown up in the New Jersey hardcore music scene.
Without spoiling more of the movie than necessary, I will say, that despite his horrific beliefs, Deker never seems to stray from the initial respect he had for that mentor.
I am two things simultaneously as a person, and before I state what those two things are, I must say that I am not phrasing this in such a way as to put myself down, but merely to suggest that I have a lot to learn. I am both a lover of culture and what I would consider relatively uncultured. I can condemn the atrocities of what is going on in the middle east as people die in the conflict between Israel and Palestine, but if asked to define, describe, or sum up the ways in which that part of the world came to be congested with conflict, I would fall short of being able to aptly give any form actual details as to just how we got here.
While I was teaching, my classroom was a mixture of races, ethnicities, religions, and genders, and I will be the first to admit that I was intimidated, not understanding how to properly form a classroom that embraced culture how I wanted to. Bell-Hooks mentions that there is not enough education on how to make the educational experience inclusive and I couldn’t agree more. I thought about teaching books such as Native Son and Yellow Wife in my classroom at times, but was terrified as to what my students would think. “The white man teaching us our own history.” I was never able to find the proper way to negotiate this line within myself. Bell-Hooks mentions that we must acknowledge that a lot of us were taught under a single norm system where we were taught to believe certain things were universal. While I can’t say whether or not I agree or disagree with this, I can acknowledge the fact that I don’t remember ever having a single teacher in English who wasn’t Caucasian, or recall reading any books relating to the cultures, reading literature by African Americans outside of black history month, or reading about any genocides besides the Holocaust, which was represented by The Diary of Anne Frank as a teenager and Number the Stars as a child.
Bell-Hooks believes that there must be a way for a teacher to go through a training program where they can express their own concerns about teaching a multicultural curriculum in a multicultural classroom, and while I love this idea, I don’t quite know what it would look like. This sort of training, while it may be a brilliant idea, may fall short in addressing diversity because of the nature of how much diversity there is in the world. How can one teacher preparation program teach me the ways in which to handle teaching culture? How would it tackle LGBTQ books (Insomniac City), African American literature (Their Eyes Were Watching God, A Raisen in The Sun), literature of the Middle-East (Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns), or other books with such vast cultural offerings (Tattooist of Auschwitz, Life of Pie, Killing Commendatore). There are more cultures than there would be time for a training program to tackle in my eyes, so how would you choose what cultural sensitivities to exclude?
I find there to be a bit of irony to what happened in the meeting that was held at the University with Bell-Hooks, which started as all-inclusive but eventually did not allow for students to attend until things got contentious over comments made by professors that could be seen as racist. I guess the university decided, that it was more important for the teachers to educate themselves than it was for the students to educate the teachers by excluding those voices, a bit of irony in there somewhere.
Some of the old guard of professors spoke up and understood that a change was needed, but were uncertain as to go about the change. To an extent I can sympathize, I love living in my own inclusive world, but understand the world is not as inclusive. I could have filled my classroom with a third African American literature and a third of literature written by Hispanic authors, and I would still be missing countless perspectives and stories that my students could learn from. It is not my fear of losing control of my classroom that hindered me, but the heavy weight that comes with picking and choosing the cultures and perspectives to focus on in such a finite amount of time.
When reading Harris’s pieces on tutoring ESL students, I think back to my former classes where many of my students were fluent in English but had been raised with Spanish as their first language. This article gave me a better understanding of what those students went through in some of their more fundamental childhood years as they negotiated the rules and regulations of multiple languages, places, and cultures. I’m thankful that some of them did get the one-on-one attention that Harris deemed necessary for these students to be successful.
Harris believes that when prioritizing errors, a teacher or tutor should first acknowledge what is well done in the work. While I find this to be fundamental to teaching writing in general, I think it takes on a different, more significant weight when looking at the works of an ESL student. Students who come from other backgrounds, while processing the rules of English, will still find ways to frame and structure English and obtain a unique voice through this. I think of Murakami as my favorite example of this, as many of his works are written in such a way that they are overwhelming to me. They give me a sense of surrealism and confusion that somehow draws me in in ways that many other authors fail to. We all see the world differently, yet we all also express how we see the world differently, even in one language such as English, and I think this is a crucial thing for a tutor to navigate when determining what does and does not work within a developing writer’s offerings. While students can be easily classified as ESL students, that title branches off into hundreds of different directions, each ESL student is different and has been shaped by culture and change, and because of this each should be respected and treated differently. I feel Harris addresses this by highlighting an important aspect of tutoring ESL students is to first study multiple pieces of that student’s writing to understand their trends, patterns, and voices.
Harris also references the differences in how the writing process occurs between ESL students and native English speaking students, and shows that studies indicate that ESL students will often focus less on what “sounds” right during the revision process. This is interesting to me as on one hand, I feel as though many of us do this, reread while focusing on what sounds write to our ears, however, part of what I love about works that have been written in other languages but translated to English is that they sound different, often completely different, but they also sound right to me. This is perhaps why I am so often drawn to the writings of Japanese authors (not manga, but translated novels). They are written in English, yet are composed in a style that inspires me because of certain gorgeous qualities I find within it like their cultures are flooding through the translation, building a dream for me.
This might be my longest blog entry to date, and I would love to continue, but truthfully… I am a straight white man who grew up in New Jersey, I am probably not the voice that should be listened to on any of these subjects.
I will end this blog with a story of my upcoming weekend, and hopefully provide a bit of hope for the future to those that see the challenges behind navigating cultural bounds. Tomorrow, I will be working on a college recommendation letter for a former student of mine, a young, quick-witted Hispanic, LGBTQ child. While it may be unethical for a teacher to have favorites, it is safe to say we had a very interesting dynamic, this girl was a straight a high school student, yet had no interest in college before meeting me. The last day of the year, she gave me the gift of a goose statue (I was known as the silly goose teacher) and a letter that I currently have framed in my bedroom. In that letter, this child, who was an ESL student growing up, thanked me for making her fall in love with writing again after she had been discredited by many who came before me, and expressed how at her future college graduation she would be thanking me for the support and guidance I provided.
There is hope for a multicultural classroom, the road may be bumpy, but perhaps it’s getting smoother a little at a time