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Time is Not on Our Side: Literacy and Literature for High School Language Learners

National Writing Project, from California English magazine

Given that teachers often have too much to teach and too little time, teacher Dana Dusbiber suggests an alternative approach to teaching literature for secondary ELLs: the introduction of more multicultural literature in the classroom.

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If you, like many of us in California and across the country, teach students whose life experiences reflect a broad range of cultural, class and language perspectives, you may find yourself often at a loss for how to use your limited classroom time to engage your students on meaningful levels, and also teach the literature that you are mandated, or feel obligated, to teach. You know that your language-learning students need a “catch up” plan to help them acquire academic language and you also know that, by high school, many of them are turned off to the traditional models our schools offer. Given that we often have too much to teach, and too little time, I am suggesting an alternative approach to the teaching of literature for our secondary English language learning students who are often disengaged and left out in our English classrooms and high schools at large.

Many of our bilingual students come to us, in middle and high school, with literacies that often don’t match those that our systems teach and measure. Through missed or absent schooling opportunities in their home countries, misguided elementary programs, recent immigration or other factors, our secondary students are often what our school’s determine as “behind” when it comes to reading and writing. Most of them are in need of urgent access to both English literacy and content knowledge background. When we assess our incoming students, and consider the skill and learning they need to acquire in four short years, we are overwhelmed and disheartened. Yet we ourselves often adhere to belief systems that promote the one-size-fits-all model relative to what and how we teach. We somehow believe that if we don’t give our students access to the same key works of literature that all students should read, we are doing them a disservice. Unknowingly, we actually promote models of inequity in the name of equal access.

Informing our own cultural perspectives

Because time with our students is limited, we would be wise to carefully choose a body of literature that addresses multiple issues and concerns. Not only should we select works that reflect an array of perspectives and world views, for the benefit of our students, we should also read novels and biographies and essays that inform and edify our own perspectives and practice.

When the literature we select also mirrors the cultural experiences of our students, we place ourselves in the lovely realm of learning along side of and from our students. Gary Howard, in his book We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know offers a multicultural education perspective that invites teachers to engage in five key arenas of learning. Two of these key areas require that teachers “learn about and value cultures different from our own,” and “view social reality through the lens of multiple perspectives.” (81) When we take time to read and study texts that present diverse perspectives and realities, and then take those texts into our classrooms and read them with our students, we learn and construct meaning with them, and often change the dynamics of knowledge and power in the classroom.

My own teacher-journey towards cultural awareness was enhanced by my first classroom experience in a California urban middle school in the late 1980s. In my classroom were Mien and Hmong students from Laos and Thailand. As I learned about their lives — what their travels and family relationships and cultural practices had taught them about life, literacy and learning — I knew that I needed this background knowledge if I was to be their teacher. I set about reading and gathering additional knowledge to better understand their cultures and experiences. Similarly, my Mexican-born students offered me the opportunity to be curious and learn from them and about them. Rudolfo Anaya’s Tortuga is one work that spoke to me during that time. His insight into the suffering of the story’s main characters spoke to me, and their frailties became metaphor for the lives of my students. Diligently, through those early years as a teacher, I sought literary works that my students and I could share together, works that let them see themselves reflected, that invited them to write their own stories, and learn more about themselves and our small community in the process. I was, as James Hoffman mandates us to be, “creatively non-compliant” in matters of textbook use and district-required novels. I found ways to bring multicultural literature into our classroom and I learned from the many stories we shared together. In truth, this path has made me more aware of my own role as an agent of change in my schools and classrooms. I have become more authentic as an educator and a professional. I have learned, as Gary Howard has learned, to be “guided by empathy and respect in my emotional response to people from different racial and cultural groups.” (106)

We are often too busy, with the demands of the workday, our students, and our own lives, to stop and consider that our life experiences and realities are often vastly different from those of our students. Yet when we step into our classrooms each morning, we must take a moment to reflect on the essential nature of the work that we do. We are helping our students broker a language and culture that is essential to their inclusion into all of the aspects of American life that we value. Guadalupe Valdez, in Learning and Not Learning English, reminds us that “school programs aimed at immigrant students are seldom based on an ethical understanding of how education is related to broader social and cultural relations.” (155) When we read and learn from diverse texts with our students, we are showing them, in powerful and real ways, that we wish to widen our own lens and gain understanding of their social and cultural realities. We are then much better poised to re-invite them to learn English with us.

Prioritizing what we teach

The bilingual students in my English classes have often humbled me with the breadth of their life experiences and struggles. They have possessed an intelligence that isn’t easily measured by our narrow and mono-cultural assessments. Still, my job is to help them gain proficiency in academic English literacy. As I studied the district pacing guides and benchmark assessment matrices, I wondered what could be sacrificed if I was to make real progress with my students. I often saw that they were bored and found little relevancy in the curriculum they were offered. When faced with these challenges, I had to re-think my approach and my role as a high school English teacher. Following are some questions I ask myself about my essential role as a secondary teacher:

  1. If I acknowledge that my goal is to prepare ALL of my students for college, then what types of readings (both fiction and non-fiction) will best help me do that? Is a steady diet of classic literature really the best use of my students’ time, when very few of them will be literature majors in college?
  2. If I see myself more as a teacher of literacy, and less a teacher of “the canon,” what readings will engage my students, provide meaningful models, and help them read and write better?
  3. If I accept that they learn enough about white, dominant culture simply by living in this country, do I need to read texts with them that continue to reflect a privileged stance?

These questions help me determine the literature that I will read with my students. They help me focus my time and energy and think better about not wasting the precious time of my students. I am occasionally reminded by my colleagues in the National Writing Project (reflecting on their own journeys) that maturity and confidence as readers and scholars set us up to study works that we may have previously discarded because we deemed them irrelevant or even biased. We owe it to our students to extend to them the same allowances. If we hook them now, with engaging and relevant texts, as readers and lovers of stories, how far might they go with their own study once they leave us?

Educational disobedience: excerpting text for guided reading and writing

If you find, after much soul-searching and introspection, that you still must (perhaps because you are mandated to) teach from a textbook or a list of novels, there are ways to be “creatively non-compliant.” Often I have found that I can select passages from texts that can help me teach comprehension, and also introduce my students to authors and literary themes that address local and state standards and “test” concerns. My students, for example) do not need to read all of The Great Gatsby to be introduced to Fitzgerald and the themes contained in the novel.

There are several literacy strategies currently practiced that allow us to take the very best passages from full-length texts and both introduce the texts to our students and teach a specific comprehension or literary skill at the same time. The “Read Aloud” and “Think Aloud” (Wilhelm, Tovani) are two such strategies. By taking a passage from a novel and presenting it in this manner, we can include canonized authors and their works into our multicultural novel studies and thematic units. A teacher might, for example, choose Ryan’s novel Esperanza Rising (with its themes of immigration, loss, personal growth and social justice) for study in ninth grade English, and include passages from The Grapes of Wrath or other Steinbeck works to excerpt for Read Alouds or Think Alouds. What is important is that the primary text offers so many entry points for connection and relevance, particularly for our Spanish-speaking students, that our limited time is thus spent with material that engages and teaches literary themes and standards.

The ever-swinging educational pendulum has settled recently in a “No Child Left Behind” high-stakes testing zone that finds local policy makers and school districts once again searching for text books and curricula that will “teach” to the tests and give students the “standards” necessary to pass the tests and graduate from high school. Thus, while many of us have long-considered a multicultural education model (with its accompanying texts, literatures, and literacies) to be the best approach for our diverse student populations, we find that we are now being encouraged and/or mandated to go back to a euro-centric (with often quite limited multicultural texts) anthology that often leaves out, or makes a nod to, diverse perspectives and voices. By omitting these perspectives, voices and world views, we risk losing our students and sacrificing their education on multiple levels.

If then, our students come to us with interests and intelligences that often don’t fit the models we offer, and if they are in need of an enhanced literacy, one that gives them access to the language of power that we call standard, and if our time is limited, what literature should we teach that can engage and excite and make our students open to learning the reading and writing skills we wish to teach? When we enlarge the canon, and seek out authors and stories that both reflect the cultures of our students and also invite them to consider themes and issues that we deem relevant, we are creating a curriculum and a new canon that works for both our language learners and our English only students alike.

Publication Date:

This National Writing Project article first appeared in the summer 2006 issue of California English, the journal of the California Association of Teachers of English.