Where Crafting Fiction Meets Cultural Responsiveness

Piece of Paper for crafting fiction

This post delves into an important writing prompt, a crucial read, and how both influence me as an educator and writer. 

I joined Teachers Write! (a free, online, writing course created by author Kate Messner) hoping to foster a latent story-telling ability (Bear with me, I will get to the read!). I’m both unpracticed and uncertain about writing fiction. Nonetheless, come nervousness or foot-dragging I go to the keyboard each day, and write. Until last Wednesday’s assignment. I almost decided not to do it. I re-read it. Read the comments. Walked away. Came back. Read it again. Finally, I tried it out.

It’s not that the other assignments have been easy, they haven’t. But this one was particularly challenging. You see, author Christina Diaz Gonzalessaid to craft “authentic diverse characters…someone unlike you or your background”. My mind immediately went to differences in race, culture, and language. Differences that are complicated. Differences that I’ve been thinking alot about due to Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, by Zaretta Hammond.

 

Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain
click to purchase

For me, this book has been a game-changer. Truth be told, I’m only half-way through it. However, I can already feel the affects it is having on me as an educator and writer. Here’s a little bit about that.

Culture is critical in the school-lives of students, teachers, and families.

Sounds pretty simple, right? Yet in Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain it becomes profound. This is because Hammond demystifies what culture is, why it affects us, and how teachers can guide students in culturally responsive ways.  She does this by pulling back the curtain on the link between our neurology, our hormones, and our views of the world. For teachers, these links are paramount to “getting dependent students of color ready for rigor” (p.34).

Light-bulb-moment – One of the ahas from this book is having a way to categorize and articulate different layers of culture: surface, shallow, and deep.

  • Surface focuses on “observable and concrete elements…such as food, dress, music, and holidays” (p. 22).
  • Shallow “is made up of unspoken rules around everyday social interactions and norms…Nonverbal cummunication that builds rapport and trust…comes out of shallow culture” (p.22).
  • Deep envelops our “unconscious assumptions that govern our worldview…[and has] an intense emotional charge” (p.23).

In teaching – For a long time I had an inkling that adding features of surface culture to a classroom or school might be beneficial, but wasn’t enough.  Understanding cultural layers provides a framework for seeing our students as more than what they celebrate, wear, eat, or listen to. While these things are important, we need to get at the shallow and deep layers so that we can provide instruction that all brains will react to. Fortunately Hammond’s book provides a framework for how to do just that!

In writing – This is critical information when writing about characters that are different from ourselves. It might be easy to research surface layers of culture. But how do we go about excavating the shallow and deep culture of our characters? For me this is an important question, because I believe that without including these layers we run the risk of “unwittingly writing something that might be construed as offensive, inaccurate, or demeaning” (Christina Diaz Gonzalez, Teachers Write, 7/15/15). Lucky for us, in a teacher-writer-friendly-way, Ms. Gonzalez has shared valuable tips and tools for our use.

There is more to write about Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain than I could possibly include in one post. However, I want to share a few more salient topics so that you run out and by this book, now. It will definitely change you.

Additional Topics

  • The effects of socio-political context on intellectual apartheid and dependent learners
  • How poverty is not a culture, and why we need to view it differently
  • Cultural archetypes that all teachers (and teacher-writers) should understand
  • A framework for being a culturally responsive teacher
  • The importance of letting diverse students know we care, and doing so in ways they can relate to
Moving Target     The Red Umbrella     a Thunderous Whisper
Click books to purchase

I also want to highlight the wisdom of author Christina Diaz Gonzalez, and encourage you to read her works. In giving us an assignment to create characters that are different from us, Gonzalez validates the experiences of all children and readers. “We need books that reflect all the faces and facets of the world we live in and you should be writing about them”, she says (Teachers Write, 7/15/15). So thank you, Ms. Gonzalez, for opening my eyes to a new ways of crafting characters. And thank you for sparking deeper thought about working with students to include diversity in their writing.

For more on Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain

#edaware – July 2015 join the 8pm CST Sunday Twitter chat

www.ready4rigor.com – Zaretta Hammond’s website/blog

Ready4Rigor Facebook group – Member’s only group started by Zaretta Hammond

For more on diverse writing and books

The Importance of Diversity in Library Programs and Material Collections for Children – white paper from the American Library Association on why diverse collections are needed and what librarians can do

We Need Diverse Books™ – “a grassroots organization of children’s book lovers that advocates essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people”

Are Authors Scared to Write Diverse Books? – opinion piece on getting past fear about writing diverse characters, by author Roni Lonin in Huff Post Books

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What in the World is Wondering and How the Heck do I Teach it?!

Wonder 3

This post is about wondering and ways to support emergent multilinguals (aka English learners) in their writing development.

I wonder…”

If you’re reading this, it’s safe to say that you know what wondering is. I’m sure you’ve even spent some time doing it. Somehow, along the way, you learned its deep nuances. You know that there’s a little bit of questioning, but not challenge. It’s kind of like pondering but with less drawn-out-thought. When you Google something you wonder about, you’re satisfied with the Wikipedia answer. No further research needed. In the act of wondering our eyes tilt upward, maybe a finger touches the face just below the corner of the mouth. Adults use “wonder” when they are trying to be non-confrontational, leading someone down a path of inquiry. And sometimes it has an ethereal quality. That child-like sprinkle of excitement.

The Assignment

When I received the assignment “An Invitation to Wonder” from Kate Messner I was thrilled. First off, it was an easy thing to start with. All we had to do was write a list of things we wondered about. Maybe, one day, they would even turn into seed ideas for a longer piece. Secondly, it brought me back to something I had long forgotten about. The time I galumphed my way through this exercise with students, many of whom were emergent multilinguals.

Forays into Writer’s Workshop

It was my first foray into teaching writer’s workshop. I was all about idea generation. Listing what we wondered about seemed like a perfect beginning. It was open-ended and student-centered. There was no wrong answer. And there was the enthralling chance that we might end up using our wonderings as research topics. What more could a teacher want?!

And then I felt the disquieting stares. Pencils didn’t move. Bodies were still. Notebooks remained vacant. No writing happened.

Now this wasn’t because my students didn’t know how to wonder. Perhaps they were learning English in addition to having a home language, but it’s not like they didn’t have the trappings of a childhood mind. You know, the curiosity that flits about even during school hours. That wasn’t the issue at all. My students could, and did, wonder. The problem was that they really had no idea what I was asking of them, or how to accomplish it

I had made the assumption that if I told them to write what they wondered, they would do just that. They’re kids, I thought, this will be easy. So I didn’t bother to build in the language scaffolds and supports that my emergent multilingual students needed. Because of that the lesson did not produce much writing. Looking back, there is a lot I would have done differently. Here are three ways I would have changed my lesson:

1. A lesson without examples is no lesson at all

You’re probably face-palming right now because this is so obvious. How many times have you been told that all students, and especially those learning an additional language, need examples? But at the time I was taking a writer’s-workshop-stab-in-the-dark. I didn’t know a lot, and I didn’t know who to turn to. So I tried using old methods to teach new things. If I say it, they will do it.

What I realized is that young writers need strong, student-centered, linguistic examples. I should have modeled how I wondered about winning video-games, about how to get a new skateboard, about if I could have an over-night with my friend. I could have wondered about bigger things too. The problem was, I hadn’t planned for wonder-modeling. I didn’t demonstrate the language we use when we wonder. So while my students did wonder, they didn’t have the language scaffolds needed to record their wonderings in writing, in English. If I had a do-over I would include linguistically simple as well as linguistically complex examples, and highlight the language of wondering.

2. Lost in translation

Students with emerging English skills often bring rich language resources to their new learning. Translation can unlock some of these resources. However, we need to be intentional in finding translation that conveys meaning. For instance, Google translates “wonder” from English to “preguntarse” (ask yourself) in Spanish. “Yet if you type in “maravilla” in Spanish you get “wonder” in English. Even better would be “maravillarse” which is a verb that translates as “to marvel” or “to wonder”. You can see how the deep meaning changes.

When I clunked my way through that lesson I didn’t plan for unlocking the meaning of “wonder” through translation. Doing so would have quickly and fluidly pulled the curtain back on the nuances that “wonder” conveys. This would have allowed my students to focus on the task of idea generation instead of trying to figure out what I was asking of them. I could have quickly started with Google translate and then double-checked other resources. The search I did for this post took about five minutes. Those few minutes could have made a big difference to my students.

3. All language is meaning-filled

As I mentioned, many students who are learning English bring rich, existing language to their school-experience. Leveraging these competencies is critical. One way to do this is by letting students know their home-language is a resource, just as English is. When crafting our list of wonderings, I should have created an environment where students knew they could write in whatever language they felt most comfortable with.

Doing this is key for a couple of reasons. First, it would have allowed my students to focus on the lesson’s goal: idea generation. By lowering the cognitive load of learning English, we could have gotten to the core of what we needed to do as writers. Second, highlighting home language as a resource honors students as people and as writers. It conveys the idea that all voices are important, and need to be heard. Now, keep in mind that I would not have forced students to write in a home language. I just would have created the atmosphere where students knew they could. Doing so would have provided the safety and scaffolding that some may have needed to begin writing.

My Wondering List

In the interest of modeling, here is a wondering list I wrote for Teachers Write! And, by the way, it’s this wondering list that led me to write this post.

  1. How do I start and keep a writing practice going?
  2. Why do people want to write?
  3. How can I spend time writing and keep my commitments to my profession, my self, my family, and my friends all alive and well?
  4. Does loving to write make me an introvert?
  5. Is that a bad thing?
  6. What does it mean to be a teacher-writer?
  7. How do I share with my students my own worries about writing so that they feel comfortable sharing theirs?
  8. How do other languages say “wonder”?
  9. How do we make writing instruction work for all students?
  10. What paradigms need a complete shake up?
  11. What am I missing as a caucasian, female educator?
  12. What capacities do students bring to their writing?
  13. How do I help them unleash those capacities