Building Bridges with Literature

Two Mexican Children in Schoolby Deborah Kneubuhl-Durham

The following article was written by Deborah Kneubuhl-Durham about culture and literature as a symbiotic tool in the education of a bicultural, Anglo-Hispanic society.  It was written over ten years ago when the Anglo culture was still the predominate demographic in most U.S. cities, large and small.  Today that has changed.  More than half of the growth in the total U.S. population between 2000 and 2010 was due to the increase in the Hispanic population (U.S. Census 2010).  Another important consideration is that the category “Anglo” is an umbrella term that describes a vast array of cultures and nationalities. It’s not just German, English or French. On the other hand, the ancestry of Americans who claim Hispanic ancestry is overwhelmingly Mexican (nearly 70%). The point being that in many demographics throughout the United States, it was years ago that US citizens of Mexican ancestry outnumbered any one sub-nationality under the Anglo umbrella.  And, while in those areas, educators were slow to incorporate tools to accommodate that fast-growing demographic, the teachers on the frontline, had to go it alone.   (Newsbyrd Editor)

Building Bridges with Literature

By 10:00 a.m., our small, rural high school located in the upper Sacramento Valley is almost devoid of color. The halls echo as Anglo students scurry to class. Desks are vacant in classrooms. My reading lab is close to empty. Juan walks in and asks if I’ve seen Franky. I tell him he probably went to church. “Nah, he don’t go to church anymore. He probably just cut.” I shrug as I turn to begin class. Franky and Juan seem to have a contest to see who can get the other in trouble. They are both tough kids. Juan begins to fidget and tells me he’s leaving. I let him know he needs to stay in class. “I didn’t get a note. Will you mark me here so I can go?” I tell Juan I’ll mark him here only if he’s here. He gives me the look and storms out of the room. He’s back ten minutes later. Someone asks me about Our Lady of Guadalupe, and I admit I don’t know much about her feast day. It occurs to me that I know very little about the rituals and religious feast days of my Latino students. What I do know about the Latino culture is what I’ve learned from reading literature, and what I’ve learned on holiday trips to Baja California. Much of my knowledge, I realize, is Anglicized. Although publishers include multicultural material in their anthologies, students don’t always relate to the pieces included. Students who have entered this country illegally, who follow the crops with their families, whose literacy in both English and Spanish is limited don’t always believe the memoirs of Gary Soto or understand the poetry of Sandra Cisceneros that is included in their reading anthologies.

I begin a quest to find reading material my students will find believable, stories that are interesting and compelling. I want a show of respect for the culture of students like Franky and Juan. Franky and Juan who express feeling alienated from the dominant culture of this high school. If we don’t let our kids be a part of the culture, they’ll find other avenues. Those other avenues may include destructive behaviors.

The first thing I do is look at the English curriculum. Students are required to read specific novels during their freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior years. Even though the novels have universal themes that transcend culture, I want the story line to be believable. I want to open up dialogue, both oral and written, between Anglo and Latino students. The beliefs and assumptions these kids hold about the other affect their interactions with each other (or lack of). These beliefs and assumptions are often the foundation for racism and the basis for fights at school. Respect is an important issue with many students like Franky and Juan. “Life is a matter of respect. We treat you like you treat us. If you’re mean to us, we’ll get you back. Yeah, we understand the consequences of disrespect. But, we choose to accept those consequences. You want to teach us a lesson for behavior that isn’t respectful, but you don’t treat us with respect.” Building respect, fostering a safe environment to discuss differences, and learning about the rich cultural heritage of our neighbors to the south is the focus for the material that supplements my state mandated curriculum.

There are novels and authors we are required to teach. Fortunately, Steinbeck is a California author who wrote honestly about the diversity he saw. My Latino students enjoy Steinbeck. The rich description and language is appealing; they especially enjoy reading The Pearl. The characters become compelling. “They’re real…like spiritual…like my grandparents,” Raul informed me. “There’s a ritual…a song…for everything,” Edith adds, “We have candles all over. My grandmother prays and lights candles – incense too. I can relate to the characters.” Frankly, my Anglo students don’t always get it. They have had no experience with the rituals or deep spirituality of the Latino culture. I want to tap into this sense of the spiritual, to build respect between the two dominant cultures, Latino and Anglo, at my school.

I look for works that will embrace the human spirit as well as highlight the Latino experience and celebrate culture. I want pieces that address issues of bias and injustice. I want my students to think about respect in regard to behavior and choices. One very readable anthology I found, My Land Sings by Rudolfo Anaya, is a collection of stories from the Rio Grande. These stories titillate strong and struggling readers alike. “Lupe and La Llorona” is a story about a girl who goes to the river on a dare to search for La Llorona, the ghost of a woman who drowned her children. The story facilitates great discussions from mental health, to spooky tales, to strength of character. I’ve never met an adolescent who didn’t like a good ghost story, and this is a great one. Not only does the story facilitate great discussions, it also segues into a discussion of stories as artifacts of culture. Students then go to their parents, grandparents, or neighbors to gather and compile the ghost stories they grew up with. The activity can serve as a springboard for a look into the culture of the community as a whole. I can see something like the old Foxfire books growing from this investigation. Another piece from the collection, “The Three Brothers,” reflects a sense of faith and commitment. The theme is clear. I ask my students to use this story as a basis for a found poem; a poem in which they look for significant phrases and words to organize into their own poems. The deep spiritual commitment and faith of the theme of the story “The Three Brothers” are reflected in the last three lines of a student’s found poem. Gustavo writes:

Patricio and Felipe enter the dark castle
while Ramon enters the Mansion of Heaven.
He thanks the lord for everything.

The found poetry offers students a sense of accomplishment and, again, becomes a springboard for dialogue between and among all students in my class. This dialogue is important because even though many of my students have gone to school with each other all their lives, they never really sit down and get to know each other beyond the superficial.

Another collection, edited by Ilan Stavans, a professor of Spanish and creative writing at Amherst College, enjoyed by Latino and Anglo students alike is Wachale. “Wachale” means watch out. Classic voices such as Jose Marti and Luis Pales Matos mix with the modern voices of Pat Mora and Gary Soto. Two intriguing pieces, pieces my students enjoy reading are “La Vida Loca” written by an ex-gang member and “Mi Problema,” a poem that address and explores the duality a Chicana woman feels trying to balance the culture of home and her experiences outside of the home. “La Vida Loca” is an excerpt from the novel, La Vida Loca and raises some important issues regarding family, respect, loyalty, and consequences. The poem, “Mi Problema” also brings to light those issues of family, respect, loyalty, and consequences. Anglo students begin to understand through the words and expressions of Latino students how difficult life can be. Something as simple as going to the prom may be an ordeal for young Latino women. A choice of friends may not entirely be a choice, but a decision to belong. Empathy is built. Asking students to go home and investigate their ethnicity brings to school stories of hardship and joy. The history teacher asks students to chart their genealogy, and I build upon this knowledge by discussing the backgrounds of my students using literature as a framework. As dialogue continues in both classes, so does respect-on both sides. Respect is an on-going topic for discussion.

Something all my students love is Cool Salsa, a collection of poems edited by Lori M. Carlson. Written in Spanish and English, students hear the lyrical words and visualize the sauciness of the language. For Latino students, the benefit becomes obvious. They get to perform. We’ll read some of the poems as a duality: the Spanish voice echoed by the English one. For those poems in which the author code switches, students who speak Spanish will read those words. This is powerful. Spanish speaking students are granted permission to write in their own language and Anglo students, struggling over the Spanish pronunciation, begin to feel the frustration of their classmates. I encourage students to use their own words – to switch between English and Spanish. Luis, a senior who had never written a poem in high school, wrote one at the beginning of the year about his graduation. Two voices converse: a mother and her son. The mother asks the questions in Spanish, the boy responds in English.

Hijo, como te sientes en este dia de graduacion?
mother, I feel relieved after twelve long years
of pain and suffering;
It’s almost time for me to leave this school.
(He may be the first of his family to graduate, the first to walk across the stage)
The last line, the refrain, is repeated throughout the poem.

The poem continues with the mother asking the question:

Hijo, que es las cosa mas importante en tu vida?
Mother, to me this is the most important day
I will be so proud to be the first in my family to have my diploma.

Even without the reader understanding the language, Luis does a nice job of letting the him or her feel the emotions of both the mother and son. We get a sense of the pride and respect that is communicated between mother and son. The theme is universal; and students, when sharing these pieces as either a draft or final product, have a place to begin conversations that bridge culture.

I encourage students to read and set aside time for Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) in my classes. Lorena is reading Song of the Hummingbird by Graciela Limon. The main character is an old woman, Huitzitzilin, who asks a Spanish monk, Father Benito, to hear her confession. Huitzitzilin is an Aztec princess who enlightens the monk by telling about the Spanish invasion from her very unique perspective. He is both disgusted and fascinated by her tales. At the end, Father Benito meditates on Huitzitzilin’s life after learning of her death. At this point, the monk realizes she wasn’t interested in absolution but an understanding of her life and the beliefs of her people. Lorena, like so many of our Latino students, would like other to understand her life and beliefs. Her contributions to class discussion about this novel exemplify the duality of culture that so many students face. The duality that Lorena feels is ageless, and using the discussion of literature allows her a safe forum for her to discuss the nature of her feelings. The discussion affects all of my class; I found that both Latino and Anglo students benefit from building bridges with literature and connecting it to their everyday lives and struggles.

Deborah Kneubuhl-Durham has taught language arts/reading in both alternative and traditional programs for thirty years.

Posted by at March 26, 2012
Filed in category: Culture, Society,

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