Books that explore cultural identity provide a foundation for instructional practices that develop cultural contexts and diverse perspectives. While creating a diverse reading list is important, the instructional approach, using the book as a foundation, is also critical to developing cultural competency and understanding.
We recently added texts to our middle school curriculum to enhance our students’ perspectives about culture. For example, Meg Medina’s short story “Sol Painting, Inc.,” about a 12-year-old Latina named Merci and her family, can be a springboard for more-nuanced conversations about cultural contexts. In the story, the Cuban-American family’s painting business is hired to paint the high school gym of a fancy and mostly white private school in exchange for Merci’s tuition. With the text as a springboard, teachers can use supplemental materials, an emphasis on context, and active participation to deepen student understanding.
Use Supplemental Materials
Integrating supplemental materials can provide a more expansive, authentic, and celebratory view of diverse cultures. For instance, songs, videos, and websites depict cultural contexts in ways that may be easier for students to understand.
In the “Sol Painting, Inc.” example, students could view a video on the lost art of baking pan Cubano (Cuban bread) as a prereading activity to build background knowledge, expand vocabulary, and activate their senses to anchor their understanding of the story’s cultural context.
During their reading of a text from another culture, ask students to annotate or keep a list of their questions related to the culture. Encourage curiosity about differences they note, and remind students to pay attention to the subtler elements of culture in the text. After reading, ask students to research the things that they wondered about in the story. Engaging with their own questions can help build confidence while demonstrating a need to interrogate one’s own perspective. Ask students to share their questions and their self-selected digital research in remote breakout rooms or with the whole group.
Engage With the Context
Open-ended prompts can help students develop deeper understanding about the cultural context of a piece. Begin with questions about character traits with an eye on cultural identity. Ask, “What did you think about the characters in the story?” Use the initial responses to probe about specific identity and the ways it shows up in the story. Provide students with a graphic organizer to catalogue character elements and their connections to the larger cultural context of the text.
For example, in “Sol Painting, Inc.,” students may discover that Merci is an outspoken female middle schooler from a working-class Cuban-American family with entrepreneurial goals and a great love for her brother and papi. By understanding the complexity of Merci’s context, students are more likely to understand her predicament as the story unfolds. Open-ended prompts help students gain cultural perspective while recognizing that a character or a person is more than any one aspect of their identity.
Often, conflict in texts can be a starting point for conversations about bias. Ask, “What did you think about the conflict in the story?” and “Is any character’s struggle related to aspects of their identity?” Use those examples to move to bigger conversations about unfair institutions and systems by asking, “Where do we see power and privilege in the story and in the real world?”
Use the cultural context of the text to traverse into complex discussions about systemic and institutionalized inequities in the story and in the students’ communities. Ask, “How are characters in the story treated unfairly? Then brainstorm what could be done to contribute to a fairer outcome. Connect the text to the real world by discussing the agency that students possess, and suggest the little or big things that students can do to act against social inequity.
The pandemic created a need for ways to regain students-as-knowledge-sharers work that teachers value in the face-to-face classrooms. Facilitating participation from all students is a key component of instruction for cultural competence, and digital tools can help facilitate engagement.
Set up an online discussion for students to share responses in a variety of forms. For example, students could post text messages, audio clips, or video footage on a Padlet wall with opportunities for back-and-forth exchanges of ideas. Ask students not only to post, but also to respond to several of their classmates’ postings to create remote social interaction.
Zoom breakout rooms are useful for quick, two-minute partnership conversations about the cultural elements of a text before bringing the students back to a whole group discussion. Students can begin to connect their experiences and perspectives to the characters in the text, noting the cultural similarities and differences. Ask students to use hand signals to show agreement or an interest in speaking up.
Discussion in these forums can be curated to explore cultural differences, amplify misgivings that may be caused by privilege, and promote more cultural competence. Social interaction can help students better understand not only the character in the text, but also the cultural differences in their communities.