Teaching Against the Tide: How to Teach Critical Literacy with Multicultural Texts

Sometimes surfing the internet, in this case the research archives of the International Reading Association, can yield the most interesting finds. Recently, I stumbled upon Janice Hartwick Dressel’s article “Personal response and social responsibility: Responses of middle school students to multicultural literature.” In this article, Dressel describes research into how a group of 8th graders responded to multicultural literature, in particular, how readers respond to reading books about cultures that are nondominant and different than their own.

This article fascinated me. To narrow it down a general summary of the topic:

  • Students are very much a product of their environment and readers’ experiences, prior teaching, social situations, and circumstances all impact what they take away from a text.
  • It’s difficult for students to understand other cultures through reading partly because students apply information to the text that normalize it towards their own experience.
  • In particular, students who are from the dominant-culture tend to be unaware of the advantages they have, and can be resistant to understanding how their reality and ideology shapes how they read.

And when Dressel worked with a group of middle school students, she found:

  • Students’ starting knowledge about a culture impacted their understanding and interpretation of new information in the novels they read. They tended to “hold tightly to attitudes reflective of their own cultural groups” (p. 759).
  • Students weren’t interested in exploring differences between their world-view and the one presented in the text. Instead, they understood the novels as exceptions rather than the rule. They dismissed the experiences as exceptional or irrelevant, rather than accepting that the novels posed an “alternate reality.”
  • When students were asked to identify with characters, they ended up recreating the characters to reflect a reality closer to their own.

So, we want to (and should) use multicultural literature in classrooms to build empathy and understanding, but we need to take it a step farther. We need to use multicultural literature to challenge students to think about the nuances, underlying assumptions and biases that they hold, and how their own identity shapes their interpretation of characters and character experiences. As middle school readers, in particular, develop their identity and their understanding of the world, literature still seems an ideal forum for this. Dressel identified a few ways to counteract students’ resistance and response:

  1. She had students write in a Dialogue Journal, in which they responded to the novel from the perspective of a character who was part of a nondominant group. This seemed effective—50 of 75 students felt what it was like to be part of a nondominant group.
  2. Focusing students on aspects of the text that they don’t understand, rather than spending time where they do understand, changes how students read.
  3. Before reading, students need information about the culture they’re about to explore. Simply having a lot of multicultural literature isn’t enough, students need to be taught how to ask questions and seek information about what they’re reading.
  4. Teachers need to create space for students to explore their biases, assumptions, and conclusions through private response, small group response, and then whole class response.

Perhaps the biggest shift, though, is thinking about teaching critical literacy rather than multicultural texts. That gets us more into how students are using texts and thinking, and less about the roster of books that students are exposed to.

Source: Dressel, Janice Hartwick. (2005) “Personal response and social responsibility: Responses of middle school students to multicultural literature.” International Reading Association: 750-764

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