Friday, February 20, 2015

When Students Say, "I Have No Culture."

1930-41 Mexican Poncho
Sometimes students do not believe they have history or culture to write about--even after going through prewriting, looking at pictures at home, and asking questions at home. Sometimes they come from families where the past just isn't well-known or talked about.

Actually, my family knows very little about my paternal grandfather's side of the family. They have disappeared from our lives. Some of our kids will run into walls like this.

I have students who sometimes find it difficult to get answers--and not for a lack of trying. Sometimes circumstances outside of the classroom is beyond a student's control. This is where we need to work to help students see connections.

  • Perhaps music is valued in their family?
  • Do you notice people working with their hands? 
  • Does your family eat dinner together? cook together? garden?
  • Is there a history of the military? science? athletics? religion and faith? in your family?
  • What do you notice in the artwork around your house?
  • Does your family keep clothing? plates? foods? representative of a specific culture?
  • What do you see when your extended family visits or when you go there?

I try to ask questions to plant seeds in the struggling writer's mind--so they can see and value and connect with aspects about their family today. Nothing is too small. Nothing is insignificant. Everything matters and has value.

Thomas Newkirk writes in Minds Made for Stories: How We Really Read and Write Informational and Persuasive Texts that significant research exists supporting students writing about their family history and culture. Writing about who we are and where we come from provides a sense of connection and belonging. Writing is thinking. And by asking young people to think about the customs, foods, art, history, habits, et al. that they are exposed to, we ask them to see their place in the world and what it can still become. On page 30 of Minds Made for Stories, Newkirk writes:
"There is now research to suggest that telling family stories and knowing family histories can also create a collective sense of resilience and stability...It turned out that those children who knew their family history had a stronger sense of control if their own lives, higher self-esteem, and a belief that their families functioned effectively (Feiler 2013)."
One student wrote that she cringes when she witnesses her friends talk disrespectfully to adults. It just wasn't permitted in her culture.

Another student shared how her father lamented at a lost cultural expectation in their family. He used to bow with respect to adults. He realized his children (my student) no longer does this. The wry smiles and nods among those who also come from this culture--the whispers of connection--are signs that some of my students are making progress.

Any anecdotes that you can share, or any that you can get your students to share aloud, will help the rest of the class. When they hear the variety of connections made--and they hear the teacher VALUE all of those connections--more students begin to find more to say.

Students do not have to dig back five-hundred years to find something worth sharing. The process of modeling--conferring--writing asks students to knead what they have gathered, what they have experienced, in order to create with it.

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