One of the student speakers at my school’s Martin Luther King Jr. assembly this year bravely spoke about her experience being transgender. The student who spoke after her identified as being homosexual. When I was in high school, lack of understanding and compassion would have put those speakers at great risk of violent bullying. It was impressive those students felt safe revealing those aspects of their identity in front of an entire school. This social progress is inspiring to continue proliferating cultural competence. This task involves prompting students to participate in (sometimes uncomfortable) discussions and equipping them with the proper knowledge to do so. Dr. Anu Taranath, senior lecturer at the University of Washington, uses the analogy of walking on eggshells – the avoidance of difficult issues for the sake of not offending anyone. On the other end of the spectrum are the individuals Taranath calls “boldly naïve” – individuals who are vocal about social justice issues but lack the cultural competency to do so appropriately. We do not want our students shying away from social justice issues that need to be discussed. Nor do we want them voicing naïve remarks like, “I don’t notice skin color,” a declaration that has benevolent intentions, but ignores a significant part of one’s identity and pretends certain social justice issues do not exist.
The goal is to help our students emerge to somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, to help them grapple with social justice issues, but not be naïve in those issues. Literature can be a powerful tool for helping students get there. Earlier this month Mary Moser challenged us in her blog to evaluate the diversity of the reading we make available for students, emphasizing that literature can serve as windows to experiences different from one’s own. The importance of those windows is the opportunity to develop cultural competency.
There are well-known works representing minority groups, works such as The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, but gravitating towards these few works gives minority groups singular voice. My search for literature that gives voice to traditionally underrepresented groups is relentless. Here are a few I have found useful for developing cultural competency (through fostering understanding and compassion) and grappling with social justice issues that should not be ignored.
What Night Brings by Carla Trujillo
Trujillo creates a protagonist, Marci, in her novel who nurtures a budding romance, a situation to which many teenagers can relate; however, Marci is homosexual. What Night Brings effectively challenges heteronormativity as it depicts a homosexual romance with the characteristics of normal teenage relationships, prompting understanding from the reader. As she navigates cultural pressures from her Mexican-American family, What Night Brings also offers the opportunity to discuss ethnic issues as well.
The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens by Brooke Hauser
In New Kids, Hauser weaves multiple vignettes of students at an international high school in Brooklyn. The chronicles explore each immigrant teen’s struggle for identity, inspiring compassion in young readers as the characters do so in the context of everyday teenage life. The characters’ struggles provides a platform to discuss issues of cultural assimilation and debate the virtues of America as a cultural melting pot.
Coming of Age around the World edited by Faith Adiele and Mary Frosch
As an anthology of culturally diverse coming of age experiences, this book is an imperative read for developing the understanding of diverse perspectives that is crucial for developing cultural competency. As each author’s story unfolds unique experiences of maturation with the backdrop of commonalities that define every coming of age experience, the reader is reminded, as Mya Angelou puts it, we are more alike than we are unalike.
Like I said, my search is relentless. What are some of your favorite (lesser known) titles for diversifying curriculum?
When outside of the classroom, I enjoy mtn. biking, skiing, running, and grilling good food, but don’t enjoy karaoke or green beans, mainly because I can’t sing and was afraid of the Jolly Green Giant as a kid.
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