Multi-cultural “balance” in the post-secondary reading classroom

In my first blog post, I posed a few questions related to the fact that students in our classroom come from a variety of cultures and different backgrounds.  The main question that I have been grappling with, is this;  Are there ways that we can better support our students so that they can be more successful in the classroom, and more likely to be part of the academic discourse community?  Although this question has seemed to evoke a great deal of debate in our class, I think part of what is being debated is simply the problem of how people are defining “support” for the students that currently exist in American college classrooms.  I would like to point out (in response to a past comment) that I am in no way arguing for a segregated classroom.  Instead, as I will explain in more detail below, I believe that all students in the classroom can be better supported if they are able to interact with a variety of engaging texts that they can better relate to.

As much as we might like to ignore it, with each passing year more and more students walk into the college classroom without really being prepared for it.  For a variety of reasons, students are not ready to read, write, and even think at a college level.  It is our job, as teachers, do to whatever possible to help them achieve college-level reading, writing, and critical thinking skills.  This feat would be difficult enough if all of the students in the classroom shared the same first language, and cultural beliefs.  However, the fact is that they do not.  More and more students are coming into the classroom with different linguistic backgrounds, cultural expectations, and even ways of thinking and behaving in the classroom.  To believe that one teacher can simply stand at the front of a class and teach in the same way to all of these students, year after year, is absurd.  In my opinion, it is the teacher’s job to at least try to meet the needs of the students in his or her classroom.  The question here, is how exactly should the teacher accomplish this difficult task?

In my second blog entry, I used an example from Ferdman’s text to argue that there should be an effort made to incorporate texts into the reading classroom that are from outside of the dominant discourse.  This, in my opinion, can work to support students who do not immediately relate to the typical academic texts that are sometimes used in a reading classroom.  It is my belief that students will make improvements to their reading skills if they are more interested in what they are reading.  Giving them a wide variety of texts that may speak more to their backgrounds and experiences can help students relate in this way.  This, it seems, is where our class starts to disagree on what type of support should be offered to the learners.  I do not and would not argue for a teacher trying to tell students what culture they are a part of.  I also would never argue for a teacher trying to “teach” how a culture behaves or acts.  However, I do believe a teacher can try to get to know his or her students, to see what their backgrounds are and what interests they have, and to try to give them texts that they might be more interested in reading.  A budding poet in the classroom might not be inspired by Keats’ “on first looking into Chapman’s Homer”, but might be completely blown away after reading Holmes’ “Untitled” poem we read the third week of class.  Why should we only offer our students a poem that we feel is “acceptable college-level material” or coming from the “academic discourse”?  Some of my classmates argued that it is too difficult for a teacher to be expected to teach texts that they might not be as familiar with, culturally speaking.  However, I am heartened knowing that there are stories about teachers such as Chamblee,  who have created classrooms which incorporate a wide variety of texts that better engage all of the students in the class.  After doing so, Chamblee “began to see these reluctant readers, these at-risk students, become real readers and writers — people who could engage in the processes with both authority and enthusiasm” (p. 371).  Although the teacher might be working outside of his or her comfort zone in this situation, I believe that it is much more important for students in the classroom to feel as if they have authority over what they are reading and writing.  After all, the teachers already know how to critically engage with a difficult piece of text.  Proving that to the students does not seem like an important part of the reading classroom.

I know this might be extremely controversial, but I’ll just throw it out there.  I really don’t care if some of my students never learn how to read Hamlet perfectly and discuss all of the relevant themes that exist in that piece of literature.  It’s much more important, to me, that they learn how to read in general, to question what they are reading, and maybe even at some point pick up a book and read it for pleasure.  We are not talking (necessarily) about literature majors here.  We are talking about first-year college students, many of whom admit that they NEVER read for fun.  Is it our job, as reading teachers, to teach them how to analyze literature, or to enjoy to read, and learn how to think critically about the text in order to use it in their future academic or vocational endeavors?  Some of the best critical discussions may come from texts that might not seem like pieces of academic gold, but that students can relate to and interact with.  And that, in my opinion, is what teaching reading is all about.

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