Cultural Updates to Narrative Reading Strategies

This post was written by NCTE member Gary Pankiewicz. 

Just as our own cultural context influences our identity and values, we can recognize some of the cultural contexts that influence our students’  racial and ethnic identities and values, as well as the challenges they face. But how can we make an investigation of these cultural contexts more consistent in our approaches to literature in the classroom? It makes sense to provide more access to diverse texts, but, culturally responsive pedagogy suggests that exploring instructional practices to enhance cultural perspective is just as important. One practical idea in the ELA classroom is to make room for an exploration of culture in our narrative reading strategies.
In my experience, many ELA teachers often use the Somebody-Wanted-But-So summarizing strategy or the “story mountain”  plot-diagram visualization strategy to support their students’ understanding of reading and writing narrative texts. (The plot diagram is also available in PDF form.)
A quick addendum to either of these two popular strategies could be far-reaching to build cultural competence.
The S-W-B-S strategy (MacOn, Bewell & Vogt, 1991; Beers, 2003) is a prevalent approach to summarizing a text. In short, students can more readily summarize a story once they identify the following: main character (Somebody); character goals (Wants); story conflict (But), and story resolution (So then . . . ).

I suggest that a more modern conception of this strategy includes a look at cultural context in every step: Somebody in a cultural context; Wanted in a cultural context; But (include if culture plays a role in the conflict); So (include any new understandings about culture). In other words, a deliberate mini-cultural analysis could be included as students trace the action of a text.

Let’s take Meg Medina’s Merci Suarez Changes Gears, a 2019 Newbery Medal-winning middle grade novel, for example. Merci Suarez is the “Somebody,” and her cultural context is significant. She is a Cuban American girl who comes from a working-class family invested in Cuban traditions in southern Florida. Her house sits amid a row of three houses referred to in the story as “Las Casitas” (translated to mean “little houses”), where her aunt and grandparents live in the other two houses nearby. Merci “Wanted” to maintain good grades so that she could keep her scholarship and make the soccer team in a private school, where there are not many other Latina students. “But” issues involved with Merci’s cultural identity are relevant to her confrontation with a school bully and a family health concern. When cultural context is examined in each step, we are left with a “So” that enhances our cultural perspectives, such as Merci’s reverence for her family and extended family that is threaded throughout the text.
The same concept could be used when identifying the elements of plot or a story mountain.  In each step (i.e., exposition, narrative hook, exposition, and resolution), ask students, “What role, if any, does culture play in this part of the story?”
This could evolve into a story mountain graphic organizer that makes room for additional annotations on culture (e.g., how Merci’s grandparents say they are sorry through good Cuban food and a game of dominoes). This approach could foster a denouement that surpasses a coming-of age-story of a new middle schooler and, instead, also explores some of the cultural complexities, assets, and constraints of a young Cuban-American girl in a particular setting and context.
Culturally responsive texts or texts selected with our students’ diverse interests and learning needs in mind lend themselves to these approaches more than others. In any case, additional culturally responsive texts and this quick supplement to these common narrative reading strategies can contribute to building our students’ cultural competence over time.
Find more about the S-W-B-S strategy:
The Reading Strategies Book, by Jennifer Serravallo. (Heinemann, 2015.)
When Kids Can’t Read, What Teachers Can Do: A Guide for Teachers, 6–12, by Kylene Beers. (Heinemann, 2003.)
Responses to Literature, by Diane Bewell, James M. Macon, and MaryEllen Vogt. (International Reading Association, 1991.)

Gary Pankiewicz is a teacher-writer and administrator with research interests in supporting reflective practice, multimodal literacies, and voice-filled curriculum and instruction.  He works as a K–12 ELA supervisor in Fair Lawn Public Schools, New Jersey, and as an adjunct reading professor and writing instructor at Montclair State University. Twitter: @gpankiewicz

It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

Turning Our Attention to the Word Decolonize

From the NCTE Standing Committee on Global Citizenship

This post was written by NCTE member Rex Ovalle, a member of the NCTE Standing Committee on Global Citizenship.

To speak of pedagogies of re-existence, then, is to once again call forth the agency, action, and praxis of the otherwise. It is to raise the existential, philosophic, lived concerns and pedagogical imperatives of freedom, anguish, responsibility, embodied agency, sociality, liberation to which Lewis Gordan refers. It is to signal affirmation and hope in spite of—and in the midst of–conditions of negation, violence, and despair, part of the war of capitalism and the reorganization of modernity/coloniality/heteropatriarchy. It is to recognize that decolonial re-existence in the circumstances of the present times requires creative pedagogies-methodologies of struggle. Herein lies the significance, urgency, and insurgency of decolonial pedagogies rising.
—Catherine Walsh

As a member of NCTE’s Standing Committee on Global Citizenship, I am intrigued by, and eager to trouble, the growing use of the word decolonize.
First, to be clear, I affirm and support the work of my fellow committee members Michael Seward and Kylowna Moton, who hold rigorous and meaningful workshops on decolonizing the ELA classroom at the NCTE Annual Convention. I attended their workshop in the past and found it both meaningful and challenging. That said, in this blog post, I would like to turn our attention to what is happening to the word decolonize in our popular discourse and to humbly posit that the work of decolonizing is much more uncomfortable.
I am intrigued because the word is everywhere. You can find advertisements for t-shirts that say, “decolonize everything.” As a Latinx teacher who works in an entirely Latinx school, I even find my teenaged students using the word decolonize. I am not exactly sure when this happened, but as a lover of this conversation, I was initially excited. Now, I would like to remind my fellow teachers and scholars that this work is not simple, and it is necessarily uncomfortable.
As Catherine Walsh articulates in her collaboration with Walter Mignolo (On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis, 2018), this work “is to signal affirmation and hope in spite of—and in the midst of—conditions of negation, violence, and despair, part of the war of capitalism and the reorganization of modernity/coloniality/heteropatriarchy” (p. 96).

My hunch is that the growing use of decolonize resonates with the sentiments of the first half of that sentence yet fails to properly acknowledge the second half. Yes. Let’s signal hope, but let’s remember why the work in this field is needed in the first place; let’s confront the “negation, violence, and despair.” Further, let’s remember which side of that sentence it is that teachers, especially teachers of English, have historically participated in.

Decolonizing is not “feel-good” for the English teacher. Instead, it needs to be a thorough accounting of the ways our profession and our lives have depended on the aforementioned conditions. While I may be Mexican American and the son of immigrants, the salary I collect as an English teacher is completely dependent on my proximity and complicity with whiteness, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism.
I invite you to look toward your students as an initial resource; since this past summer, I have been thinking of the students who participated in the protests. I really want to believe that I have empowered my students to take stances that are anchored in their notions of justice; yet unlike them, I was not out on the streets for most of the summer. Even in the spring, my communication with them during the pandemic was focused on encouraging them to graduate and stay motivated in their schoolwork—as if they were not learning things in the protests, as if making it to their Zoom classes on time had anything to do with what their hearts told them. I’m fairly confident that some of my students were more committed to acting on their convictions than I was.
Decolonizing our profession starts by setting aside any feel-good notions about this effort; the work starts when we acknowledge our reflection on the wrong side of the riot shield.

Rex Ovalle works as high school English teacher and instructional coach at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. He is also a PhD student in the English Education program at the University of Illinois–Chicago.
The Standing Committee on Global Citizenship works to identify and address issues of broad concern to NCTE members interested in promoting global citizenship and connections across global contexts within the Council and within members’ teaching contexts.

It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

Locating Black Histories in Our Own Front Yards

This post was written by NCTE member Janelle Jennings-Alexander.

The protests and marches of the summer of 2020 proved, if nothing else, that a moral, ethical, and intellectual imperative exists for creating racially literate learners in our classrooms at both K–12 and higher education levels.
France Winddance Twine defines racial literacy in her book A White Side of Black Britain: Interracial Intimacy and Racial Literacy, calling it “a way of perceiving and responding to the racial climate and racial structures that individuals encounter daily.”

Twine explains that one primary way to help individuals practice this literacy involves understanding racism as a contemporary problem, not a historical one. However, since so many contemporary issues facing communities of color are rooted in the historical, the challenge for building these racially literate citizens is, first, helping them understand the past within which the present is situated.

Unfortunately, for many young learners, the past that undergirds this critical education is perceived as part of a long-ago and distant history. For my African American literature students, perceiving how few generations sit between slavery and the present day in which they live is difficult for them. I tried to help illustrate this limited distance through Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon, the story of Cudjoe Lewis and the human cargo of the last illegal slaving vessel in the US. While we read about Lewis, who experienced the Middle Passage, plantation slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow, to many of my students, his story still felt too distant from their own.
To bring the past into the present, I redesigned this course to help my student locate history in our texts and in our town. In Raleigh, North Carolina, the process of mapping history is not an especially difficult one. Raleigh is a place, like many historic cities, that still carries significant markers of its past. In my class, tracing those markers started on a plantation minutes from our campus.
After the class read The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, students took a tour of the Mordecai House, a former plantation and National Park Service historic landmark. On a tour of the house, students were challenged to make connections to Douglass’ narrative. Starting in the sitting room, full of many of its original books, students linked the room to Douglass’s own secretive efforts to learn to read. When our tour guide talked about the “privilege” of being a woman allowed to sleep indoors to care for the family’s children, my students compared this to Douglass’ story about Mrs. Giles Hicks, a white woman who murdered a nursemaid as punishment for sleeping through a child’s late-night crying. When a docent told us that one of the home’s owners was a cruel master to his slaves, my students could imagine someone like the slave-breaker Edward Covey to add context to that story.
As we transitioned to the literary giants of Harlem, students learned about our city’s own thriving black communities after the end of slavery, pairing our Harlem Renaissance poetry with stories and photographs of Raleigh’s Black Main Street. Here, they saw the city as home to black millionaires and business owners who flourished during and after Reconstruction in an economically and racially segregated city. We paired this with a reading of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, along with research on The Green Book, the traveler’s guide used primarily by African Americans to help them avoid those hotels, restaurants, service stations, and other businesses that did not offer service to black patrons.
The students enrolled in the course began to unpack why Raleigh’s black communities and two Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Shaw University and St. Augustine’s University, were necessary for black people’s survival in the city.
As they read some of the letters and speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, students learned about the time King came to Raleigh and was met by the largest KKK rally in North Carolina, aka Klansville, USA. As they reflected on the Civil Rights movements of the 60s, students wrestled with the duality of the city—partially in disrepair due to practices like redlining and redistricting, and partially rejuvenated due to gentrification.
Students connected what we read about and saw to the Pittsburgh neighborhood of August Wilson’s King Headley II. They connected King’s anger about not being respected as a man, and Tonya’s fears about bringing another black life into an antiblack world, to the pain, sorrow, and frustration that inspired the Black Lives Matter movement. Students also connected the character of Stool Pidgeon and his hoarding of old newspapers to a resistance to the erasure of black experiences in our increasingly gentrified city.
This course focuses on depth of material through readings in English, History, and African American studies. Moreover, this course serves as a model for what a text-based antiracist education might look like—one that is easy to locate and accessible within our own racial literacies, spaces, and places.

Janelle Jennings-Alexander is an assistant professor of English at William Peace University. She is a 2018 recipient of the NCTE Early Career Educator of Color award. Dr. Jennings-Alexander’s research critically examines whiteness within the context of late 20th- and early 21st-century African American literature and explores antiracist pedagogy. Her teaching explores the intersection of race, rhetoric, and composition in the literature classroom. You can follow her work on Twitter: @professorjja.

It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

February 2021 #NCTEchat: Creating LGBTQ+-Affirming Classrooms and Schools

Join us on Sunday, February 21, at 8:00 p.m. ET for an #NCTEchat about creating LGBTQ+-affirming classrooms and schools. The hosts will be Cody Miller, Vanessa Perez, and LaMar Timmons-Long, all members of the NCTE Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Advisory Committee.
Cody Miller is an assistant professor of English education at SUNY Brockport. During his seven years as a high school English teacher and in his current role, he positions texts as vehicles to discuss broader sociopolitical issues in students’ lives and worlds. Cody is chair of the NCTE LGBTQ Advisory Committee. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @CodyMillerELA.
Vanessa Perez is the Technology Integration and Library Media Specialist for Clinton High School (OK). She can be reached at @vperezy on Twitter.
LaMar Timmons-Long, a member of the NCTE LGBTQ Advisory Committee, is an English teacher in New York City and an adjunct professor at Pace University’s School of Education. He is passionate about racial linguistics, antiracist education, social justice, and equity in schools concerning all students of color and LGBTQA+ youth. You can follow him on Twitter @teachltl. 
We will share the following questions during the Twitter chat:
WARM-UP: Please introduce yourself. Tell us your name, location, and the level you teach. #NCTEchat [8:04 p.m.]
Q1: As teachers, how do we honor, support, and teach Black LGBTQ+ voices during Black History Month, through the African American Read-In, and throughout the year? #NCTEchat [8:10 p.m.]
Q2: If you have a gay student alliance or other affinity group, how are they supporting each other right now? If you don’t, what would you need to start one? [8:18 p.m.]
Q3: How do you support students who may be experiencing homelessness or nonsupportive homes? [8:26 p.m.]
Q4: How can we support students to be their authentic selves? [8:34 p.m.]
Q5: This question is just for LGBTQ+ folx: How has your journey to self-acceptance and self-love been? How does it transform who you are as a teacher? [8:42 p.m.]
Q6: What are you doing in the classroom to ensure you’re always learning and able to support LGBTQ+ students? [8:50 p.m.]
We hope to see you there! Be sure to join us by using #NCTEchat.
Never participated in a Twitter chat before? Check out this guide to help you get started.

Celebrate the African American Read-In with Texts by These NCTE-Published Authors

The National African American Read-In is the nation’s first and oldest event dedicated to diversity in literature. It was established in 1990 by the Black Caucus of the National Council of Teachers of English to make literacy a significant part of Black History Month. This initiative has reached more than 6 million participants around the world.
Much of the focus of the African American Read-In is on novels and trade books, but this is a great time to look at recent professional texts by NCTE-published authors as well. Have you had a chance to get acquainted with the following titles?
Toward Culturally Sustaining Teaching: Early Childhood Educators Honor Children with Practices for Equity and Change by Kindel Turner Nash, Crystal Polite Glover, and Bilal Polson (eds.) offers a timely resource for preservice teachers, teachers, scholars, faculty, and graduate students in language and literacy education, early childhood education, and culturally relevant, responsive, and sustaining teaching.
Bringing together theory, research, and practice to dismantle antiBlack linguistic racism and white linguistic supremacy, Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy by April Baker-Bell provides ethnographic snapshots of how Black students navigate and negotiate their linguistic and racial identities across multiple contexts.
Teaching Children’s Literature: Critical Inquiry to Foster Equity, an NCTE Quick-Reference Guide (QRG) by Detra Price-Dennis, features a sample lesson, approaches to critical inquiry, ways to center equity with your students, principles to guide inquiry and equity, questions to pose about oppression and humanity, questions for reflection on equity and social change, library curation, literacy curriculum audit, background knowledge acquisition, web resources, and further readings.
Follow #AARI21 on social media for additional text suggestions for the African American Read-In.

It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

Build Your Stack: A Glimpse into the Literature of Iran

This post was written by NCTE member Michelle Bianco and is part of Build Your Stack,® an NCTE initiative focused exclusively on helping teachers build their book knowledge and their classroom libraries. Build Your Stack® provides a forum for contributors to share books from their classroom experience; inclusion in a blog post does not imply endorsement or promotion of specific books by NCTE.

English courses are always richer when they include works of literature from a variety of cultures; however, students generally have little exposure to modern authors from Iran.

The following works allowed me to present students a glimpse into the lives of Iranians in a more intimate way. They share stories of individuals, stimulate curiosity, and provide an introduction to a culture that US students may not be familiar with, beyond brief mentions in the media.

The Shahnameh, The Persian Book of Kings by Abolqasem Ferdowsi could easily be turned into the next Oscar-award-winning trilogy. It was written between 977 and 1010 CE and it follows a mythical creation of the world up until the Arab conquest of the 7th century.
The modern translation by Dick Davis makes the poem format easy to break up into smaller stories of certain characters that illustrate the moral code. The tales contain warriors, battle scenes, fantasy creatures, and complex plot twists. For example, the Simurgh, a peacock with the head of a dog and the claws of a lion, is said to have seen the destruction of the world three times over (Davis).
Some characters and storylines can be compared to famous Greek characters, and students might find it interesting to question which came first—the Persian or the Greek.
A thoughtful view of the complex changes that Iran underwent after the 1979 Islamic Revolution that overthrew the Shah can be discovered in the works of Azar Nafisi. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a fascinating personal memoir of a teacher exploring forbidden literature with a small group of students.
Nafisi is a crafted storyteller who helps the reader to understand the cultural shift and repressive laws that became modern Iran, with details of public executions and what she calls political abominations. There are free study guides created by various educators available on the internet with chapter-by-chapter analysis and historical relevance. This Reading Lolita in Tehran guide was written by Filiz Turhan, an assistant English professor at Suffolk County Community College, New York. My favorite activity is the “Pick One” challenge, in which students select a book by either Azadeh Maoveni or Firoozeh Dumas, then participate in classroom discussion following the reading. These authors create a fun and complex female perspective.
Maoveni’s Lipstick Jihad is a compelling memoir of youth and life in Tehran. As one study guide states, “Azadeh is in many ways a typical teenager, trying desperately to fit in with her peers. She is embarrassed by her Iranianness, especially in the wake of the hostage crisis.”
Firoozeh Dumas’s light-hearted memoir Funny in Farsi is a highly comedic look at cultural difference. Dumas moved to America as a child in 1972. She chronicles hysterical stories of game shows, fast food, and cultural differences. Interviews, Youtube videos, and study guides for both of these authors can easily be found to share with students.
Modern Persian poetry is beautiful and rich in meaning. Forough Farrokhzad is an acclaimed poet with a tragic life story of divorce, love affairs, and death. The New York Times describes the author this way: “Farrokhzad was one of Iran’s pre-eminent mid-20th-century writers, both reviled and revered for her poems, which often dealt with female desire. Throughout her life she struggled with how her gender affected the reception of her work in a culture where women were often confined to traditional roles, but where there are few higher callings than the life of a poet” (2019).
I use the following quote in an essay prompt to encourage reflection and meaning:

In a Silenced land, rebellion is the voice of voiceless people, Its holler reverberates through the ups and downs of this silent land, only to enlighten the heart with the sound of love (Farrokhzad).

It is worth noting that author Tamin Ansary’s West of Kabul East of New York An Afghan American Story was an overwhelming success in the classroom. His memoir of immigration and cultural changes at the height of the Islamic Revolution in Iran is fascinating. He takes a harrowing journey through the Islamic Middle East to reunite with his Afghan family only to discover himself and his changed perspective. The story begins with the 9/11 attack and an emotional email he sent that would be shared with millions.
Someone once said it is the English teacher’s role to allay ignorance and open minds. Current events can and will drive interest in topics and cultures with which students are unfamiliar. Over the past ten years, I have used Iranian literature in my courses and have always asked students to donate their books, but these books were so well received that no one ever donated them! For more information on day-to-day lesson plans, feel free to contact me. (See details in bio below.) 

Works Cited 
Ansary, M. T. (2002). West of Kabul, east of New York: An Afghan American story. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Dumas, F. (2008). Funny in Farsi: A memoir of growing up Iranian in America. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks.
Ferdowsi, A. & Davis, D. (2016). Shahnameh: The Persian book of kings. New York: Penguin Classics
Moaveni, A. (2009). Honeymoon in Tehran: Two years of love and danger in Iran. New York: Random House.
Moaveni, A. (2006). Lipstick Jihad: A memoir of growing up Iranian in American and American in Iran. New York: PublicAffairs.
Nafisi, A. (2003). Reading Lolita in Tehran: A memoir in books. New York: Random House.
Nafisi, A. (2008). Things I’ve been silent about: Memories. New York: Random House.

Michelle Bianco is full-time faculty for the Composition Department at Purdue University Global. She teaches undergraduate courses in composition and participates in outreach programs and curriculum discussions. Bianco taught for 12 years before going into administration as a director of curriculum and instruction; she has expertise in Course Management Portals, A-G Requirements, and Articulation Agreements. Reach her at [email protected]

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It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

Celebrate the Birthday of Juan Felipe Herrera!

Juan Felipe Herrera was born on this day in 1948. Herrera is the American poet, author, and activist of Mexican descent who became the first Latino poet laureate of the United States. He is known for his often-bilingual and autobiographical poems on immigration, Chicano identity, and life in California. Herrera spent much of his first term … Read more

Sandra Cisneros Was Born on This Day in 1954

The Mexican American author Sandra Cisneros was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1954. Best known for her collection of vignettes The House on Mango Street and her short story collection Woman Hollering Creek, Sandra Cisneros has been awarded MacArthur and NEA Fellowships for her fiction and poetry depicting life of Latinx people in America. Read … Read more

Teaching Black Children Cultural Identity Through Magic, Folklore, and Myth

This post was written by guest author Ryan Douglass. This blog post is part of Build Your Stack,® a new initiative focused exclusively on helping teachers build their book knowledge and their classroom libraries. Build Your Stack® provides a forum for contributors to share books from their classroom experience; inclusion in a blog post does not imply endorsement or … Read more

How can education systems better support kids from diverse backgrounds?

The education of our children is the foundation for a successful society. Yet we continue to see striking differences in the quality of that education. How can we improve our systems to help all children thrive? Strong, nurturing early relationships at home, school, and in the community, set the stage for healthy learning. Some children, … Read more