The power and necessity of learning from books that reflect our communities ‹ Literary Hub

In my work as head of Fugees Academy, the school I started for refugee children, I have noticed that even with the best of intentions, there is often this gap between what adults teach… and what students actually absorb. There’s a term in education circles right now, “culturally responsive teaching.” I get angry when I hear people talk about the “unity” they taught about it. It’s not a unit, it’s not posters on the wall, or having a guest speaker; it’s a way of constructing meaning, for all of us.

Here I share some stories based on my own experiences – as a school leader and from my childhood – that I hope will inspire people to think about how many cultural references we take for granted. Teachers, coaches, parents — in fact, anyone who finds themselves interacting with someone from a different background — can benefit from slowing down a bit to check their understanding.

Designing a curriculum for children who come to school with a significant deficit to fill is not easy. Much of our work is to reject another aspect of the same white paternalism inherent in social advancement: books of the only Western canon, word problems with only American names, classrooms that do not prioritize contributions and values ​​of our community.

At Fugees Academy, we are constantly looking for ways to make lessons and learning materials relevant to all races and ethnicities represented in the school. Just as it’s important for students to see adults who look and talk like them, they also need to see themselves in the books they read, the math problems they solve, and the songs they sing.

A few years ago, sixth graders Samia, Gaston and Nahom huddled around a book during reading time, the sun shining through the window behind them.

“You ask him,” I heard Gaston say to Samia. Samia shook her head emphatically.

Nahom seemed to take a deep breath. “Coach?” He asked. “What is a dick?”

“Excuse me?”

“What’s a dick?” It’s here in the book. He pointed to the open pages.

“Let me see what book you’re reading.” We had received boxes of books, and I hadn’t gone through them all before the kids started eagerly picking out theirs. I knelt down next to the student table.

“It says Dick and Jane,” Nahom said.

I laugh, mostly in relief. “Oh! It’s a name. Dick is a name.

“A name?” Now the children all looked confused.

“Yes, just like Nahom, or Samia, or Gaston.”

I took a seat and started to read the book aloud, but this time I changed the names to ones that would be familiar. It’s a skill I’ve honed for over forty years since my early days of tutoring: trying to make things more relevant to students by changing names and settings and using lots (lots) of analogies with football. For my daughters, mom and dad stories have recently become mom and mom stories.

Even though I used new names, the kids weren’t impressed.

“It’s boring,” Gaston said.

“It’s an old book,” I said.

“So Dick is a name,” Samia said, looking pleased with this new acquaintance.

“Wait, Samia. It’s a name, but it’s hardly used anymore.

“Do you know a Dick?” He asked.

“Uh. Not really.” I knew what I had to do. Our students too often use American slang out of context and are accidentally rude or obscene. They watch something on TV or hear it in the playground and then use the word to try to fit in. I knew how this “dick” thing was going to unfold if I didn’t interfere.

“It also has a bad meaning,” I said.

“A name has the wrong meaning? »

I understood their confusion. Names – their stories and meanings – were an integral part of their cultures.

“Yes. It also means ‘penis’, the private parts of a boy.”

Six wide eyes stared at me.


Like my students, I had no interest in books that I couldn’t relate to.

One afternoon when I was in first grade, I was visiting my grandmother after school. Still struggling with being taught entirely in English, I felt tired and frustrated, and she felt it.

“How was school today?” she asked.

“It was good, but everyone is smarter than me.”

“Why do you say that?”

“The teacher read a story and they all laughed at times and were scared at others, but I couldn’t understand why.”

“What was this story about, Lamloom? she asked, stroking my hair.

“It was a red jacket. And the red jacket went to visit a grandmother, but she was not allowed to talk to anyone on the way. And then a dog wanted to eat the jacket. But jackets don’t talk and dogs don’t eat jackets! I just don’t think I’m very smart.

My grandmother looked at me sympathetically. “Why don’t I tell you the story of Leila and the wolf?” she says.

I loved this story and I loved when my grandmother told it. It wasn’t in a book that she read – in Arabic, the oral tradition is strong. I grew up listening to my grandmother tell stories, some true, some fables, many of them wildly embellished.

“Yes, please tell me again.”

“Kan ya makan, fi kadeem al zaman,” she began. Once upon a time. This is how all our stories began. The storyteller said: “Kan ya makan”, and the listeners answered: “Fi kadeem al zaman”.

“There was a girl called Leila who wore a red hat. One day her mother asked her to bring food to her grandmother but warned her not to speak to anyone until she arrived. Along the way, Leila encounters a wolf. The wolf asks Leila to play, but she refuses. She says she is going to her grandma with food. The wolf says they should pick flowers to give to grandma.

My grandmother stopped and looked at me, waiting to see if I understood.

“Little Red Riding Hood is a name!” I exclaimed. “The jacket is Leila!”

This is a simple example but shows what is lost when cultural barriers are not taken into account. Little Red Riding Hood was inaccessible to my Arabic-oriented brain, so I missed the fairy tale lessons. I was too focused on a talking jacket to appreciate the moral of the story. Nahom, Samia and Gaston couldn’t practice their reading skills because of a confused word. I am fluent in English, but to this day, when I don’t understand an idea or concept in English, I plug in Arabic names or places to illuminate different parts of my brain. I’ve done this all my life.

Zaretta Hammond, the self-proclaimed “former writing teacher turned equity freedom fighter,” is best known for her book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. At a recent workshop she hosted for school leaders and teachers, Hammond shared an observation about the term “culturally sensitive.” She described — with apparent frustration — receiving emails and comments from well-meaning people looking for a workshop, reading list, or program recommendation so they could “do CRT.” “. When empowered adults in a school or school system try to change some aspect of their programming to better respond to the culture, they often do so with a sense of urgency, a desire to act. Urgency and action is fine, but if we want things to change, we have to admit that our schools wouldn’t be failing so many children if it were as simple as good intentions, a workshop and a reading list.

Like my students, I had no interest in books that I couldn’t relate to.

Hammond’s book details principles of neuroscience that explain how vital it is to engage in a practice of centering the children we are actually teaching in our teaching. The CRT incorporates much of what I have discussed in previous chapters: a focus on community, strong relationships with student families, a diverse staff, caring adults, and high expectations for all students. It also stresses the importance of a culturally diverse curriculum, which incorporates ideas related to students’ backgrounds and culture. Programs that are not adapted in this way are not only alienating for students, but also discouraging, discouraging and confusing.

That said, there’s no shortcut, no way to copy and paste. There is no “culturally appropriate” program that a school can just plug and play. To be truly culturally sensitive, we must ensure that our reading lists and story issues reflect the lived experiences of students in our buildings, but this must be the icing on the cake, a natural extension of a relationship long, slow, respectful and community building. Otherwise, it’s just frosting.

We face challenges when choosing books about the refugee or immigrant experience. Too many books focus on the depressing aspects of our identity, and too few actually celebrate the multitudes we contain. Believe me, refugees don’t constantly want to read about how shitty their lives are. We want to read books that highlight our complexities and dynamism, ones that don’t lump us all into the same huddled mass. We’ve had enough of that in real life.


Extract of learn america © 2022 by Luma Mufleh. Reproduced with permission from Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.

About Joey J. Hott

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