Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion-Related Purpose: Sometimes, students have a challenging time with texts that present ideas with which they disagree or are unfamiliar. This text is intended to help them think through such texts and, especially, their own responses as academic readers and thinkers.
English 96 SLOs addressed in this text:
· Reading: Apply a variety of reading strategies to successfully decode texts, including the ability to:
o Activate background knowledge.
· Critical Thinking: Engage in practices of critical thinking while reading and writing, including the ability to:
o Recognize patterns of organization to better comprehend and analyze text.
o Interpret a text and supporting the interpretation with evidence.
o Analyze and evaluate a text in connection with other areas of knowledge, including text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-world.
· Metacognition: At the end of the course, students will be able to:
o Assess one’s own strengths and weaknesses as a writer, reader, and learner.
o Develop effective strategies based on self-assessment and instructor review for improving writing and reading skills and for taking part in academic and/or professional work.
“Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred ninety-two.” This is the memory device I learned as a child to remember when Columbus discovered America. Columbus’s status as a hero was not widely questioned by teachers or elementary school textbooks when I was growing up. Also, none of the educators around me publicly took issue with using “discover” to describe Columbus’s arrival at an island already inhabited by people.
Those conversations are ones that I had at home with my parents, Black adults who were raised in the Washington, D.C. area during the Civil Rights Movement. They turned eighteen the year Dr. King was assassinated. My father had attended the only all-Black military high school in the country. My mother published a poem called “Chocolate City” in the local newspaper. Thus, while my parents were not militant, they were very skeptical of America’s love for its Black, brown, and indigenous citizens and taught their children to be skeptical, too. Hence, I learned to laugh and roll my eyes at the suggestion that Columbus discovered America. My siblings and I would whisper under our breath things like, “Because Native Americans were imaginary.” The story of Columbus was, for me, an example of how we were lied to about history.
As I went through more school, I learned a good deal more about the impact that Columbus’s landing in the “New World” had on the people who already lived there. I had a middle school Social Studies teacher who made us read about Columbus’s violent stint as governor over European colonists and the natives whose land they took. In high school, my Advanced Placement U.S. History course textbook glossed over the detrimental impacts of European colonization on those who were not European or descended strictly from Europeans, instead highlighting the achievements of America. By the time I had been in college for a couple of years, I had developed a way of understanding these competing narratives.
As an academic thinker, I learned that there are no simple conclusions to be drawn about Columbus or about what I learned about him and his impact. This is because deciding what was right missed the point that more than one thing could be true at the same time, missed that my job was to ask questions and evaluate information, and missed that I could recognize more than one perspective without abandoning my own.
In college, we have diverse people coming to learn from the best knowledge we currently have. We read diverse texts, written by people with diverse ideas and experiences. In English Composition courses, we ask students to interpret, analyze, evaluate, and argue with many of those texts. At the same time, we say that there is no right answer, no one way to see things, only bad and good arguments. How can that be true of something informative, like a history textbook, though? The “best knowledge we currently have” is still told through certain lenses, from people with particular experiences and purposes that may (definitely have done so in the past) leave out or de-emphasize other perspectives. Sometimes, the knowledge we currently have is woefully lacking. Sometimes, the sources from which we get our information are not that trustworthy. If we are doing our job well as students, we take all of this into account as we approach what we read and what we write about that reading.
Let’s go back to the Columbus example. If I thought through this in my childhood the way that I would now, I might have asked myself questions such as the following:
· What do I know about Columbus?
· Where did I learn this information?
· Do I trust the sources of this information? Why or why not?
· Since the information seems contradictory even though I trust both sources, do I know how the different sources likely came up with their information?
· Is the information really the opposite, or is something or someone being left out of a pretty complicated story that we have packaged neatly into rhymes and picture books? And does this something or someone MATTER to a clearer understanding of the information?
The last is the question that gets into the heart of what can happen when we read and discuss controversial topics. (Note: Many things can become controversial when they generate discussions in which not everyone agrees. Throughout 2023, Americans have disagreed about a great many things; there is a lot of controversy to go around.) Was it possible for Columbus both to discover and not discover the New World at the same time? We talk about discovery being done when something is new, but there were already Indigenous people living on the island of Hispaniola when Columbus’s ships landed. These people were the Taino tribe, but they were not Europeans. Thus, while Hispaniola was not new to the people who were living there, it was completely new to the people of Europe. This means that Columbus did discover the New World for Europeans and that he was not the first to do so when we think in a less Eurocentric way.
Which Color Glasses Do I Wear to Read?: Adopting an Academic Reader Perspective
We have been taught that some texts are objective—dealing in facts—and that some are subjective—dealing in opinions; things are not quite as clear-cut as that. Sometimes, objective texts cite the opinions of others, whether quoting interviewees or including information from experts. Texts that are subjective often use facts to craft a justification for their opinions. There are times when a text that should be objective is shaped by the experiences, judgment, and biases of the writer while some subjective texts have an impressively solid factual foundation. Additionally, readers read through the lenses of their own experiences, judgment, and biases.
This seems the perfect soup of confusion, right? When I was in high school, I had a thorough distrust of what I read in my A.P. US History textbook. The writer glossed over the lives, suffering, and successes of minority populations so much that I joked that according to the writer’s understanding, Black Americans seemed to show up at just a few time periods (Slavery in the early 1800s, the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s) in just a few places (the South, New York, the South, again) until Martin Luther King, Jr. solved racism. Neither my teacher nor many of my classmates (one of whom bragged about having ancestors who came on the Mayflower) understood the complaints about the textbook made by the five Black students in the class. As a student, I was aggrieved. As an adult, I realize that we all came at this text from different perspectives.
History textbooks and other authoritative texts are presented as the truth, facts, the information that we all must learn; however, all such texts are stories told by writers, historians, scientists, philosophers, theologians, scholars. These stories are shaped by facts, but they are also shaped by culture, experience, biases, and education. The readers of these stories might have diverse cultures, experiences, biases, and education. Academic readers should expect that both author and reader are not dealing in simple truths and examine the lenses through which texts are written and read.
The same is true for other types of text. We can read literature and fall in love with stories and poetry, but we should also be aware of who and what shaped them and how we approach them. We can read opinion essays about the current events of the day, but we should not just think about whether we agree or disagree but also about how the author’s position is shaped and how our own is shaped. In short, academic readers question authors, question texts, question teachers, and question themselves.
How do academic readers do all of this? Let’s think about a fairly fun text. In 1989, Jon Sciezka published The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by A. Wolf.
We’re going to follow the usual processes that an academic reader would engage in to read this book.
· Prereading. This is the stage where we gather information about a text from
a. Teachers--who might scaffold the text by telling us something about the author, introducing difficult vocabulary, or discussing something challenging in the text. Teachers are helping to shape what students understand and find relevant in a text, this way.
b. The title, the headings, the pictures.--Students think about what they already know and do not know to make meaning from these.
c. Research—What do we know about the author, the culture, the situation in which a text was written?
For this book, I will focus on the title, headings, and picture on the front cover of the book. What are the things I already know that help me make meaning of these?
· The title says, “true story.” I know the story of the three little pigs. It is a story that I and many other children have been told since we were small children. Adding “true” story suggests that this story is different in some ways from the story that most of us already think of as the correct story.
· Under the title and the author attributions say that the story is by A. Wolf as told to Jon Sciezka. I understand this as a fun joke by Sciezka, the real author, but I understand that this is going to be the “true” story from the wolf’s point-of-view.
· The front picture shows a newspaper headline, newsprint, and what is supposed to be a photograph of a wolf blowing into the air near pigs. I understand that this will be presented in some way as if it is a news story.
All these things that I figured out are part of understanding the meaning of the text.
Classroom Activity: Think, Pair, Share
What should an academic thinker ask about the perspective that they bring to reading this text? Here are some questions for you to think through individually and share with a partner and the class before you read.
Directions: Answer the following questions on your own. With a partner, discuss your answers. If your partner has an answer that feels like it should go deeper, ask more questions, like the following: “Could you be more specific?” “Is there a specific experience or memory that you have that led you to know this, think this, or feel this?” “Why?” “Why not?” When you and your partner have finished discussing, the class should treat the first question like a brainstorm to be sure that you all have a solid idea of what you already know about the traditional story “The Three Little Pigs.” Your teacher can ask two or three groups to share what they discussed for the answers to each of the rest of the questions.
· What is the story that I already know?
· How do I feel about that story? How do I feel about the characters in that story?
· How do I feel about the suggestion that the story I know is wrong? Do I trust that it could be wrong, or do I dismiss that suggestion out-of-hand? Why do I take either of these positions?
· Do I have any feelings about this book’s narrator? What have I learned in the past about him? What have I learned in the past about others like him (wolf stereotypes)? Do those things shape what I feel about the narrator? Does examining what I have learned change how I feel about the narrator?
· What are my feelings about the trustworthiness of newspapers? What are my feelings about the trustworthiness of newspaper interviews? What in my experience and education has shaped those feelings? How do all these things shape my perception of the story that I am going to read?
As you share your answers to these questions, discuss the following: What differences are there in how you all are likely to approach reading and interpreting this book? What different experiences have led you to having different approaches?
Classwork and Homework: The Read-Aloud and Discussion Questions
Now, you are going to read the book, either through a Read-Aloud by your teacher or through YouTube on your own. You can search for a read-aloud, or you can follow this link to a read-aloud that I think is a good one: 🐺 The True Story of the Three Little Pigs 🐷 Kids Book Read Aloud
As you listen to the book and watch the video, think about what you see and hear that brings up various feelings, assumptions, and impressions. For instance, how is the wolf dressed at the very beginning? What about during his telling of the story? How do you feel about his reason for going to the first pig’s house? Why do you feel that way? Is that reflective of your original perspective of the wolf’s trustworthiness, or has that perspective changed at all? Jot down notes. These will be the basis for completing the Critical Thinking Activity for homework.