Cultural Selection and Personal Geography

On April 18, 2009, Walter Dean Myers delivered the May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture, “The Geography of the Heart.” In his speech, which may be read in “Children & Libraries: The Journal of the Association for Library Service to Children” Volume 7, Number 3, Myers walks back through the defining passages of his life. As he takes the reader back in time, Myers identifies various geographies that defined his life. These include the physical, cultural, societal, and personal geographies. When we take all of these into account, we are able to begin to view what shapes and defines us. Myers explains:

The new geography defines our positions in the world not by the usual topographical references, but rather, by the socioeconomic factors which allow us or prevent us from recreating our particular social segments in a positive manner. To say we live in New York or San Francisco is no longer significant because those geographical references fail utterly to describe where we are in relationship to American culture. It is far more accurate to say that I am in a position that I cannot perpetuate my family history because there are no jobs available for me to build an economic base or that my family has become so dysfunctional that recreation cannot be positive.

Think of the community in which you live. Now, move closer in and look at the families and the children. What are the means available to them? What are their daily experiences? What are the choices they are making? Are they true believers in the education that is offered them? Are you? What do we need to do to improve their education so that they are able to participate in the American economy?

Myers vividly points out:

The opportunities of economic globalization in a world that is divided into the G20 entities and nations approaching stark desperation, is changing the world. We ship those jobs abroad, jobs which at one time represented the ladder poor Americans climbed. Globalization is irreversible and results, considering the world’s economic demography, in the very simple idea that to imply or train the full range of our American population, is not a sound economic concept when cheaper labor can be found overseas. The poorest children, often African American and Latino but increasingly Caucasian as well, are simply not needed under this scheme. This damning reality is the beast lurking in our streets, capturing the hearts of our young.

What can we do? Do we dare sit idly by watching and waiting for another shift or change to happen to us and our children? Or do we become leaders who are willing to continue learning and putting that learning into action that supports and uplifts our community? Again, look around you. There are so many areas in the community and in our schools where we may be effective. We must decide how we will accomplish this, and we do not have to do it alone.

In the library and in classrooms, we have opportunities to select materials for our readers that may shape and define their lives. Many times we look to the make-up of our communities to fill in the gaps by providing reading materials that will enrich culture and being. For young readers and those who have difficulty reading, books or other materials that are related to their culture are important to give readers a boost. Yet, Myers believes that additional reading materials are necessary. He said:

But I’m adamant in believing that we can’t restrict reading only to books that share a congruency with the reader’s immediate life. We have to stretch the boundaries and increase the reader’s cultural awareness.

Taking personal geography into account, Myers recommends that children should be given the opportunity to stretch their boundaries through reading, and as he stated later in the lecture, that takes them to a universal understanding of love and meaning that all people experience. This is something he does with his books, as do many other authors. Yet, in his lecture, Myers provides an excellent explanation and identification of where we should be headed as a whole.

Like Myers, let’s love what we do. Let’s reach out and discover who the children are and travel with them through their experiences in our classrooms and libraries. Let’s help to build strong, capable children who will be able to survive and succeed in the American economy.

Using Storytelling with Students as the Tellers

The first reaction that I receive from teachers when I talk to them about storytelling is that they think of themselves as the storyteller or students retelling a story that is memorized. What if the stories told are by the students only and these stories are their stories? I am sure we can easily imagine our time with our students running rampant with stories that engage other students, but not necessarily how we desire for everyone to interact.

It would be much better is we set the stage by utilizing these ideas:

  • Stories relate to a sense of community. Since our students belong to the class community, they build relationships with each other. There is also a culture that exists in this community that reflects the students.
  • We can use stories to talk about life experience. Students have stories that come from the events of their lives. They are natural born storytellers, especially if given the opportunity to share what they know. When they retell their stories, they may discover new insights or possibilities.
  • If we want to use storytelling with students, we must set the parameters for the best possible outcomes for learning.  To begin we must be clear about what is expected of them as they explore a topic and find their relational stories. Asking a question that sets the tone and acts as a prompt is an excellent way to do this.
  • Reminding them how to listen to others as they listen to stories is important as well. They should not interrupt the storyteller. Also, they should not think about their story while listening to someone’s story. Finally, they should try to think of a title that they would like to give to the person’s story that they are listening to. Active listening is engagement and helps to maintain community and adds to the culture of the group.
  • Ask yourself, how much time do you have to devote or allow for the storytelling process to occur during your lesson. Should you break students up into large or small groups? Should students work with only a partner? Do you want students to share a few stories with all of the students when you come back together? If so, how will you determine which stories are told. Remember that adults are able to listen to about 4-5 stories in a row. For children, the number will be less.
  • Ideally, the storytelling will help students to process what they know. Schedule time for students to talk about the stories they hear. The conversations will help solidify the theme that is being examined. New learning will become more apparent through the discussion making it easier for students to identify what they are studying.
  • Selecting topics for storytelling are best chosen when they represent successes or joy. The goal here is to encourage students to think about what we want them to focus on. If sad or depressing stories are the focus, we may offer opportunities for students to not experience success.
  • Storytelling works well with topics that require the building of knowledge. When students engage in telling stories that lead to them seeing how the puzzle pieces fit together, an excitement of understanding may break out. Synergy can be created leading to better understanding of the topic.

When storytelling is combined with students who are telling about what they know and the topic that we are attempting to help students understand, the resulting stories may enrich the learning and the community to which the students belong. A larger view of the world is embraced. Relationships grow. Storytelling may be the key to success for some topics that we teach where we have not experienced that success before with students.

White Teacher

In the classrooms that I have been in recently, it is apparent that as a white teacher, I represent the few white students in that school. Reading White Teacher by Vivian Gussin Paley helps me reflect.

Paley reminds me that it is easier to ignore a problem when I am uncomfortable because it may be an issue of race rather than thinking of it as a problem and handling it as a problem. Rather than recognize skin color because I am attempting to be color blind, I could create a larger problem. Also, a problem could be related to or thought of as a social/cultural issue as well.

Personally, I have found that mannerisms are different for people across the country regardless of skin color. Someone from Massachusetts will speak and possibly react somewhat differently to a situation than someone from Texas. Once we recognized and acknowledged the differences, we were able to work through them.

Paley presents several instances where she was reminded that she could solve problems with children of all colors and with children who have disabilities. She built upon her repertoire of successes. Several factors that helped were staff development for areas where she needed help; talking with colleagues with whom she had rapport; and reflection.