March 2017, Vol. 24, No. 3: Culturally Responsive Teaching in the Middle Grades

Editors' Notes: This conceptual piece serves two purposes. The article itself documents one seventh-grade teacher's lesson plan designed to cultivate critical literacy skills by merging social and academic discourses while critically analyzing thematic symbolism in paired traditional and nontraditional texts. You also see screencasts of how to use the Google tool Kaizena to embed audio comments for feedback. How To: Kaizena with Sara Kajder shows how to set up your Kaizena account and provides a general walk-through of how it works. The second screencast shows annotation in action as teachers Beth Honeycutt and Gretchen Taylor discuss "Nothin' Gold Can $tay: Hybridizing Discourses in a Middle Grades ELA Classroom" by Glen "A.J." Jackson and Ysheena Lyles.

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Nothin’ Gold Can $tay: Hybridizing Discourses in a Middle Grades ELA Classroom

How To: Kaizena with Sara Kajder

Kaizena in Action with Beth Honeycutt and Gretchen Taylor

Sometimes professional development with the most impact occurs informally and without warning. Worlds collide, and new understandings burst forth that connect the theoretical and the practical. Such was the case when Ysheena, a seventh-grade language arts and social studies teacher, and her friend and colleague A.J., an instructional coach at a different school and former eighth-grade language arts teacher, began discussing a lesson Ysheena had recently implemented—a lesson that facilitated a transaction between two different social languages: the community-based languages students use outside of school and the academic language of the standards-based classroom.

In order to facilitate student engagement with poems by Robert Frost and Gary Soto, Ysheena decided to pair these traditional texts with multimodal texts relating to hip-hop culture and sneaker culture. Part one of the lesson asked students to analyze themes shared by Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay” and contemporary artist Fahamu Pecou’s painting, “All Dat Glitters Aint Goals.” On day two, students compared the symbolism in Gary Soto’s “Ode to Pablo’s Tennis Shoes” and several rap songs that express a range of perspectives relating to sneaker culture. Ysheena felt that the overall lesson’s focus on the ways that cultural symbols impact personal identity was particularly appropriate for her middle school students, as their openness with their opinions and emerging concerns about identity construction would lead to honest discussions and writing about these topics. Excited by this innovative lesson, A.J. shared with Ysheena what he saw as clear connections between her lesson and the work of James Paul Gee (2015) in Social Linguistics and Literacies. This conversation led Ysheena and A.J. to think deeply about the implications of this lesson and how it may serve as a model for future instructional planning. We hope that this description of Ysheena’s lesson can serve as a resource for other middle grades ELA teachers.

Ysheena’s description of the lesson seemed to address Gee’s (2015) claim that schools value certain types of language and expression over others, particularly privileging expository expression of ideas through formalized grammar and technical vocabulary. This type of “essay-text” literacy advantages students whose community-based languages share these patterns of expression while marginalizing students who are not socialized into similar language practices outside of school. Ysheena’s lesson was designed to hybridize these diverse social languages in ways that engaged students in standards-based reading, writing, and speaking activities.

Black students, particularly Black male students, are one group whose community-based languages and literacies often do not align with school-based discourses and are ignored, invalidated, or directly opposed in many schools (Gee, 2015, pp. 164, 209, 232; Kirkland, 2011). Thus, requiring these students to primarily engage with unfamiliar texts using technical, content-specific language often results in perceptions of students as unmotivated, unengaged, or even incapable of mastering the literacy skills prioritized by the standards. Kirkland (2011) notes that ELA standards often reinforce “scripted practices, skill and drill on rules of traditional print-based literacy, isolated (and exclusive) readings of and writings on a narrow range of literatures” (p. 373). If all students are to achieve academic success that increases access to the widest variety of attractive career options, teachers must facilitate opportunities for student participation in diverse social languages, including, but not limited to, academic discourse.

The majority of students in Ysheena’s class were male, and although only a small minority were African American, she knew that African American hip-hop culture was influential among the majority of the students. She also knew that a disproportionate number of her Black male students were reluctant readers and writers due to what she perceived as prior experiences with classroom activities that were disconnected from their everyday lives. She specifically designed the lesson to connect the social discourses of her Black male students with academic language by moving from text analyses aligned with their community-based languages and cultural understandings to more traditional language arts texts and thematic analyses.

We describe Ysheena’s experiences implementing this lesson and attempt to emphasize the ways that bringing together vernacular and academic languages, nontraditional and canonical texts, and personal understandings of cultural symbolism engaged students in critical thinking and literacy activities including text-based discussions, paragraph writing, and a culminating task that included a full essay. Linking students’ cultural knowledge and social languages with a variety of multimodal texts allowed for the construction of hybridized discourses: classroom language that connected, challenged, altered, and combined community-based and school-based discourses in ways that helped Ysheena’s students successfully participate in standards-based reading, writing, and speaking activities.

Part One: Remixing the Canon

The first part of the lesson involved analyzing and critiquing the symbolism in a contemporary painting by Fahamu Pecou and a canonical poem by Robert Frost, which requires students to move between two typically exclusive social languages to make meaning of the texts. Since Pecou’s (2013) work aims to “raise critical questions about the types of images and representations that come to inform the reading and performance of black masculinity” (“Artist Statement,” para. 2), Ysheena felt that many of her students, particularly her Black male students, would be compelled to engage with the image and that this could lead to increased motivation for reading and writing about other texts. Analyzing the thematic symbolism at work in the painting, which revolves around the wordplay of gold and goals, gave students a familiar, yet challenging, foundation from which they entered into a reading of “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” a poem that some of Ysheena’s students had previously found difficult to understand and disconnected from their lives. Frost’s challenging vocabulary, use of biblical allusions, and invocation of nature imagery does not typically speak to her students’ everyday concerns and interests, so the Pecou painting was chosen as a high-interest text that would activate their personal connections to the poem’s themes.

Painting of shirtless muscular African American man, torso w/pants just visible, hands on either side of his face, wearing aviator-style sunglasses and multiple necklaces of gold and silver with various charms including money bag, gun, facemask. The word LUSH appears in silver script overlaid on the subject's forehead. At the top of Pecou’s painting appear the words “ALL DAT GLITTERS AINT GOAL$”—the title of the piece and a remix of a phrase from the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare, among others. Ysheena supported students as they used the academic language of literary analysis to express their understandings of the painting, which relied on personal knowledge of hip-hop culture. Only insiders within this culture understood the prominently scripted term, lush, which means “poser” in hop-hop culture, and were able to develop nuanced thematic interpretations that built on this detailed cultural knowledge. In this situation, these students were able to use hip-hop literacy as a foundation for textual analysis aligned with traditional classroom literacies. Ysheena noticed that guiding these students’ use of academic language in this analysis of a culturally relevant text resulted in active engagement by students who were often reluctant to participate in similar activities. In this instance, they seemed confident about their knowledge of the content, and this confidence led to a willingness to engage with the more traditional Frost text.

A comparative analysis of “All Dat Glitters Aint Goals” and “Nothing Gold Can Stay” facilitated movement between the language of hip-hop culture and Frost’s poetic language. As students discussed and wrote about connections between the painting and the poem, they mixed vocabulary from each text with the language of the standards. Thus, these literacy acts brought together academic and community-based languages to form a hybridized discourse in which students practiced using language that may be “recognized and accepted” (Gee, 2015, p. 189) as appropriate by both themselves and others in a variety of social contexts, including future academic classes.

Ysheena observed that students who felt more at home using the language of hip-hop culture seemed to feel validated as thinkers, speakers, writers, and readers in the more traditional reading of the Frost poem because they were first provided opportunities to build upon their cultural knowledge. Students who had previously shown little interest in analyzing and responding to canonical literary texts enthusiastically wrote about thematic connections between the painting and the poem. Instead of refusing to complete the assignment or simply complying with classroom expectations, Ysheena found that pairing texts that spoke to student interests and concerns with more traditional texts led students to eagerly and actively participate in discussions and writing assignments in order to make their opinions known to their classmates and their teacher.

Initially discussing the gold/goals symbolism in the painting helped students readily develop understandings of the gold/nature/religious symbolism in the poem. Eventually, this discussion led students to question what goals they believed were worth pursuing in their own lives. If things are not always what they seem and nothing lasts forever, what do they believe is worth striving for? Questions like this challenged students to critically examine their values, beliefs, and the ways that people’s identities are constructed. Although Ysheena plans to provide more time for engagement with each text by introducing the painting and the poem on different days in the future, in this single-class segment, student analyses revealed how the poem’s theme resonated with their personal experiences and Pecou’s painting.

Student paragraphs were typed, shared, and subsequently critiqued and evaluated by classmates through Google Classroom and demonstrated a variety of text-based thematic analyses. While some students argued that pursuing the “gold” of material goods can lead to dissatisfaction, others focused on the ways that all idealized goals are an unattainable illusion and that one must strive to find contentment in things like family and friends. Ysheena provided individual feedback and allowed students to critique each other’s drafts throughout this process. Her aim was to help students generate understandings that would provide a foundation for analyzing the second set of texts and for writing the essay that served as the culminating task for the entire lesson.

Part Two: Critical Analysis of Cultural Symbols

Part two of the lesson also asked students to find connections between what could be construed as texts with competing social languages. This time, students read “Ode to Pablo’s Tennis Shoes” by Gary Soto, a canonical young adult author whose work is common in middle school language arts classrooms. The poem’s themes were then compared to several hip-hop songs that relate to “sneaker culture,” an affinity culture with which most students in the class were familiar, if not active participants. Along with the Soto poem, the songs “Air Force Ones” by Nelly, “My Adidas” by Run-DMC, and “Wings” by Macklemore each present different perspectives regarding the ways that shoes contribute to enactments of identity and provide students with opportunities for rich literary analysis.

Nelly takes the approach of emphasizing the ways that shoes express style and status within a peer group. Run-DMC similarly brag about the status conferred by a particular style of sneakers, but their lyric also discusses the ways that their shoes symbolize their attainment of mainstream cultural status, specifically invoking their performance as the only rap group at the 1985 Live Aid concert in Philadelphia. Macklemore takes an overtly critical look at sneaker culture and narrates a personal experience that begins with excitement over the style and performance associated with Air Jordan basketball shoes but evolves into an all-out indictment of an obsession that can ultimately perpetuate acts of exclusion from peer groups, financial anxiety, and even acts of violence. The themes in these songs are juxtaposed with Soto’s poem, which imagines a pair of shoes as representative of Pablo’s multifaceted identity.

Groups were assigned songs based on their lyrical complexity, and while each small group of students read and listened to a different song, all read the Soto poem. Ysheena used open-ended questioning to encourage personal connections with the texts. Required to use text evidence to support their claims, students were asked to compare and contrast what shoes symbolized in each author’s work and to explain the ways that imagery contributed to the tone of each piece. The group members collaboratively responded to the questions and wrote a paragraph about the meanings of shoes as symbols in each text and shared their work through Google Classroom. Then, each group critiqued another group’s writing and discussed the similarities and differences in their analyses. After successfully analyzing the Pecou and Frost pieces, the students confidently critiqued their peers’ writing, and the subsequent intergroup discussions included complex interweaving of thematic understandings related not only to the texts assigned by the teacher, but also to other texts invoked by the students.

Ysheena’s facilitation of the intergroup discussions encouraged critical reflections about the personal meanings sneakers take on in the students’ lives. This led to a whole-group discussion of the symbolism associated with an actual pair of Air Jordan basketball shoes, which Ysheena placed on her desk for tactile observation. This portion of the lesson again allowed students to go beyond mere identification of themes in multiple texts to think about how cultural symbols impact their lives. Are shoes a status symbol? A way of showing that one belongs to a certain group? Do different shoes allow access into different places? Are people judged based on their footwear? Such questions engaged students in critical reflection about the ways that shoes, as a cultural symbol, mean different things for different people and how these meanings are bound up with values and beliefs, some of which may even escape one’s awareness. The students’ engagement in critical reflection with the classroom texts and the texts of their lives became evident in their collective realization that “Jordans are our gold!”

This critical inquiry approach transformed what could have been a simple exercise that encouraged basic, literal interpretations of the texts into a celebration of complex individual understandings. Ysheena’s facilitation of discussions and writing that employed traditional classroom discourse, popular culture discourse, and personal narrative created opportunities for “students to grow beyond both the cultural models of their home cultures and those of mainstream and school culture” (Gee, 2015, p. 127), and resulted in new ways of conceptualizing the texts and the world. Not only did students analyze the themes in multiple texts, the lesson encouraged students to critically examine their personal values and beliefs.

Ysheena’s students used the knowledge constructed through discussions and written responses to create essays explaining how cultural symbols impact their lives and society in general. Additionally, students were given a choice between writing an ode to a particular symbol or creating a symbolic image and explaining its effects on their lives. Ysheena was pleased with her students’ abilities to connect the thematic symbolism in the texts with cultural symbols in the world beyond. Students wrote about symbols ranging from graffiti to wedding rings to dreadlocks, conceptualizing these symbols as complex components of personal and social identities. Not only did students succeed in demonstrating proficient reading and writing skills, they began to show critical awareness of the larger ways that people make meaning of themselves and their worlds.

Conclusion

Ysheena’s lesson exemplifies how thoughtful lesson planning can help students cultivate critical thinking and language skills that will not only help them be successful in middle school and high school, but will also prepare them for a diverse array of future educational, professional, and social situations. Ysheena witnessed significant increases in motivation, engagement, and quality of student discussion and writing over the course of this multipart lesson. The enthusiasm generated by the Pecou painting transferred to the Frost poem, and this confidence seemed to build through the analysis of the Air Jordan sneakers, the Soto poem, and rap songs, ultimately contributing to the success with which students explored the more abstract ways that cultural symbols impact their lives in their full-length essays.

Ysheena’s willingness to share this lesson in district-wide professional learning presentations has already encouraged the creation of similar lessons that build connections between community-based and academic discourses. We believe that further research is needed to explore the effects of such practices on student achievement, motivation, engagement, and feelings of self-efficacy, but Ysheena’s experience suggests that the steps taken in this lesson to hybridize competing social languages led to a more inclusive classroom culture where students were positively engaged in meaningful literacy activities.

Kirkland (2011) notes that instructional approaches in ELA classrooms often perpetuate “the exclusive demands of tradition and uniformity and the stale taste of the elite as opposed to the concerns and unique attributes of all people—particularly people of color” (p. 373). The traditional language arts curriculum asks individuals who are unfairly labeled “disengaged students” to overcome systematic marginalization and proactively connect with what are more accurately called “disengaged texts” (Kirkland, 2016) because they lack serious relevance to students’ lives. Unfortunately, we feel that such occurrences are too common in our schools and argue that if students are to feel confident and accepted as learners and individuals, we must find ways to validate and celebrate their cultural knowledge and social languages. We believe that the lesson described here can serve as a model for instructional approaches that allow students to successfully employ both the academic language traditionally used in schools and the community-based languages traditionally excluded from school discourse.

References

Gee, J. P. (2015). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses (5th Ed.). London: Routledge.

Kirkland, D. (2011). Listening to echoes: Teaching young black men literacy and the distraction of ELA standards. Language Arts 88(5), 373–380.

Kirkland, D. (2016, January 30). Matters of the heart: An intimate conversation on black males and literacy. Keynote address presented at JoLLE@UGA Winter Conference in UGA Hotel and Conference Center, Athens, GA.
 
Pecou, F. (2013). Artist statement. Retrieved from http://www.fahamupecouart.com/galleries 

about the authors

A.J. Jackson is an instructional coach in the Barrow County School System, Barrow County, Georgia, and a doctoral student in the Language and Literacy Education Department at The University of Georgia.

Ysheena Lyles is a seventh-grade language arts teacher in the Barrow County School System.