Diversity and Democracy

Literature, Literacy, and Multiculturalism in the Expanded Classroom

The narrator of Pat Mora's poem "Elena" insists, "My Spanish isn't good enough." Having moved from Mexico to the United States, Elena worries that her lack of English proficiency will make her "deaf / when [her] children need [her] help" (1994). Elena's dilemma--that she is literate in Spanish but not in English, the dominant language--suggests the complexity of literacy in a multicultural, multilingual society. While mainstream literacies are critical for democratic participation in the United States, some have struggled to achieve these literacies in contexts where institutional cultures can be at odds with primary home cultures.

A University of Minnesota student works with an English language learner at the Cedar Riverside Adult Education Collaborative. Photo by Laurel Hirt.
A University of Minnesota student works with an English language learner at the Cedar Riverside Adult Education Collaborative. Photo by Laurel Hirt.

The intertwining topics of literacy and diversity provide an opportunity to connect college students' academic inquiry with experiential learning. I have taken advantage of this opportunity by teaching two service-learning and civic engagement courses in the English department at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities: Literacy and American Cultural Diversity, a one-semester course, and Community Learning Internships, a yearlong course. My students gain intellectual exposure and analytical skills through the study of multicultural literature, while also gaining cultural exposure and experience in diverse communities.

Classroom and Experiential Learning

We begin each course by exploring data on language literacy in the United States. Most students are shocked at the high rates of illiteracy and raise questions that pave the way for our inquiry throughout the course: How do different sources define literacy, and might some functional literacy skills go unmeasured by standardized tests? How is literacy distributed across categories of race, national origin, gender, and socioeconomic class? In the United States, in what language or languages should one be literate? Students consider these and other questions using tools typical of a liberal arts course: they complete readings, write papers, give presentations, and participate in group work and class discussions.

They also learn in more hands-on ways by engaging in multicultural literacy initiatives in the K-12, adult basic education, and English language learning sectors. At the beginning of each semester, the Career and Community Learning Center (CCLC) organizes a community panel in which representatives of participating organizations showcase their programs. These community partners include democratic education initiatives, community centers, adult education centers, a sober high school, an elementary school with a social justice curriculum, a Latino social service agency, a charter high school for East African students, and an after-school program for Native American youth. After attending the panel, students select organizations for whom they will serve as "literacy workers," teaching, coteaching, tutoring, or assisting in classrooms for the duration of the course. In the one-semester course, students work for two hours per week; in the yearlong course, students contribute up to six hours per week while completing an on-site project. CCLC staff and community supervisors also occasionally join our classroom discussions. The classroom and experiential learning modes reinforce each other, helping students analyze literary texts and "read" the social texts of their community experiences.

Language and Power

Literary Selections that Explore Diversity and Literacy
  • Alexie, S. 2003. Ten little Indians. New York: Grove Press.
  • Bishoff, T., and J. Rankin, eds. 1997.Seeds from a silent tree: An anthology by Korean adoptees. Glendale, CA: Pandal Press.
  • Brooks, G. 1994. The lovers of the poor. In Blacks, 349-352. Chicago: Third World Press.
  • Gaines, E. 1993. A lesson before dying. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Mora, P. 1994. Elena. In Unsettling America: An anthology of contemporary multicultural poetry, eds. M. M. Gillan and J. Gillan, 11. New York: Penguin Books.
  • Moua, M. N., ed. 2002. Bamboo among the oaks: Contemporary writing by Hmong Americans. St. Paul, MN: Borealis Books.
  • Wise, T. 2005. White like me: Reflections on race from a privileged son. Brooklyn: Soft Skull Press.

-Eric Daigre

In the classroom, literary examples help students frame questions about literacy, while students' community experiences lead them toward a more critical engagement with literature. I have already mentioned Pat Mora's "Elena," which resonates with students who are tutoring adult immigrants and refugees. A second literary example comes from Ernest Gaines's novel A Lesson Before Dying. Grant Wiggins, an African American school teacher, tries to teach his African American students "good" grammar even as he is expected to use "bad" grammar in front of white people. Wiggins picks his battles carefully, but often transgresses by speaking "properly" to white authorities (1993). The novel opens a discussion about the history of "standard" English and different varieties of English, including Black English Vernacular, Chicano English, regional dialects, and the vernacular idioms of popular culture.

Students have a lot to say about the social, cultural, and political expectations attached to speech, and how language provides opportunities for both submission and subversion. In our forays into educational theory, we read about individuals who conscientiously chose not to learn how to read, write, or speak English, either for fear of losing their cultures or out of a principled resistance to racist messages. Occasionally, students encounter similar stories at their community sites. More often, students working in K-12 environments employ these ideas to analyze the institutional practices embedded in educational culture. They are thus able to see beyond mainstream explanations for students' difficulties (a negligent parent, a rough neighborhood, an individual "bad teacher") or the armchair psychology that freely dispenses diagnoses of attention-deficit disorder.

Some students grapple with the ideological dimensions of teaching English to nonnative speakers, including whether and how to "correct" nonstandard forms of English among people whose ways of speaking are closely linked to personal, cultural, and communal identities. Students debate the politics of language, and we consult linguistic theory to understand code meshing, code switching, discourse stacking, trilingualism, hybrid discourses, and the triangle of basic, cultural, and multicultural literacy. As we explore connections between education and democracy, students find it hard to deny that citizens need access to the language of power to gain socioeconomic access. They ask: How can one teach standard English while respecting students' home languages? How can other languages become resources for teaching standard English? We read theorists like Paulo Freire and consider that democratic participation means not adapting to the status quo but exercising the creative capacity to change society. To challenge power is to challenge--and perhaps transform--the language of power. 

Self and Community

College students are generally impressed with the hard work they see at community organizations, where people are striving to develop their literacy skills and improve their lives. They are also humbled by the realization that just as they have taught their students, their students have taught them. In class, I contrast this egalitarian insight with Gwendolyn Brooks's "The Lovers of the Poor" (1994), which helps students distinguish between charitable volunteerism's personal focus and the systemic target of social justice work. We critique the hierarchies embedded in traditional provider-recipient models of service and ask what it might mean to come from a cultural group that mainstream media represent as underprivileged. We contrast the view of human beings as "problems" to be "fixed" with the understanding of people as equals whose resources, assets, and experiences should form the basis for reciprocal partnerships.

Over the years, in conversations, informal surveys, and in-class activities, I have heard a common refrain that may help explain why English majors at the University of Minnesota are both attracted to and skilled at community involvement. English majors say that connecting with others and being part of diverse communities helps them expand their sense of self. I like this idea of a commodious self that is inextricably linked to the well-being of others, a self that (to quote Walt Whitman) "contains multitudes." I am impressed with my students' desire to connect their studies to the public sphere. Perhaps service-learning and civic engagement initiatives pose a challenge to disembodied literary theory--or perhaps they represent theory's manifold capacities for practice.

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