The Formation of Global Citizens
“There is brown, green, black and white rice. Before you cook rice you wash it two times and put clean water with the rice and then put it in the rice-cooker. The different types of rice symbolize how Yuki tries to look at life as she makes sense of her mother’s suicide as an adolescent growing up motherless in Japan in the 1970’s.”
This brief description, a word vignette, was written by a sixth-grade student in my Language Arts class while reading Shizuko’s Daughter by Kyoko Mori (1994). This student demonstrates a connection to the main character, Yuki, and the symbolism of rice in the novel. As a way to bridge cultures and subject areas at Harllee Middle School in Bradenton, Florida, I used multicultural novels and banded together with three teachers from different disciplines to build cross-cultural literacy.
Our team consisted of Math teacher Miss. Walsh, Science teacher Mr. Soles and Social Studies teacher Mr. Myers, in addition to me as the Language Arts teacher. We met once a week to review the curriculum, the pacing and our interdisciplinary approach to cultural literacy. We each built subject area curriculum around the novel being taught in the Language Arts classroom. We found that because of the cross-curricular approach, students not only easily identified with the concepts in specific content areas, but they also synthesized the information and applied it to other subject areas and real life.
My sixth-grade Language Arts class took the lead and read Shizuko’s Daughter by Kyoko Mori (1994), a coming of age novel about a twelve-year-old Japanese girl, Yuki, whose mother commits suicide leaving her to be raised by an uncaring father and a resentful stepmother. In addition, banned from the customs of her mother’s family, she struggles to find her own identity without the direction of her mother’s cultural guidance.
As the students read the novel they took a theme or topic from the novel and related it to their own identity or culture. The sixth grader who wrote the above piece chose the theme of rice and discussed how rice was a staple in her Vietnamese culture. Moreover, she added that she had not thought about the relationship of the process of making rice to anything in her life. However, in this exercise she realized rice is a social aspect of her culture, and that different types of rice and their preparation represent some sort of facet in her family household.
This lesson created a pathway for students to relate the novel to something culturally relevant in their life. Culturally relevant pedagogy is not only about an individual student’s identification. According to Ladson-Billings (1995), culturally relevant pedagogy “is specifically committed to collective, not merely individual empowerment” (p. 160). As students shared their vignettes with the class, their fellow classmates chimed in with their own relationships to various topics from the novel (rice, tea, incense, rituals, love). When the sixth grader read her vignette on rice, other students said, “Oh, we eat rice in our house too” and proceeded to talk about the significance in their culture. Several students asked the Vietnamese student if her family had similar rituals to those found in the novel when Shizuko’s grandmother placed tea, rice and incense on a table to signify the spirit of her dead daughter’s birthday.
The students’ experience with this exercise is one example of how minority students can feel empowered within a majority culture. In addition, it created a teachable moment for all students to expand and relate their knowledge to, not only their own culture, but internationally. Though our school has a diverse population consisting of African American, Hispanic, Anglo, and Asian students, most pupils do not inquire about other cultures and tend to stereotype certain cultures.
Literacy across the Curriculum
As a way to bridge literacy across the curriculum our cross-curricular team developed lessons that combined what the students learned in their Language Arts class to their other subject areas. Johnson and Mongo (2008) point out that “proficient reading skills are essential to learning mathematics, science, and social studies concepts” and that “experiences that focus on content and relevancy will actively engage and empower students” (p. 1). Prior to reading the novel, our science teacher conducted a unit on earthquakes and tsunamis, focusing on the devastating 1995 Kobe, Japan, earthquake, which is the setting of the novel. In Social Studies, the students discussed the geography of Japan, focusing on the two main settings in the novel: Kobe and Tokyo. Finally, as we read the novel, the Math instructor dealt with distance and measurement through Shizuko’s travels of visiting her grandmother and aunt.
Covering the history, geography, science and mathematical aspects of the novel allowed our Language Arts class to delve not only into the plot, but theme, symbolism and characterization. Students questioned theme, cultural traditions, and adolescence in other cultures. A sixth-grade student composed her word vignette on love, stating, “When you love someone you have to have feelings or one may feel loss.” Throughout the novel this student constantly questioned why Yuki’s father Hideki did not mourn his wife’s death and why he seemed so absent from Yuki’s life and was convinced that Hideki did not love his daughter. The student felt that Yuki felt out of place because, without her father’s love, Yuki suffered loss. This student’s father had left her when she was very young and she also suffered from her own feelings of abandonment.
Students also questioned the cultural tradition that Yuki’s grandmother followed yearly on the birthday of her daughter Shizuko. Yuki’s grandmother honored her daughter’s spirit by placing brewed tea, cooked rice and incense on a makeshift altar. Some of the Mexican students in the class said “Mrs. Succar that is the same thing we do for “Dia de Muertos.” This prompted a discussion on how different cultures honor their loved ones after they die. Surprisingly, there were many similarities between cultures in the manner in which they remember the dead.
Finally, students questioned why Yuki was so submissive to her father’s demands and why she put up with abuse from her stepmother. We discussed differences between Western views of raising children and that of Japanese culture. Moreover, we discussed nationalism and how Japan culture has been conducive to traditions that are adhered to from generation to generation. Students questioned why Yuki did not seem to get into much trouble when she did defy her elders. We wondered if maybe she was given allowances because of her mother’s death, and whether paternal discipline differs from maternal in other countries.
Overall by combining cross-curricular learning with a novel set in an unfamiliar culture, both my students and I walked away with enriched experiences about Japanese culture within our classroom environment. Seeing students light up when we discussed something they learned in another subject area reinforced the connections they were making between courses. Moreover, encouraging in-depth discussions about themes, symbolism and characterization gave cause for less vocal students to open up. The power of culturally relevant pedagogy opens many doors of learning that are necessary for students to become thoughtful global citizens.
Johnson, V. and Mongo, J. (2008). Literacy across the curriculum in urban schools. Leadership Compass. 5(3), 1-3.
Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal. 32(3), 465-491.
Mori, K. (1994). Shizuki’s daughter. New York: Fawcett.
Christiana Succar is an English teacher in secondary in Manatee County, Florida. She is pursuing a doctorate in curriculum and instruction at the University of South Florida.
WOW Stories, Volume IV, Issue 4 by Worlds of Words is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://wowlit.org/on-line-publications/stories/iv4/.