Integrating Global Literature into the High School English Curriculum
by Lithia Springs Global Literacy Community
Lithia Springs High School is a medium sized secondary school situated in Douglas County, Georgia just to the southwest of the city of Atlanta. The geographical position of the school affords some interesting characteristics that other schools in the county or further from the city do not experience. Our student population is constantly shifting in numbers, ethnic mix, and socio-economic groupings. Teachers often experience new students with only a week or two left of school at the end of an academic year or students leaving for unknown reasons and then reappearing months later. The county allows for families to reposition their children in school after school depending on behavioral or tension issues. If students are not doing well in one school because they cannot get along with others or teachers, they can move to another school, so it not unusual for upper-level students to have attended more than two or three secondary schools within the county. Then, there are always those students who are found out-of-district and told to leave; they often return when the proper paperwork presents itself.
The demographics of our high school are quite common for this part of the south: 60-65% Black, 13-15% Hispanic, 20-25% White, and a mixture of Asian/Islander. The socio-economic indicators are as diverse as the student population itself. We have students who come from affluent families and students who know what it is like to sleep in the car or van. Diversity is as good a word as any to describe our population – fluctuating is a close second in word choice.
Our Teacher Study Group
As English teachers, our goal was to integrate global literature into our regular curricula at all grade levels, including AP Language and AP Literature. We located new titles that became part of our classrooms and developed strategies for reading the literature and writing about the literature. We also began to integrate more use of technology into these experiences, especially our newly installed Promethean boards. The use of global literature was particularly important to us because our population is so diverse with students from many different countries and parts of the world and a large ESL population.
In our meetings, we discussed classroom activities and strategies with global literature and the inclusion of real-world connections and engagement tools. In our classrooms, we focused on technology to support global literature and encourage cultural connections, strategies to incorporate added content in the lesson plans, excerpts from literature to promote student engagement, unit assessments, and technology enhancements. In particular, we increased our use of YouTube, realizing that we could find almost anything we wanted in regard to teens in other countries engaged in a range of experiences that allowed our students to see both similarities and differences. We also encouraged discussion between students of their own life experiences as compared to those in the global literature and integrated more primary sources to research first-hand knowledge related to the global literature we were discussing. Students kept journals of their observations and responses to the literature and wrote personal reflections about their experiences in reading, discussing and learning about global cultures.
In the following sections, each teacher from our group is introduced and then gives a brief reflection on her/his work with global literature.
Robin Farmer – 12th Grade British Literature/Composition
Robin has been teaching for eleven years in the same high school. She holds a double major in English and Social Studies with added course work in both areas. She is also Honors and AP certified. For the last few years, she has taught British Literature/Composition regular education and collaborative special education. Her interests are steeped in the language of the foundations of British literature, and that commitment transitions to her senior students.
Robin: British Literature by its nature focuses on the more traditional Western canon with strong ties to American literature. There are, however, opportunities to make connections with other cultures. We read “Federigo’s Falcon” of Italian origin during our medieval studies. The themes of chivalry and courtly love are still relevant in today’s modern society, particularly in the realm of dating which is of utmost interest to teenagers. Our class discussions offered students the opportunity to analyze how perceptions that originated during the Middle Ages are still present in our society. Students also had the chance to think critically about the code of chivalry and work in groups with graphic organizers to categorize the elements of the code by determining if they were still present in our society, are not present in our society but should be, or thankfully are no longer a part of our society. Students were required to defend their answers, and then presented their conclusions to the class which sparked some lively debate and a high level of student engagement.
Wesley Miller—American Literature/Composition & Yearbook/Journalism
Wesley has been teaching for two years. His degrees are in journalism. He grew up in Africa which gives him an unusual perspective on literature and writing. He took over the duties of the yearbook mid-semester and produced a book worthy of praise. His energy and enthusiasm is magnetic with his students.
Wesley: I facilitated literature circle conversations on our country’s approach to civil disobedience. We read Thoreau, Martin Luther King Jr. and Occupy Wall Street materials. The students were especially engaged in class conversations after viewing clips and pictures from the Birmingham Civil Rights campaign. The fact that many of the victims were in high school made the conversation more urgent as students grappled with ideas of systematic inequalities. It seemed to me that this is something that they have always heard about, but never had the opportunity to engage at a deeper intellectual level.
In another unit, we explored various Native American creation stories. We discussed the nature of creation stories and students identified their own beliefs about creation and how they related to the Native American stories. We extended this conversation to include the importance of these beliefs to self-definition. Students worked in pairs to create their own stories which specifically reflected cultural viewpoints.
Caitlin Hanzlick – 10th Grade Literature/Composition & American Literature/Composition
Caitlin had taught for six years prior to coming to our school. She had taught abroad and at an alternative school and so came to us quite qualified and prepared to teach our students. She holds a degree in English Literature and is working on her Masters in English Education. Her knowledge of the content of the literature, American and World, is unmatched, and her ability to reference and allude to other works provides a wealth of information and interest for her students.
Caitlin: In Georgia, the traditional focus of the 10th grade English curriculum is World Literature. While the district where I worked this past year rejected this notion (unlike other places I have worked), I nonetheless selected my texts with the traditional focus in mind despite the flak I received for doing so. Since the history course also taken by 10th graders is World History, it seemed only logical to me to select texts that make cross-curricular connections.
I organized my text selections around country- or region-specific units that aligned with the history curriculum as much as possible, including Greece, Asia, Italy, the Middle East & North Africa, Russia, Germany, and the U.S. Within each unit, every text I selected was about, set in, or written by a member of that area. Along with teaching the literature standards, I provided extracurricular opportunities to explore language and culture. For example, during the Russian unit, I taught the students how to pronounce the Cyrillic alphabet and spell their names using it as well. In previous years when I have taught this course, I also included culinary connections. For students who excelled on the end-of-unit test, I provided a feast featuring the cuisine of the culture whose literature we’d just read. The Middle East unit was quite telling; few students have heard of hummus, falafel, feta cheese, or couscous–things I eat quite frequently. I also shared photographs of my own personal travels to places in the literature we read.
As a person who has traveled extensively and given the reality of today’s global economy, I believe very strongly in the importance of exposing students to the diversity of the world and teaching them to appreciate rather than fear that diversity. They harbor so many false impressions and misconceptions about simple things, especially in regard to the Arab world, that if perpetuated could have severely negative consequences on our future. Students need to know about the world around them, and literature is a highly effective vehicle.
Among the major texts I incorporated into the course this year were: Antigone by Sophocles (Greece), The Art of War by Sun Tzu (Asia), Dante’s Inferno (Italy), Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (Iran), Anthem by Ayn Rand (Russia), selected fairy tales by The Brothers Grimm (Germany), and The Ballot or the Bullet by Malcolm X (US). Even though this list is extensive, in the future I’d like to include units on South America because I feel the Latina/o culture and literature were somewhat neglected.
One of the several formal writing assignments focused on the benefits of reading world literature. Each student had to generate three specific reasons why reading literature from around the world was better than not doing so. Because of the way I structured my class and emphasized the importance of the cultural context for each piece of literature, I felt it was crucial for students to self-reflect on this focus. I wanted them to ask themselves, “Why is Ms. Hanzlick making us read all this stuff from around the world?” and I didn’t want to just give them the answer. Both the metacognitive and multicultural components of this assignment–in conjunction, of course, with the Common Core standards also addressed through the task–provided an authentic assessment of their learning and global awareness.
Shelly Mitchell – 9th Literature/Composition & 10th Literature/Composition & Pre-AP®
Shelly came to our high school after teaching in one other school. She has eight years of experience and holds degrees in English and Literature with extra course work in Education. She is currently working on her Masters in Secondary English Education. She is one of those rare individuals who have the patience for the younger high school students and the compassion to teach them in the face of their own adversities and challenges. She has a keen awareness of real-world connections between the literature of the studies and the current issues and outside literacy of her students. Relevancy runs rampant in her classes.
Shelly – As students met in literature circles discussing their group’s particular text, it amazed me how much they had to say about the world around them. Most students do not have an opportunity to discuss their misconceptions about a certain culture or country with peers, or have civilized debates about social issues that are handled differently in America than in other nations. One incident in particular that really stands out in my mind is when a group was reading Night by Elie Wiesel and the entire group was amazed at how one man could cause so much pain and suffering for an entire race of people. They were angry, confused, sad, and then something amazing happened; they began to bring in modern examples of genocide without me having to prompt them to do so. This kind of event can only happen when students are engaged in their reading and can relate to it; this seems to be best prompted by using multicultural texts. Since we live in such a diverse country, classrooms will benefit from more multicultural texts.
Phil Fowler – 10th grade Literature/Composition Honors & AP® Literature/Composition
Phil is a graduate of LSHS; after time in the military and business, he decided to use his degree. in English & Literature to procure his teaching certificate and return to high school. He also is involved in student government and is the school’s track coach. His room seems to always be filled with students for assorted reasons. His insights into the materials and into what students need afford him connections to his students.
Phil: I never taught the former World Literature class, and this was my first year teaching this particular curriculum to 10th grade honors students. I think it is very beneficial and important to encourage students to become familiar with the larger world, and literature courses provide excellent opportunities. I hope this year, with a more established professional learning community and better understanding of the curriculum, to be able to spend time on broad cultural knowledge. Below is a brief overview of what I did teach last year in relation to world literature and general knowledge.
• The first extended text of the year was Anthem: Read brief author bio and contemporary history of Russia to include rise of communism. Read excerpt from The Jungle to contextualize popularity of communism as opposed to capitalism. While majority of class discussion focused on identity, freedom and personal choice, there were a few discussions of modern communism – China, Cuba, and especially North Korea. Also, some discussion of topics in a summer reading book, A Thousand Splendid Suns.
• Political debate: Assigned teams to three candidates – Democrat (Obama), Republican (Romney), and Libertarian (Johnson). Also assigned analysis teams to various topics, such as economy, health care, social issues, etc. During the research process and actual debate, had many discussions of other areas of the world through topics such as national defense and foreign relations, especially concerning the Middle East, North Korea and China. Some students who read Splendid Suns responded to issues related to Russia, Middle East, communism and radical Islam. Research and debate presented several Ah-ha moments as students were surprised to realize the extent of America’s role in aspects of other nations’ affairs.
•While viewing Pleasantville, read several texts concerning identity and freedom, including excerpts from NSC-68, detailing America’s response to communism. While most students felt this document was boring and too difficult, several found it interesting and illuminating of that historical period and America’s role during the Cold War.
• Read Copper Sun: Some students read and provided additional contextual/historical information regarding the slave trade and Africa. One first-generation student from Africa brought an example of the type of fabric described by the main character and was even going to bring one of the traditional African dishes but did not have time.
Malcolm X: While the unit built around this film was primarily concerned with rhetoric, we were able to bring in a slight amount of Islamic history and a fair amount of contemporary Islam.
• Short works: Tolstoy, Chekhov, Grimm, Dante, mythology.
This was only my second year teaching AP literature, and I focused mainly on American and British works and did not really “branch out” to include works from the larger world. However, I did include the following items of interest:
• The Poisonwood Bible: Set primarily in Africa. Small groups had different assignments related to issues in this book. One group researched African history, specifically the colonial era and the contemporary period, and presented this information and its relationship to issues in the book. While all students had taken relevant history courses (often at Honors and AP level), many found the literary representation illuminating.
• Hamlet: We focused primarily on the text, but did discuss Renaissance thinking and how it affected Shakespeare and Hamlet, and how it was presented in the play.
• I realized too late that students lacked adequate knowledge of classical mythology, so we did a very brief overview that will likely be expanded next year.
Robert Clemente – 9th Literature/Composition
Robert was English Department chair during this project. He has taught in the K-12 system for twenty years and the Georgia two-year college system along with adjunct teaching for two universities. From year to year, he has taught every grade level and a myriad of subjects. His student-centered approach and interactive style carries great acceptance by his students. He holds two degrees in English and Education, a Masters in Secondary Education, and a Specialist degree in Secondary English Education. He currently is completing a Ph.D. in Literacy and Learning at Georgia State University.
Robert: We were studying Romeo and Juliet, perhaps not normally considered global literature, but to a predominantly American 9th grade audience, a different time, place, and culture. Because of my awareness of our group’s focus on global literature, I realized that reading and studying this play would afford the opportunity for serious considerations about the culture of the time. Certainly, the language itself would be challenging with this early high school age group. On one particular occasion, I had the students in pairs working on language matching activities and character analyses of the play. Melissa, who usually likes to work alone anyway, called me over to be part of her “group.” I complied and joined her in the desk across from hers. She began talking about the correlations between then and now… as we talked back and forth, she got bright-eyed and exclaimed, “I’ve got it. Roslyn was a player and was giving Romeo a hard time and never expected to respond to his advances. If she had serious concerns for Romeo that would have created a loose end in the story that Shakespeare would have had to deal with in his writing.” She went on to say that she did not see it right away until she got past the difficulty in the language. When I said in class that the way to read a play or a story is to consider the characters as real people, she began to put things together. She went on to explain to me that she understood the time a little better now and that daughters would have been expected to obey and get married to whomever was chosen by the parents. She also made comments about social climbing. The play and the story opened up to her and she saw things she never would have imagined. And, of course, the overall insight is that Shakespeare touches the human condition in all time periods. The lights turned on for this student, and throughout the remainder of the study, she was engaged and participatory in the activities. She was usually a very quiet girl, but I found her to be quite expressive and voluntary with her thoughts and expressions about the play and its plot, characters, and themes. Her engagement would have never happened without that extra awareness I brought into the study because of the direct influence of having written the proposal for our global literacy community and the meetings/discussions we had as teachers regarding the literature.
Our students did reach new levels of global awareness as evidenced by their journals, writing, and discussions. They also increased their tolerance of one another and their willingness to meet new people within the school. Students began to recognize and realize that all cultures share in common family structures, education, religion, entertainment, and social frames—we are all different and yet we are all the same.
Our use of global literature was integrated into the curriculum we were developing to meet our new Common Core Georgia Performance Standards, which is one reason why we put a focus on students writing about the global literature. Our department not only met our federal student improvement goals but surpassed them two times over on the final end-of-course tests. As teachers, we believe that our new emphases of reading and writing and talking about global literature helped students attain increases in their test scores.
WOW Stories, Volume IV, Issue 8 by Worlds of Words is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at wowlit.org/on-line-publications/stories/iv8.