Today on the podcast we have a sample from Textured Teaching: A Framework for Culturally Sustaining Practices, read by author Lorena Germán. Textured Teaching shares lesson design strategies that build traditional literacy skills while supporting students in developing their social justice skills at the same time.
In this preview, Lorena describes the importance and benefit of taking an interdisciplinary approach in your teaching.
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Read along with Lorena!
We don’t typically spend days immersed in a one-subject-only life. We count items at
the grocery store, use literacy skills while reading labels, and practice chemistry while
considering recipes. I say this to deconstruct the idea that an interdisciplinary approach in
a literature class is far-fetched. An interdisciplinary style is necessary to support our young
people to join the world as active participants working toward positive social transformation. It’s also one of the best ways to make meaning of texts and fully appreciate the depth of a writing. Think of the skills we use while teaching. We tap into so many parts of ourselves and our lives. We need to find a way to set our students up to be able to do that seamlessly.
An interdisciplinary approach requires bringing together different branches of knowledge,
or in our case, bringing together different content areas as we dive into a text and unit of study. Complex ideas can be better understood when we explore them from different
angles. When we analyze big ideas and break them down into smaller ones, we can help students understand it all better. For example, U.S.-based racism is a complex social issue in the fabric of this nation, right? It’s present throughout history and is at the core of all the institutions in this country. One tool that can help us understand how it all began is the New York Times Magazine’s “1619 Project” (2019). The strength of this work is the interdisciplinary exploration of how racism is at the foundation of this nation. In it,
creator Nikole Hannah-Jones blends essays, photography, poetry, history, architecture, urban planning maps, social studies, music, and a podcast that all address this nation’s historical entanglement with slavery. By listening, reading, and consuming the imagery,
readers/listeners/viewers can come to gain a comprehensive understanding of racism and slavery. Hannah-Jones earned a Pulitzer prize for her essay in this project. Imagine our students putting together a work like this one. We can prepare our young people to do this. It necessitates an interdisciplinary teaching method.
Interdisciplinary teaching for a Textured Teacher is approached in three steps: demystify and destigmatize, background and research, and supplements and critical thinking. As you read through the steps, think about how you may need to adjust to fit your school’s schedule and your students’ agility. The suggestions in the table are based on my current school’s block schedule (our courses meet for seventy minutes, three times a week). Your time frame or practices might be different, but the goals stay the same. Focus on achieving the goals in a way that works for your students.
Demystify and Destigmatize
When starting a new unit, the first day or so should be spent demystifying and destigmatizing the topics you are about to dig into with students. Often these are concepts
or terms that create discomfort, that have heavy connotations, and whose presence
causes apprehension for students. Many students (and adults), particularly White
ones, hesitate when these topics arise because they are afraid of saying the wrong
thing or sounding bigoted. This is an understandable fear: not wanting to say something
with an undertone that reveals a bias or hurts someone else. These moments of
discomfort can be used as teachable moments. Additionally, I’ve come to learn that
many of us use these terms but don’t always mean the same thing and we’re not always
clear on what they actually mean. Knowing what terms mean and how to express ideas
thoughtfully is an important step to creating more conversation. Demystifying words
and destigmatizing ideas are key to creating an environment where people feel they
can be courageous.
Consider, for example, a discussion in an ethnically diverse class of juniors. Some of these students had been friends since middle school, so the energy in the room during that class was always open and upbeat. They were always talkative and the lovebirds in the back of the room kept folks chatting, too. But as soon as I projected a slide titled “The N-Word,” the class quieted down and the tension suffocated the room. I instructed students to form a semicircle facing the projector screen. I then moved the presentation to the second slide, which had several nervous GIFs and wide-eyed emojis with the question: “What makes us so tense when it comes to this word?”. I thought my images would break the ice with some laughter. Nope! So, I nervously laughed and shared what I thought made people stiff. Then one student followed me, saying something along the lines of, “Yeah. This conversation makes me nervous.” And the rest followed. By opening up about our individual discomforts and fears, we ended up building a little bit of additional trust within our classroom community. Two important points to keep in mind here are, first, that this type of lesson
or conversation is not one to be hand in September, at the start of the school year. It requires rapport between the teacher and class as well as trust among students.
Second, it’s important to build community as a class through the various activities and
steps outlined in the previous chapter.
After this initial conversation, we watched videos and read quick article excerpts to break down the history of the N-word including its purpose, connotation, and impact. It was only then that we could move forward and engage in conversation about such a heavy word with deep meaning to analyze the core text we were studying.
I encourage you to begin the demystify and destigmatize process by identifying topics and words you know will come up in the text(s) and cause discomfort for students. These are often terms considered taboo, political, or controversial, like race, prejudice, or queer. People may think about these topics frequently, but only explicitly discuss them in spaces where they feel safe or comfortable. Start by identifying words that make you uncomfortable, and as you get to know your students and content, you may find yourself adding to or removing things from your list. It’s best to start with a short, manageable list—five to ten words— so the conversation doesn’t feel overwhelming. Until your students build the stamina, limit this step to just one class period. As these conversations become more and more normalized in your classroom culture, you may eventually take as many as three classes for this discussion.
When it comes time to work through the list with students, display the terms and
concepts on the board—either all at once or one at a time (to keep students focused).
Allow students to look at the word in silence for a few minutes—yes, minutes; I’ve
given up to three full minutes. Then, initiate a whole-class discussion either by asking
students to share feelings about what’s on the board or by jumping right into an open-ended class discussion. Of course, how you manage the discussion depends on many factors (Does your course meet right after lunch when students may be tired or in the morning when they may have a burst of energy to fully engage? Is the list of terms short enough to work through in one session or will it require two class periods? Have students discussed topics like this before? etc.) but the goal remains to develop a shared definition of terms in a way that builds community and offers space for dialogue. The first time you do
this with a group, it may be helpful to remind students of the community guidelines you created (see Chapter 2). Each time you have this discussion, the process becomes smoother and smoother as students understand and feel secure within the culture. Even so, it may be helpful to make sure the norms are posted somewhere visible as a reminder to all community members.
After students have aired how the words make them feel, shift the conversation to what the words mean, paying special attention to the difference between denotation and connotation. Invite a couple of students to look up the literal dictionary definition (denotation) while the rest of the students write their social understanding of the word (connotation). When those are both up on the board, talk about their differences, similarities, and impact. For example, when my seniors considered the word bitch, they knew both denotation and connotation, but it engendered a very interesting conversation about linguistics, rhetoric, and the history of words. They asked questions such as, How does a word develop a connotation? How do we, as a society, decide words are offensive? Can a word ever lose their offensiveness and become “good” again? Students always have
so many more questions than they thought they did at the start. They always have anecdotes to share and specific scenarios to run by me. I take this time to answer general questions about the topics presented, and we take on these difficult conversations often withheld by teachers. Time-pressed teachers can consider creative ways to grant students the space to ask the questions they have, like exit slips, dialectical journals, or a class blog.
It’s important for students to understand that words have power. Such an exercise allows students to criticize the dictionary as omniscient and co-construct meaning. You’ll become wordsmiths and definition builders seeking truth and accuracy. This also allows you to develop nuanced understandings about language and social impact. Additionally, students develop skills around reading dictionaries, searching in the dictionary, and vocabulary building.
To close the discussion, have students write the terms and their definitions in a dedicated section of their notebook. They are able to access these definitions later when it’s time to get into discussion for the book, but they can also turn to them for their essays. At the end of a semester or year, you can reflect and have conversations that integrate all of the terms and concepts. In the end, this is about tailoring your lessons for the people sitting in front of you. You can do this. We must do this.
Discussions and Conversations
To go smoothly, difficult conversations need to be approached with structure and intentionality. There are many resources that can be found online or in bookstores, but
there are three in particular that I have found most useful. With middle school students,
I use various strategies from Learning for Justice’s resource “Let’s Talk: Discussing Race, Racism, and Other Difficult Topics with Students” (Learning for Justice 2017). When working with high schoolers, I use Courageous Conversations About Race protocols (Singleton 2014). Regardless of the age of my students, I always make it clear that I’m not necessarily concerned with creating a “safe” space. As Matthew R. Kay explains in Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom (2018), the definition of safe varies from teacher to teacher, which leaves it up to students to “decipher what a teacher means when they claim ‘safe space’” (16). In my experience, I have found that often those safe spaces exist to accommodate White people’s sense of discomfort in a way that does not get all of us further along in the direction of problem-solving. Kay proposes that spaces where discussions flourish require a culture of listening. Therefore, I’m much more concerned with making sure that students feel supported to take risks, listened to so that they in turn will listen, and courageous to ask tough questions and challenge each other.
Lorena Escoto Germán is a Dominican American educator focused on anti-racist and antibias work in education. She earned her master's degree at Middlebury College's Bread Loaf School of English.
Lorena is a two-time nationally awarded educator whose work has been featured in newspapers and journals including The New York Times, NCTE journals, EdWeek, National Writing Project, and Embracing Equity. She is author of The Anti Racist Teacher: Reading Instruction Workbook.
A cofounder of the groups #DisruptTexts and Multicultural Classroom, Lorena is the director of pedagogy at EduColor and Chair of NCTE's Committee Against Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English. Of all her work, Lorena is most dedicated to her roles as wife and mami.
Lorena is the author of Textured Teaching: A Framework for Culturally Sustaining Practices.