Because of how school is structured, a lot of students aren’t really exposed to a wide range of texts. They’re exposed to things that, according to whatever curriculum they’re working within, are placed within a specific canon or hold a particular kind of importance to a culture or a state. That doesn’t mean these texts are inherently bad or that they have no value. It just means that they aren’t things that people necessarily recognise as useful or engaging.
These works can often be quite interesting! And some students do find that these works connect to their own lives and the world around them, but a lot of students also feel completely disengaged by them. Sometimes it’s because these texts focus too much on an experience that they can’t quite imagine, either because it’s so far removed from our own reality or they’re lacking contexts that they really need to understand it.
This context can be the result of lacking certain knowledge about language. When it’s the first time that students engage with texts written in archaic language or in a different dialect than they’re accustomed to, it often takes more time to get comfortable with it. They have to get familiar with the ways in which the writing is different and learn the common patterns in order to really get into it. This time is frequently not afforded to them in schools because of a constant push toward being able to complete a program and “progress” to the next year rather than an actual focus on ensuring that students have the opportunity to engage with and enjoy literature. Instead of having that chance, they generally tend to feel frustrated by it and seek out explanations elsewhere. In fact, it’s one of the many reasons students list as not liking reading beyond a certain age, which is counterintuitive to our beliefs about the supposed purpose of literacy in schools.
I’ve also started to notice a similar struggle with certain works of poetry about different historical events that, when I was a child, I understood almost intrinsically because of how common it was for people to talk about them. This is normal because, as time goes on, we lose a lot of people, connections and stories. One such event is the Vietnam War, which used to be so commonly recognised and understood. But since we have fewer ways to engage with these historical moments in our daily lives, it starts to take more work to connect to certain pieces that were written about those historical moments because students may need a lot more ‘front-loading’ of information to build that contextual understanding.
The same is true of just existing in or being from a different geographic location, which often affords people a different perspective and range of knowledge. The ways that we talk about the Cold War in the United States are vastly different from how I’ve listened to people in Slovakia discuss it. And it changes in so many other places because, for many people, the Cold War was actually a time of *hot war*. But since there’s an inherent nationalism within any curriculum that we teach within school, the perspective will always be that which is supported by the state or organisation developing materials for it. For students who come from another location where those events can be hotly contested, they may have had another experience with that moment of time and feel frustrated with the lack of context being explored. They will have heard about other consequences from their parents and grandparents; they will know what it is that they experienced, and it might not contextually fit with what they’re being taught in school.
Because of my experiences with many different forms of curriculum in English-speaking countries, I try to create tutoring spaces where students have more access to different types of stories and can openly discuss topics in ways that help them to express their understanding and further their knowledge. I want them to have stories they can connect with, even when parts of them can be unfamiliar.
One such story I love using is “Names/Nombres” by Julia Alvarez. For many of my students, it’s a very familiar tale of being an immigrant in a place that can’t be bothered to learn about them and expects them to assimilate into “normal” society. It has always prompted a lot of discussion about the importance of names and about how sometimes we feel like giving in and ‘making it easy’ on those around us at the expense of how we feel. But it also has always prompted students to learn more because there are bits of a culture strewn throughout that are different from their own.
But I also love creating a space where we can search for stories together, where we can create collections of stories that we both connect with and can share with each other. That’s the point of stories after all. They’re shared experiences for us to discuss, to talk about, to connect with, to share.