Open book on the world

2nd May 2008 at 01:00
Don't be tied to Mark Twain and John Steinbeck when teaching texts from other cultures, says Emma Dawson
Don't be tied to Mark Twain and John Steinbeck when teaching texts from other cultures, says Emma Dawson

How can you approach teaching texts from different cultures and traditions? It sounds like an exciting, thought-provoking and motivating module, but my research in schools in the Midlands supports wider findings that this statutory aspect of the English syllabus is not being taught thoroughly at key stage 3 or 4.

The problem, and its solution, lies in quality resources. The national curriculum offers teachers a list of authors to teach culturally varied texts, which includes John Steinbeck and Mark Twain. This means that teaching Of Mice and Men would fulfil the requirements. But is John Steinbeck, the American author, really so representative of other traditions and cultures?

However, teachers can feel apprehensive about going it alone. Some resources are dated or unmanageable, and the nature of these texts can require a great deal of sensitivity when teaching.

Teachers must navigate the class carefully through politically correct terms, while dipping into lesser known territory such as geography, world history, culture and ethnography.

My research indicates that they need the best resources if they are to feel confident.

The 2001 Heinemann publication, Twisters: Stories before 1914, is a good place to start. It offers a range of world literature short stories, most of which are translated from the original language. But many teachers I spoke to had reservations about using these texts, as they felt a lot of the cultural and linguistic details were lost in translation.

Another option I've uncovered is Opening Worlds and Opening Lines, again from Heinemann, which offers a selection of modern short stories from different cultures. It also reinforces the skills needed for exam questions, so it can be a useful revision tool. Teacher reactions, however, have been mixed.

In my opinion, the Read Around series is different. It consists of five books, which have been designed as a response to the general dissatisfaction surrounding other sub-standard resources.

The series, which spans KS3 and 4, has been produced to teach texts from other traditions; promoting, wherever possible, a positive view of life in different cultures around the world.

The series takes its name from the idea of "reading around" the globe as well as "reading around" a text critically and culturally.

This idea is reflected by the books that hail from India, Kenya, South Africa and Malaysia. Meanwhile, pupils end up with a much more balanced perspective.

"I used to think all children in Africa were dying," says one pupil from a mainly-white school in Stoke-on-Trent, "but now I know this isn't always the case. In Kenya, they have events like we do, like sports days and things. The kids are pretty much like us."

Dr Emma Dawson is a teaching fellow at the department of education at Keele University.

YOU CAN DO IT TOO

- Choose a text that represents the culture from a positive and fair perspective, as opposed to stories that solely focus on poverty or women's rights issues.

- Consider your stance on what represents "texts from different cultures and traditions". Does it include translated work or diaspora writing?

- Does the choice of texts offer possibilities for cross-curricular work in history, geography or citizenship?

- For Read Around resources, visit www.cccpress.co.uk.

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