A Look at the OGT
Reading Passages from Diverse Cultures
When I look over OGT released items, I often think about them in terms of the benchmark
that's addressed or the way the item is written. I have considered differences in
the passages by thinking about literary text and informational text or by considering
the difficulty of the reading. But I haven't paid a lot of attention to the culture,
ethnicity, or diversity of the writers of passages that seem to pose particular
difficulty for students. In this issue, we'll review some of the questions based
on passages that reflect diversity and consider what it is that gives students difficulty
and what we can do to improve student success on questions related to similar passages.
Performance data from the Ohio Department of Education indicate that many students
responded incorrectly to questions based on "The Grandfather" by Gary
Soto. Soto, a Hispanic American from Fresno, California, writes about a Mexican
who managed to get to Fresno and planted fruit trees at his home there. The focus
of the passage, though, is on the avocado tree.
The correct answer is Choice B, “He climbed out of Mexico to find work in
America.” The sentence in Choice B is taken almost word for word from the
passage, immediately following the description of the grandfather’s wallet.
Yet only 16 percent of the students responding to this question answered it correctly.
The question, on the surface, seems easy. The peasant (campesino is defined
as peasant farmer in the footnote) and donkey climbed a hill. The grandfather climbed
out of Mexico.
To capture the real meaning of the image, the reader needs to understand a few things
about peasant farmers in Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries. The campesinos
are in many ways at the bottom of the hill. Climbing out of Mexico is not a literal
statement but rather an image that portrays the difficulty of leaving a life of
poverty and a life-style of hard work with long, back-breaking hours and little
reward. Readers should have some knowledge of reasons why people from Mexico cross
over the border into the United States. But students also need to gain an awareness
of the longing experienced by U.S. immigrants for meaningful parts of their lives
in their native countries. If students have no understanding of these concepts,
they are likely to have difficulty comprehending passages such as “The Grandfather.”
Another question based on “The Grandfather” yielded even poorer results.
A mere 4 percent of the students responding to the question below chose the correct
Once again, the question appears to be an easy one. Even a student who makes a wild
guess might notice that only Choice C included the word “family.” The
other choices might show pride, but only the pride of individual accomplishment,
not pride in the narrator’s family. Yet part of understanding family pride
is rooted in knowledge of the Mexican culture, where a large family that continues
to grow is a source of pride. For a campesino, having many sons fills a need for
making a living as a family.
Other OGT questions asked students about the poem “My Father and the Figtree.”
As in “The Grandfather,” this poem
shows the importance of a tree to a man who left his native country in the Middle
East and came to the United States. Here again, students should understand that
the tree is far more than just another tree. When his wife tells him to just plant
a figtree, the man ignores her and continues his quest to find just the right tree.
Although he eventually found the perfect tree in the back yard of his new home in
Texas, his wife was frustrated during the years when he ignored what needed to be
done and professed his dreams of a perfect figtree.
It’s not surprising that students missed the point about the man’s dreams
and the mother’s frustration with the dreams. Just 53 percent of Ohio students
selected Choice A as the correct answer to the question below.
Another passage, “Wheelchair Flying,” is about a woman with disabilities
rather than a person from a different culture, but students seem to have trouble
understanding how an individual who has gone from champion skier to stroke survivor
in a wheelchair might still dare to gain some of the freedom and challenges she
faced when skiing down a mountainside. The following question asks students to infer
the meaning of a statement made by a young child. To answer the question correctly,
students must read the paragraph that follows the quote so that they begin to see
what the writer (Carrie Dearborn) faces every day. But they also need some background knowledge of
problems faced by people with disabilities. They should become aware that the problems
go beyond the disability to the behaviors and attitudes of people toward the disability.
Only 18 percent of the students selected Choice B, “that people’s attitudes
can change,” suggesting that the students have had little experience with
people with disabilities. As a result, the students are often limited in their understanding.
The inclusion of literature about such experiences into the language arts curriculum
not only enriches the curriculum; it also broadens the experiences and background
knowledge of our students.
How can students gain the necessary background knowledge?
Students should have many opportunities to read the literature of other countries
and cultures. Students who are familiar with the customs and life-styles of many
cultures are better able to understand the images and needs portrayed by the literature
of those cultures. They should also become immersed in literature by and about both
men and women, including those with disabilities and other differences.
Christine Gibson, an Ohio high school language arts teacher, wrote an article for
the Ohio Journal of the English Language Arts about some of these issues.
The article, “Which American Story Should Be Told,” is included in the
ORC collection and provides a compelling view of the school curriculum and the limited
types of literature frequently included in the classroom.
Which American Story Should
This professional resource is written by a teacher who, in reflecting on the ways
in which America's story has traditionally been told, realizes that a 21st-century
"re-telling" is in order. Through her experience, education, teaching
experience (an urban school with forced busing), and exchanges with other educators,
the author shares insights about teaching a multicultural literacy. Her stories
embrace an authentic search for a multicultural literacy where the American literary
canon includes both the classics and the marginalized. The article is anecdotal
and lively, with references to Edward James Olmos, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
Sandra Cisneros, and Emily Dickinson, to name but a few. (author/ebm)
Gibson cites her instructor Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, who told her class that literature
should provide students with "windows" and "mirrors." Windows
allow students to view the world from the perspective of ethnic and cultural groups
other than their own, and mirrors provide a reflection of their own ethnic and cultural
groups. Gibson also credits an experience at Otterbein College with helping her
to learn how to teach a wide range of literature:
Another experience that profoundly affected the evolution of my ideas about teaching
literature came when I participated in a collaborative project called ‘Joining
Hands in the Teaching of American Literature’ at Otterbein College. During
the summers of 1994, 1995, and 1996, seventy-five college and high school English
teachers read six pairs or clusters of literature that juxtaposed a canonical with
a multicultural work chosen from African American, Native American, Hispanic American,
Asian American, and Appalachian traditions.
The following lesson plan is another excellent resource for engaging students in
the writing and ways of other cultures.
Making Connections to Myth and
Folktale: The Many Ways to Rainy Mountain
In The Way to Rainy Mountain, N. Scott Momaday links the survival of his
people to their ability to remember, preserve, and pass on stories. Taking the idea
one step further, Momaday models necessary personal involvement in the stories.
After reading and discussing the novel, students respond by connecting the themes
from the text to their own lives. In this assignment, students write three-voice
narratives following Momaday's model. This multi-day lesson provides detailed procedures,
which will require some revision to meet specific instructional needs. (author/ncl)
Another outstanding lesson plan for engaging students in the literature of many
cultures is “Cross-Cultural Dialogue.” This resource from the Peace
Corps site provides students with some methods for understanding differences in
perspective, perception, and point of view. The resource includes links to a related
publication, Voices from the Field: Reading and Writing about the World.
Cross-Cultural Dialogue uses two personal narratives, written by a beginning English
teacher in an unfamiliar culture, to teach point of view. Students read two narratives,
first from the teacher's point of view and then from what she imagines to be her
students' point of view. Using graphic organizers, students compare the differences
in perspective and perception presented in each story. Teachers may extend this
lesson by having students write personal narratives from two different perspectives.
Adding some of the resources from the ORC collection will expand the scope of the
students’ experiences with other cultures and groups. In addition, the professional
books reviewed in this month’s “For Your Bookshelf”
are valuable sources of additional ideas and literature. Providing students with
rich collections of literature representing many cultures enables students to draw
on expanded background knowledge and experiences when they take the OGT.
Note: The links provided for
each ORC resource take you to the ORC page that includes a list of standards, benchmarks,
and grade-level indicators covered by the resource. From that page, you can click
the URL to go directly to the resource. In case you are not familiar with ORC's
records, you can read a
very brief explanation of the resource commentaries and the records.
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