Ohio Resource Center
AdLIT In Perspective > 2008 > May/June
A Look at the OGT

Reading Passages from Diverse Cultures

by Carol Brown Dodson

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.

[Paragraph 1]
Grandfather believed a well-rooted tree was the color of money. His money he kept hidden behind portraits of sons and daughters or taped behind the calendar of an Aztec warrior. He tucked it into the sofa, his shoes and slippers, and into the tight-lipped pockets of his suits. He kept it in his soft brown wallet that was machine tooled with “MEXICO” and a campesino and donkey climbing a hill. He had climbed, too, out of Mexico, settled in Fresno and worked thirty years at Sun Maid Raisin, first as a packer and later, when he was old, as watchman with a large clock on his belt.
campesino: in Spanish-speaking countries, a peasant farmer
“The Grandfather” from A SUMMER LIFE. Gary Soto © 1990 University Press of New England. Used by the Ohio Department of Education with permission.

In paragraph 1, how does the image on the grandfather’s wallet of “a campesino and donkey climbing a hill” reflect the grandfather’s early life?
A. He waited patiently for the tree to bear fruit.
B. He climbed out of Mexico to find work in America.
C. He climbed the tree to look into the neighbor’s yard.
D. He kept the money hidden in places he considered safe.
Ohio Graduation Test, March 2006, released item #38

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 answer.

Which of the excerpts illustrates the narrator’s sense of family pride?
A. “After twenty years, the tree began to bear …” (paragraph 11)
B. “A tree was money …” (paragraph 5)
C. “It grew, as did his family …” (paragraph 11)
D. “After work, he sat in the backyard under the arbor …” (paragraph 2)
Ohio Graduation Test, March 2006, released item #31

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.

Years passed, we lived in many houses, none had figtrees.
We had lima beans, zucchini, parsley, beets.
“Plant one!” my mother said, but my father never did.
He tended garden half-heartedly, forgot to water,
let the okra get too big.
“What a dreamer he is. Look how many things he starts
and doesn’t finish.”
Stanza 3 from “My Father and the Figtree” from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, copyright © 1995. Used by the Ohio Department of Education with the permission of Far Corner Books.

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.

How does the mother feel about her husband’s dreams?
A. She is frustrated by them.
B. She shares them with him.
C. She worries about them.
D. She admires them.
Ohio Graduation Test, March 2004, released item #2

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.

Dearborn includes in the passage the quotation from the little boy in order to show
A. that people of all ages can wheelchair fly.
B. how people’s attitudes can change.
C. that people can sometimes be rude or impolite.
D. how dangerous people think wheelchair flying can be.
Ohio Graduation Test, March 2006, released item #4

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 Be Told?
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
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. (author/ncl)

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.

Carol Brown Dodson is the outreach specialist for the Ohio Resource Center. Dodson was an English language arts consultant for the Ohio Department of Education and is past president of OCTELA (Ohio Council of Teachers of English Language Arts). Dodson, formerly a high school English teacher, department chair, and supervisor of English language arts in Columbus Public Schools, serves on the Ohio Graduation Test Reading Content Committee.

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