Guest Post: Finding and Honoring Our Many Stories (Part 2)
By Brittany Carlino
In my last post, I spoke about my responsibility of representing and responding to cultural differences while participating in the Fulbright Classroom Teacher Exchange program in Budapest, Hungary. Though I’m no longer teaching in a different country, I still take that responsibility quite seriously in my Great Valley classroom. Even in a room of all American kids, there are still diverse socioeconomic statuses or ethnicities or even interests that can be identified and discussed. Each student has his own story, her own diversity of life experiences to be celebrated. There is still what Chimamanda Adichie calls the danger of the single story, or getting trapped into just speaking to, for, and of the majority. I continually learn that just as we examine and accept differences to understand international cultures, we must also help kids discover and appreciate their own and other mini, micro, and sub cultures.
I believe this to be especially important as I have found that many of my students are unaware of the multiplicity that exists, whether it’s between states, within our state, or even within our classroom. I remind them that in just one state to our west, the word “hoagie” is like a foreign language! We all say the word “water” and laugh at our varied pronunciations. (A resource I’ve found helpful with this and a ton of fun are these linguistic maps of the U.S.) Or we identify idiosyncrasies indigenous to subsections of Malvern.
Such conversations are seemingly trivial, but they reveal that the acceptance purview of a high schooler is generally very narrow; what they see and know every day is “normal” and trusted. Expand the radius just a bit, and we start to hear the word “weird.” As in, “Why would they do that? That’s so weird!” Innocent enough and certainly apropos at times, it’s also something to be used with caution, for what is normal to one will certainly – and sometimes to great offense – be categorized as weird or even wrong to another. It is what leads to the classification of “other,” and then to stereotyping that other.
The second part of honoring and celebrating, then, is that once we are cognizant of our differences, we must remember nothing is better or worse, just different. I repeat this phrase to myself and my students as we approach any cultural discussion – global or local: It’s not better or worse, just different. This allows us to keep judgment from clouding our view of something that could influence life positively. It refuses to flatten something different into nothing worth noticing. It prevents us from developing unfair or ineffective comparisons.
I know because almost every year, at least a few of my students unknowingly judge and classify me. I am an “other”: I went to Coatesville. Before they know of my roots, it will be referenced as a place to be feared, a place of lesser value where no good things happen.
To me, Coatesville is my home. It’s where I grew up, where my parents taught, where they and my sister still live. I could create a long list of successful individuals who graduated from there. Some now teach there. I still love going back to my neighborhood, or to Hibernia Park, or any other of the numbers of not-scary places that are Coatesville. True, like any other place, Coatesville does have its problems, and I cannot gloss over recent egregious ones that have hurt my heart.
But Coatesville is not the negative single story it has been given. It is always a loaded moment in my classroom when my students learn I attended the high school…and I am well-educated. And well-traveled. And I was never physically harmed. And lots of people from all races, backgrounds, ethnicities are also successful and friends and happy to live in or come from the ‘Ville. I promise I am not throwing my kids under the bus here – they are just like any other high school kid whose schema is limited to what they have been told or what little they’ve seen. Clearly, some students in Coatesville have stereotypes of kids in Great Valley, and still other students in both districts see their schools and other schools as varied and multifaceted. Indeed, I know there isn’t a single student story!
So I am not (deeply) offended when my students speak ill of my hometown. But I do tell them my story, and use it as an avenue to address how pervasive and incomplete the single story really is. Yes, the schools are different, but there is no winner or loser in that difference. It is time to let go of perpetuated, stigmatized fallacies both near and far.
This is the candor necessary to shift paradigms, to move conversations forward. It can be difficult or uncomfortable, but we must work to be one who is honest about diversity or a lack of it and how that shapes our students. Not doing so marginalizes the very people who could bring the best conversations to light. It enables, as F. Scott Fitzgerald writes, an “indiscernible barbed wire between” those who know and will listen to varied perspectives, and those who never will.
That’s why I take every chance I can get to thwart this dangerous single story. It helps that I teach literature, and that we read many “stories.” Lessons regarding stereotypes are especially germane when we closely examine the American Dream. Every year we attempt to define it and the role it plays in our lives, and every year, it takes work to get past platitudes of equal opportunity and freedom. We have had uncomfortable conversations as we look at the many stories of struggling Americans, not just those who confirm the ideal American Dream we want it to be. We work to address privilege. (There’s a great mini activity about this that I did to help illustrate the reality of the dream, to great success!). We discuss The Great Gatsby as a still very-relevant picture and criticism of social (im)mobility.
There is also repeated discourse about how no one piece of literature – especially one focusing on a different culture or demographic than one’s own – is representative of that culture. For example, not all poets of the Harlem Renaissance wanted the same thing, or saw the world the same way. Or that Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a slave story (among very, very many other things!), but it is not the only slave story. And that while we may want to believe there were many Scout Finches or Huck Finns who came to defy their unjust society’s, theirs are just two idealized stories in a library of other narratives.
In the end, teaching to and for diverse populations comes down to refusing absolutes. It starts within our everyday conversations and expands infinitely outward to each experience we have. I have felt how it feels to be lumped in with everyone else, to be flattened to be just a stereotype, rather than my anything-but-typical individual self. Combating this means building a community in which we know of and look for many narratives, and feel comfortable pointing out when we are inadvertently myopic or biased. It takes patience and planning, and it is a never-ending learning process. But for me, there is no greater joy than in creating an environment in which we are all able to honor and celebrate our full stories.
Brittany Carlino is an English teacher at Great Valley High School. Though she typically works with 9th and 11th grade, she also teaches Debate and Films as Literature. As one who is passionate about culture, travel, and learning, she led the International Classroom Exchange Program for 5 years, and as you have read, taught in Budapest, Hungary for the 2013-2014 school year. In general, Brittany loves reading and writing and engaging in all things learning. (Indeed, she has a “Nerd” tshirt and wears it proudly!) In addition to being Ms. Carlino, she’s a singer, a Penn Stater, the luckiest of wives, and a very proud aunt.
Lovely. I love the sentiment of “refusing absolutes.” What a personal mantra and guideline for judgement. Thanks for sharing Britt!
Brittany, it was so interesting to read about how your experiences in Hungary are manifested in your teaching back home. It’s powerful that you use the stereotypes that surround your own background to demonstrate how limiting and hurtful that narrow thinking is to everyone involved, and then move outward. It sounds as if the discussions, reading, writing, and thinking that you’re doing with your students is having a great impact. Thank you for sharing this journey with us!