The Case for Culturally Explorative Instruction by Rob Gulya

When I became an English teacher four and a half years ago, I started to build a curriculum from scratch (my school didn’t have one) and, knowing very little, I mostly reflected on what I read in high school and tried to pick the most engaging texts for students that would also be accessible to everyone.

Since then, my process for choosing texts has become much deeper– and longer. I’ll spend hours reading short stories or surfing the internet, looking for the perfect text; one that’s challenging but accessible; one that reflects my students and their experiences; one that models what strong narrative, argumentative, or reflective writing looks like; one that’s developmentally appropriate and so on. It feels like there are so many different factors, so many different lens that I have to read a text through before I decide it is worthy of my students.

One of the big ideas in inner city education is culturally responsive teaching. In a previous post, I defined this as “using culturally relevant instructional material, affirm student cultural identities, and use cultural backgrounds as a knowledge base for learning and academic success.” The basic principle is that we should use student’s cultural background and knowledge to present them with new information and skills. The goal being that culturally responsive teaching allows students to succeed at a higher level because they can use their background knowledge. Additionally, by using instructional material that mirrors student backgrounds, education empowers them through an affirmation of their identity. In a world that, often, sees them and their experiences as trivial (or doesn’t see them at all), this reaffirmation can be very powerful. An example of this is when I teach “Invierno” by Junot Diaz. It’s a story of a young child who moves from the Dominican Republic to New Jersey. I have a lot of students from the DR, and an overwhelming majority are either immigrants themselves of the children of immigrants. This is a story they can relate to. It’s a story they’re familiar with. Personal connections are easy.

I’m going to now make an argument for a different kind of education. A culturally explorative education.

One thing that has always struck me as sad about my students in their lack of knowledge about the world around them. They don’t read maps. They don’t wonder about what life in India or China is like. Hell, they barely venture from the Bronx to Manhattan unless they’re on a school trip. This lack of curiosity scares me. It makes me wonder how can we make our students aware not only of their own culture and community, but also aware of other cultures so that they see themselves as members of a global community? How can we instill an understanding and an empathy for different lifestyles and worldviews? I see these understandings not only critical for their own development but also for their success in college or in a career, where they will, hopefully come in contact with a variety of people and cultures.

That’s where culturally explorative education comes in.

In a culturally explorative unit, students might read a text about a completely different culture and way of life. Something they might not be at all familiar with. Something they may have heard of and have an image of, but don’t understand. Something they have no personal experience with. The other factors I use to choose a text will remain, it needs to be developmentally appropriate, it needs to be complex, it needs to be a model of strong writing. The goal is that, in addition to learning reading and writing, students will also be exposed to and learn about another culture.

One example of this is when I have taught Night to 9th graders. The text is non fiction, and revolves around the story of a young boy and his experience in the Holocaust. My students can relate to it on one level, the main character is about the same age as they are, but they have little or no understanding of life in the 1930s and 1940s or a Jewish culture outside of popular depictions and stereotypes (and the two Jewish teachers who have worked at the school).

Reading this text requires students to make intellectual leaps. It, ideally (and maybe if I was a better teacher…) builds empathy and understanding of another culture that, seems anyway, nothing like their own. Reading this text asks students to explore a different culture, one that seems very foreign and disconnected to their own. It will be difficult for them. They will struggle more because they don’t have all the background knowledge (although we should try to provide them with some). It doesn’t affirm their identity or, explicitly, use their experiences in the classroom (although their experiences are never irrelevant).

I advocate for this kind of instruction in all curricula. There should a delicate and purposeful balance between being culturally responsive and being culturally explorative and, obviously, both have their place. In our striving to empower students and affirm their culture and identity as well as use the knowledge they have to improve (not hinder) they academic success, we need to be careful not to forget how important it is to build their curiosity and empathy of people who don’t share their culture.

Have you used culturally explorative education? What have been the challenges and the success? How do you strike the balance?


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