ENGLISH STUDENTS CREATIVELY SHARE INTERPRETATIONS OF LITERATURE TO BETTER UNDERSTAND CULTURAL NORMS
Mrs. Julia Janisko's five sophomore English classes, about 120 students, spent two days using the Lowe Institute for Innovation to reflect on excerpts of literature and to better understand various cultures including Mexican-American, Nigerian and Native American. Mrs. Janisko placed printouts of each excerpt, centered on cultural norms, stereotypes, family lifestyles and behavioral expectations, around the room with space for students to visually share their interpretations. "During our unit on culture, we focus on three different cultures in addition to spending time cultivating our ability to reflect independently on our own personal identity and culture," says Mrs. Janisko. "I wanted to create an activity that organically facilitated student interaction with textual passages while also promoting the freedom and independence that is associated with creative work." Students reflected on vignettes from The House on Mango Street, two chapters from The Thing Around Your Neck and two chapters from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. They were then prompted to think outside the box and share their reflections through symbolic drawings, analytical annotations and thought bubbles to express their ideas. "This interaction was meant to specifically focus on how my students saw culture portrayed through each passage and how that related to what we have previously discussed in class in addition to what they see in the world around them," says Mrs. Janisko. "Students enjoyed having the freedom to move through the work at their own pace - sitting, standing, laying down, listening to music and expressing their thoughts in creative ways - while feeling productive and connected with the rest of the class despite working independently. This activity also allowed students to review their peers' thoughts and reactions to the literature without having to expose who believed what and why."
Each literature excerpt focused on how a main character (male, female or anonymous, to promote the concept of "everyone") felt about his/her identity and their reaction to how other people identified them. "The most consistent takeaway from this experience was the reinforced concept of how and why people stereotype other people who are different from them based on their race, ethnicity, religion, culture, economic status, political beliefs and personal identity," says Mrs. Janisko. "Although we had already spent a solid two and a half weeks on this material, this particular lesson and activity was a breakthrough point for some of my students who were still unmoved by the difficulty and fragile nature of navigating our world in a culturally sensitive and appropriate manner. As teachers, we tend to forget that students need time to think and to only think without requesting an immediate answer. Therefore, allowing students to find the intrinsic motivation it takes to self-assess the way they view the rest of the world, without quantifying their response with a grade, was a powerful activity."
Finally, a select group of students helped Mrs. Janisko during their free time to clean the Ideation Space from top to bottom with extreme care. Because Mrs. Janisko's classes took up the entire Ideation Space, using every wall, window and dry-erase service to share their reflections, everything needed to be wiped clean so that other students and teachers could use the space. Thanks to Ahmad Edwards '21, Kai Razek '21, Colin Wojciechowski '21, Nasir Jenkins '21 and Wyatt Kayser '21, they not only erased all their work, but went the extra mile to clean every surface and reorganize the tools they used for their lesson. "These students went above and beyond, outside of our class, by exhibiting exemplary Edsman character, grit, self-sacrifice and respect," says Mrs. Janisko. "Each student embraced the opportunity they had to participate in our activity and coupled it with accepting the responsibility that came with that privilege. Having access to this great space (Lowe Institute for Innovation) gives teachers and students the opportunity to run fun and engaging lessons that also teach accountability and respect for our school. This idea of passing the torch or giving their time in an exhibition of self-sacrifice for the future or intended benefit of their fellow Edsman was, for this group of young men, an inherent part of their identity."