I start this blog with pictures. I hate these pictures. I think they’re incredibly racist and patronizing. Back in Dr. Miller’s Grammar and Linguistic course, I read “Do you speak American?” by Robert MacNeil and William Cran. I loved this book. It discussed the difference of the English language throughout the United States. The authors traveled the states and interviewed people. Their research was appalling; people on the east coast talked about how their dialect was only spoken by a few members in the community because the Standard/Western English was kicking their dialect to the curb. Other people from the south told the authors that they hate hearing their southern accents on TV as representations of hicks or morons.
So, do you speak American? And who exactly is an American? Joellen Maples and Susan Groenke wrote an article published in Voices from the Middle journal, volume 17, No. 2, December 2009 titled “Who is an American?: Challenging Middle School Students’ Assumptions through Critical Literacy.” They created a critical literacy curriculum using young adult literature with the intention to “find ways to open lines of communication with [their] students that might encourage them to reconsider their perceptions of people different from themselves” (29). I was immediately intrigued by this article because as a native of Wyoming, I am all too familiar with the distaste towards anyone that goes against the conservative Wyoming norm. (Sidenote: I absolutely love Wyoming; it’s my home, but it always makes me chuckle that we are known as the “equality state” yet we hate you if you aren’t a conservative, right-winged, Jesus-lover. If you know your Wyoming history, you would know that we are the equality state because we were the first to allow women to vote, but the equality shouldn’t stop at women’s rights.)
Joellen and Susan introduced this curriculum and the question (who is American) into their classroom; it resulted in a great debate among their students. I found it interesting that some of the students debated that if you were born in the states and were born a legal citizen, then that made you the “Most American” (30). However, the other group of students argued that people who displayed work ethic to achieve the “American dream” and chased cultural assimilation were the most American. I don’t mean to sound rude or snotty, but this surprised me. High school students came to these conclusions?! Yet, we have people in high political positions that can’t even realize this?! Call me a left-winged nut, but this is amazing. (Sidenote: I think that last argument is great. People groan and moan about the illegal and legal immigrants in our country, but they are the ones doing the jobs that “we Americans” don’t want to do/hate to do. They came to the U.S. looking for work/money, so doesn’t that make them fall under the category of “chasing the American Dream and cultural assimilation?” They are no different than you and me. They want a better life; they are just willing to do more to get it. So get over that fact that you have to press one for English; there are bigger problems in this world.)
Not once did Joellen or Susan poke and prod the students to think one way or the other. The students talked it out and came to this realization by themselves. Sometimes I think the best way to teach is to sit back and watch the students debate and rationalize their arguments. After the initial question of who an American is, the students then read young adult literature that depicted people of different color, ethnicity, religion, etc. (The book they mention using is ‘Seedfolks.’) Joellen and Susan write that “surprisingly . . . they realized that what people do with their lives might be more important than their birthright” (31).
This article gave me hope that taboo topics in certain areas of this country can be handled with grace and can be talked about without inserting your own political beliefs (like I keep doing throughout this blog, oops!) I recommend reading this article if you are at all interested in the topic/debate such as this. Read it to learn more about the students’ summary of “Who is an American” profiles.