Literacy Matters Vol 24 Winter 2024

journal writing, teachers can begin learning about students and their pre-existing relationships with the natural world early in the course. Students’ voices and perspectives emerge as they write about themselves, which also provides teachers the opportunity to gather information about students’ writing abilities. Teachers may start with writing prompts such as, “Where did you play when you were a child? What games did you enjoy playing?”. Students may or may not mention playing outside, and those answers will provide some insight into whether students have an established affinity for the outdoors or may not have much experience playing outside. As students and I read Nezhukumatathil’s (2020) nature memoir together, I assigned them journal topics that asked them to respond to her text. For example, early in the memoir, she mentions her desire to capture memories in a jar as she and her sister would do as children (p. 14). The journal topic for that day was “What memory would you want to capture in a jar like fireflies?” Through these journal entries, I could assess their feelings about the natural world, and they gave me insight into their worlds. Pahl and Rowsell (2010) explain that “students’ texts are liminal spaces where their worlds can be deciphered and validated” (p. 27). These liminal spaces of journal entries might further a teacher’s understanding of students’ dispositions toward the outdoors with topics such as their favorite foods and meals they enjoy, their favorite way to spend recess time in elementary school, and their relationships with older relatives such as grandparents. Gauging whether some have fears about the outdoors or have had negative experiences with being outside (or limited exposure to the outdoors) will help teachers be sensitive to varying perspectives and select texts that will resonate with students and present a variety of experiences with the natural world. If a teacher has little choice in text selection due to curriculum requirements, they may still incorporate the natural world in literature lessons by introducing a naturalist’s perspective when teaching students to interpret texts, regardless of whether the text might be considered a piece of nature writing. Often, simply raising awareness of the role the natural world plays in a piece of literature (or its absence in the literature) can bridge a discussion or exploration of the role of nature in our own lives. For instance, when reading classics such as Of Mice and Men (1937), students can examine the characters’ relationships with the land and question why those relationships exist as they do. Then, if the teacher introduces the poem from which the novel takes its name, “To a Mouse…” by Robert Burns (1786), they might also add the poems “Give Me This” by US Poet Laureate Ada Limón (2020) and “My Father’s Song” by Simon J. Ortiz (1983). These three poems present similar messages about encounters with animals in their gardens, but across centuries, genders, and ethnicities. Two additional classic texts often taught in secondary ELA classes offer an opportunity to examine the protagonist’s relationship to the natural world through the perspective of a woman of color: Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) by Zora Neale Hurston and The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros (1984). Of course, any source I list here as an example should be carefully and thoroughly previewed before being taught to ensure its contents are appropriate for the students, school,

“maintain[ing] their cultural integrity” (Ladson-Billings, 1995, p. 476). The variety of discussion regarding cultural differences while still seeking personal connections appears to be an appreciation for “pluralism as part of the democratic project of schooling” (Paris, 2012, p. 95). On paper, when reflecting on themselves and their reactions to the nature memoir, students seemed to think carefully about the issues presented in the text and how they fit into or do not fit into Nezhukumatathil’s perspective on nature. Research question 2: To what extent do students engage critically with the text in conversation with their own understanding of the natural world? The varied levels of critical response to the central topic of global climate change open numerous possibilities for evaluating the cultural responsivity of the learning environment. Several students spoke of taking on some responsibility for fighting global climate change - awareness, advocacy, or action. This seems to indicate that they have internalized the need for change and want to be a part of the solution for environmental damage. Other students’ comments about global climate change appeared more reserved, which is understandable considering how they had endured multiple traumatic incidents in almost rapid-fire succession over the previous two years. Environmental justice may not take precedence in communities where poverty and violence are common or in communities where religious beliefs frame environmental issues differently. The immensity of the issue of global climate change can feel overwhelming, and comments with tones of despair may indicate a deeper level of internalizing the injustices implicit with environmental damage, which raises the question of when criticality becomes disheartening and when it becomes empowering, a line of inquiry worth pursuing in another cycle of action research. The variety of responses takes us back to the initial problem that incited this action research project: in what ways are students’ cultural ways of knowing represented and developed in ELA class? Students who challenged the author’s authenticity showed a willingness to think independently and assert a less-than-popular idea, which is also an indicator of cultural competence (Ladson Billings, 1995). The student who expressed disappointment with the author may have held the writer in higher esteem before the chapter with the dying octopus. However, her criticism may also indicate that she does not see or appreciate the symbolism of the anecdote with one or two people representing all of humanity watching as nature dies. Yet, even if she recognizes the scene’s symbolic nature, her disappointment may stem from doubting the story’s veracity. The declaration of her disappointment, however, shows she feels comfortable arguing against the text, a key feature of critical response. Considerations for Classroom Application Selecting texts that are complex and literary, with personal and cultural relevance along with instructional potential for writing, is a challenge for a secondary ELA teacher, but modern nature writing offers a viable option to meet that challenge. Through

Literacy Matters General Articles

| 12 | Literacy Matters | Volume 24 • Winter 2024


Made with FlippingBook. PDF to flipbook with ease