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Novel Navigation

Julie Ann Guzzardo’s novel approach to teaching culture uses authentic materials, integrates skills, and engages students in exploring the story, its themes, and its language. See Emily Wu’s review of Judith Kay and Rosemary Gelshenen’s Adventures in Literature: New Pathways in Reading, Essential Teacher, September 2007.

The notion of culture is elusive and inclusive--elusive because its complex and dynamic nature is never fixed and inclusive because its interpretations are expansive and many. The University of Minnesota’s Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (n.d.) defines culture as the shared patterns of behaviors and interactions, cognitive constructs, and affective understanding that are learned through a process of socialization. To this definition I would add the exploration of the shared patterns of humanity. Such an exploration may better prepare students for a global world characterized by ways of thinking, doing, and being that are evolving.

In the novel approach to teaching literature and culture, the literary work is the means by which students navigate the deep, complex, ever-changing waters of the collective human experience. The notion of collective culture is represented by character values--awareness, empathy, respect and understanding, for example--that transcend national and cultural lines rather than provide static explanations of human behaviors.

The approach incorporates authentic materials, integrates skills, and engages students in the meaningful and tangible exploration of the story, its themes, and language. Potential benefits include improved motivation, participation, and comprehension. Months after completing the unit on Fitzgerald’s (1925) The Great Gatsby, for example, a student recalling a word used to describe the attitude of wealthy 1920s socialites, described a man who left trash on the bus as apathetic. 

Setting Sail

The role of background knowledge, or schemata, is well-supported in the research on reading comprehension. As useful as schema theory is, however, it often looks something like the following. The teacher distributes the syllabus and the book. Schemata are formally activated through a discussion of topics like immigration and racism. As students read, questions become more specific, but students remain disconnected. The cultural particulars of the situations in the book are foreign to most students. Without careful instruction, there is little opportunity to identify with the characters and, therefore, with the story itself.

So here is how I begin. I leave the book on the shelf. Instead of topics, I introduce emotions like love, revenge, fear, loneliness, and self-doubt. Next, I ask questions that entail personal reflection. What does it feel like to fall in love, feel consumed with anger, or feel overwhelmed by peer pressure? All people share these experiences. They are undeniable experiences of humanity, and considering them gives students an insider’s view, allowing them greater access to understanding the themes, emotions, and experiences presented in the novel.

Making Headway

When the schema includes not only subject knowledge (i.e., immigration and racism) but also personal experiences and emotions, the story and its characters become real and relevant. Furthermore, these relevant human experiences, rather than the novel, are the primary focus of study; the novel is a vessel through which to explore them. Moans of confusion, anxiety, and boredom are replaced with shared experiences and thoughtful reactions to the characters’ dilemmas.

I have not discarded more traditional elements in teaching reading, such as reviewing vocabulary and grammar in context, but I have added to them. Take, for example, an activity associated with West Side Story (Shulman 1961) that requires students to read and react to the work of peace and human rights activists like Martin Luther King, Arundhati Roy, Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Thich Nhat Hahn. After reviewing these authentic materials, students apply the messages of these global greats to characters in the story by writing letters of advice on nonviolent conflict resolution.

In addition to activities that promote reflection and critical-thinking, opportunities for the expression of creativity and multiple intelligences abound when universal human themes are the focus. Kessler (2000) notes that there are other ways of knowing that include the physical and the emotional, which make use of creativity and imagination. Before reading Angelou’s (1969) I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, students create an example of feeling caged, or trapped, through movement. They demonstrate a kinesthetic representation of this emotion and then describe it in language. Clenched jaw, tight fists, and angry angst are some of the phrases students have generated to describe intense feelings of being trapped.

They then take this understanding and empathy with them into the text. When students first meet young Maya, they know exactly how she feels; they have already expressed it. They mesh the language of the book with the emotion of their experience. As the book comes to a close, students repeat the exercise, only this time they describe what it feels like to be confident and free (soaring with wings stretched out and head held high) an experience that mirrors Maya’s life and the language of the book.

A Global Voyage

The novel approach to culture emphasizes the commonalities of the human experience, or collective culture, but does not overlook cultural differences. By focusing on the human ties that bind all people, students are able to share experiences and express differences that are culture specific with empathy and understanding. They are also exposed to events like immigration and segregation in specific cultural contexts. Yet, rather than study these as isolated histories, they examine their affective processes and products, which transcend national borders and notions of culture.


Angelou, M. 1969. I know why the caged bird sings. New York: Random House.

Fitzgerald, F. S. 1925. The great Gatsby. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

Kessler, R. 2000. The soul of education: Helping students find connection, compassion, and character at school. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.

Shulman, I. 1961. West side story. New York: Simon & Schuster.

University of Minnesota, Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition. n.d. What is culture? CARLA’s definition.

Julie Ann Guzzardo ( is currently completing her second master’s degree in educational leadership at Concordia University, in the United States.