Underlying Theme



In using underlying theme as an instructional approach, I had two broad goals: increasing student capacity for scriptal and inferential thinking and to encourage students to make use of intertextual links in responding/analyzing the story.  The hooks used to generate student interest in the story activated preexisting schemata (Bransford, Anderson) and enabled the students to draw upon previous texts read in class and their own  real world experiences as Asian, African, American, and European American students. Dating across racial/cultural boundaries was a hook that generated a lot of conversation in the class and sparked student discussion about family reactions to friendships formed outside of their ethnic and or racial group. While some students commented that it wasn't an issue for them, many students shared that their families are prejudiced and that their relationships with students from other races are hidden.

Intergenerational tensions, assimilation v Acculturation and the notion of free will/ agency were all previously addressed in students' analysis of the Bread Givers and the short story " America and I." Students were able to use their knowledge of these texts to recall how difficult it is for immigrants to walk in the new world with one foot firmly planted in the old one. One of the first generation Cambodian students in the class commented after reading the Children of the River that the European American author of the story must have done a lot of research because, "she really captured what it's like for Asian students who are new to this country and how hard it is for them to fit in."  This student was able to read the text relating the character's experiences to that of her own. Like many of the other students in the class she was able to make intertexual links to previous readings shared in class. The intergenerational divide discussed in both the pre and post reading discussions generated intense conversation.  It was exciting to watch students both native and foreign born share what it is like to wrestle with adults whose perspectives either come from another era or cultural milieu. The student dialogue hinted at how people are constrained and shaped by their socio-cultural environments and the courage it takes to make decisions that cut across the grain. I took the opportunity to echo Rosenblatt in pointing out the danger in the unquestioning adoption of positions they may have been socialized to take ( Rosenblatt pp.15,  74). Rosenblatt writes further, " Literature invokes participation into the experiences of others and comprehension of their goals and experiences (p. 88)."  The students were able to reflect as a community on the conflicts that arise when they, like the character in the story, attempt to go against the advice of parents and grandparents in their choice of friends, music, clothing, etc. Sudara's  exercise of her right to engage in personal decision making was one that resonated with the students. Bransford writes that reading the text as a community enables students to begin to question pre-existing schemata and to begin to construct new schemata (p. 487).

In making various intertextual links (book texts and life texts), students really became oriented to the problem the characters faced in the story. The identification of stereotypes in the story was a painful experience for many Asian students in the class and it opened the eyes of their peers to the insidious nature of stereotypes and the way it influences how you read and understand a text. As students began to unpack some of the images of Asians presented in the text, it became what Langer terms an "envisionment building experience." Rosenblatt discusses this as evoking the novel. The students began to read the text in different ways, often through the eyes of differently positioned classmates. The concept of American as normal and foreign as strange was a powerful macro idea that enabled the students to look critically at the images of Americans and Asians presented in the text and to hear and understand multiple perspectives. Bransford writes that by " introducing students to relatively sophisticated core concepts it can provide a basis for understanding the significance of a wide variety of new facts."  The linking of everything normal with American as reflected in the character of fair, open minded,  "blue eyed" Jonathan vs. the portrayal of "yellow peril" (student quote) Pok Simo, as the revengeful, class conscious Asian opened heated conversation about the images in the air about various cultural groups and gendered identities. Many white male students in the class felt their classmates were going overboard in picking out stereotypes in the story. I cautioned that the classroom is the place for a critical sharing of perspectives and that they were welcome to share their perspectives. I really felt that I was beginning to create a context for students to be active learners and to enact a critical literacy.

Student resistance to passive Asian women, spiteful, scorned American women  deepened as students were able to exchange ideas and critically analyze their own conceptions of gender and racial images operating in the text and in their own experiences with real world gender bias and racial attitudes. Through grappling with the conflicts and tensions between opposing points of view in the classroom, students were able to recognize that their own beliefs and attitudes were influenced by the images afloat in the world. This insight further deepened student understanding of how difficult it is for people who do not fit the broader society's notion of what is normal to assimilate. Biculturalism, as the ability to comfortably integrate American culture and the culture of their ancestors became an exciting notion for many.