The Practice of Performance in Teaching Multicultural Literature

Article excerpt


Great theoretical debate has occurred as to whether a teacher who is not of the same biological origin as the creator of a text can adequately present literature from another racial or ethnic identity group in the classroom. In particular, feminist pedagogy raises awareness of how both students and teachers have identities that affect the symbolic interpretations they bring to the classroom (Fuehrer & Hoyt, unpublished).

For example, Pat Collins argues that Black women must create their own standards for evaluating African-American womanhood and its creations, and that African-American women must make their own statements about Black female selfdefinition and self-valuation (1991, p. 39). Black women judge their own group's behavior by comparing themselves to other Black females facing similar situations and thus determine the presence of a specifically African-American definition of African-American womanhood, whereas non-Black students and teachers might be reading the texts of such a culture from "the outside" and distort intent and meaning.

I assume, as does Lester D. Friedman (1995, p. 25), that teachers can generate discussions about cultures other than their own by acknowledging that their own social identities mediate information. The next question, then, is, how do we do more than just change the canon? How do we construct classrooms that reflect awareness of pluralistic perspectives by most aptly bringing such mediations of readers' social identities into account? As feminist educator Florence Howe (1983, p. 107) asks, how do we truly transform teaching and not just the list of books on the curriculum?

Feminist teachers have said that focusing on participants' learning rather than on one's individual teaching best serves students, and that using knowledge to empower students develops strategies that actually facilitate learning (McNaron & Porter). In this aspect of feminist pedagogy I have found some answers to the sorts of questions posed, particularly through reader-response approaches to texts of different racial and ethnic origin in classroom practice.

By creating an embodiment of a text through oral interpretation done in student groups, I worked to create a way of knowing that establishes "a bridge between cognitive and affective apprehension" (Pryse, 1994,p. 27). Having students work in teams to act out the literature they read requires them to feel for the characters they are studying, by virtue of variations on the Stanislavskian method-acting technique. Using this adaptation of the Dewey tradition of"learning-by-doing" (Elbow, 1986, p. 90) forces students to get "under the skin," so to speak, in order to recreate the lives, family histories, and feelings ofthe characters they study.

Such performative exercise stimulates beginning literature students into fresh discussions-which seem to me, as a teacher, much more stimulating than those originating in a more distanced cerebral approach. This classroom practice works by breaking down what Paolo Freire called the "banking system" of education (which is based on the notion that "all students need to do is consume information fed to them by a professor and be able to memorize and store it" [hooks, 1994, p. 14]). This acting seems to expand students' powers of imagination and empathy, and to turn them into active participants rather than passive consumers. Hence the approach is good for creating communities that embrace ethnic diversity; without students having the lived experience of a given cultural identity, they "try it on" in class, for discussion purposes.

The technique also works well for nonmainstream students; the structure lessens their distance from "mainstream" culture, which in the classroom, I represent. These students feel less antipathy and hence have less difficulty acquiring what I choose to make available. As other studies on teaching in multicultural classrooms have found, when there is more acceptance of students' cultures, the students do better (Dean, 1989). …