One of my favorite young adult novels is Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. It is a novel that discusses real issues surrounding Native American reservations and poverty gaps in education. It follows a young man who is desperate to belong to two cultures that don’t fully embrace him. Going to English conferences, I would hear these glorified stories of teachers using the novel in their classrooms. I would sigh and think to myself, “someday.” Considering my district had banned a John Green novel my first year of teaching and then had redirected my own colleagues into teaching novels that were “less Muslim,” I had no desire to go to battle over adult language and a subtle masturbation reference in order to give my kids a novel they would actually enjoy reading. SHAME ON ME!
My last year in the states I threw all caution to the wind and taught True Diary. It was one of my favorite units and one of my kids’ favorite texts. We had real conversations and real learning opportunities because the novel was real to them. But I also had nothing to lose. I was moving internationally. Masturbation be damned.
When I got to UAS, I discovered True Diary was on the freshmen curriculum list. A whole shelf of novels sang a chorus of hallelujahs. What once was my biggest professional hindrance, was now an encouraged reality. My new school was telling me to have real conversations with my kids. Push them to explore cultures outside of their own. Allow them opportunities to reflect on the positive and negatives of culture clashes.
After reading the novel with my ninth graders, I gave them a project. They were to create the Absolutely True Diary of UAS. They had a list of seven creative assignments to choose from that displayed the positives and negative aspects of learning in a culturally diverse school. Being a small international school with 35 countries represented in our student body provided my students with very unique perspectives surrounding culture clashes. However, no matter how critically I pushed them to really think about areas of culture clash within the school, they always came back to the positive. It was really humbling to walk into a situation where students enjoy and celebrate their cultural differences.
Not only did this project allow my students to show off their creativity, but it also made them think about how unique they are within their own bubble of education.
Sure there are schools with cultural diversity all over the world, but there is something very special about the open arms of our school in particular. That isn’t to say that my old school wasn’t open-minded, but it is a completely different situation when a majority of the students come from similar backgrounds. My current students share commonalities, but I would argue that their differences are what make them a united whole.
Regardless of where you teach, I highly recommend making Absolutely True Diary a part of your curriculum. I truly believe that it is well worth the controversy to provide students with opportunities to think critically about their own cultural world and that of others. And in the end, they will at the very least surprise you with a rap or a hand-drawn computer cartoon, or simply make you giggle as you view their perception of their home cultures.