Many of my students have Southern roots; they are in New England to live with Northern relatives while getting their education, or to live safely (for whatever reasons) through their teenage years, or they have many extended family members living in the South. Their connection to their ancestry and culture is vague; it is experienced as most children experience culture: disconnected from any knowledge of the past that shaped it. What
different, however, is that they learn about their family and culture primarily through orality, and specifically from elders, such as aunties, grandparents, God relatives, or fictive kin assuming the role of an elder.
With this in mind, it is important to know that my Ethno-literature course centers on personal information. Establishing a safe, risk-taking learning environment as quickly as possible is essential. To achieve this, I need to learn about my students’ home lives right away. I found journal writing gives me the largest doorway into their experiences. I would caution teachers who are not comfortable with journal writing to suspend their feeling for the length of this unit and use it, especially in the beginning, and to also read and comment to the responses, preferably displaying model responses on the overhead projector for the first several weeks. My method is to have students who do not want their work to be displayed to place an “X” at the top of the page, but they are only allowed two “X”s during the unit. They are cautioned that their journal responses, for the most part, may be shared with the class.
Knowing which students have issues in connecting to the word
is critical. Some of my students are in group homes, some are in foster care, some are homeless, either literary or in the sense that they are living with distant relatives during the school year. Some students may have recently lost parents and therefore have to redefine home; some have been told renting does not count as having a home. It is important that your class be allowed to define the word
for themselves and that all the variations in defining the word
be respected. In defining family, some students may recognize gang members, and they are correct to include them as clan members, extended family, or fictive kin. However, in this case I maintain control of that definition by defining
and then merely mentioning the varieties, rather than incorporating them into the definition. The glossary at the end of this unit gives definitions from academic sources that I have found appropriate, with the exception of the word
In that instance, I suggest using Robert Frost’s explanation from “The Death of the Hired Man” as the prompt from which the class can arrive at their own definition: “’Home is the place where, when you have to go there,/ they have to take you in’” (53).