I am a general education middle school English Language Arts teacher and have taught this novel using traditional English Language Arts strategies. I have primarily used this novel to meet reading objectives during my poetry unit to teach students about the novel’s literary devices such as imagery, personification, and metaphor for example. Lessons often examined how literary devices gave insight into the character’s motivations and would then scaffold learning into character analysis. The novel also explores themes of culture and identity, so initiating activities would build discussion on how House on Mango Street connects to other novels my students may have read. Discussions would center on popular young adult literature (and in some cases, the movie adaptation) about immigrant- minority culture and experiences such as The Sun is Also a Star (Yoon, 2016), The Arrival (Tan, 2006), The Hate You Give (Thomas, 2017), and Americanized (Saedi, 2018). Connections made between these novels would serve as an entry point building students’ background knowledge and used as reference points during lessons. Learning objective outcomes concluded with a writing project where students would write personal narratives and vignettes in the author's poetic style. This unit presents an instructional shift that incorporates culturally relevant pedagogical frameworks into novel study to foreground issues of race, racism, and power that underpin the novel.
To appreciate the work of this unit, it is important to understand the importance of culturally responsive pedagogy. According to the U.S. Department of Education Equity and Excellence Commission, student populations largely comprised racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse backgrounds and will continue to exponentially grow, comprising diverse families. Yet, curriculum and instructional practices have largely ignored the cultural and linguistic characteristics of diverse learners.1 Students’ race, ethnicity, and cultural background significantly influence their achievement2 and like many classrooms, the English Language Arts classroom has traditionally been a place where teachers use culturally relevant pedagogy within their instruction.
The argument for culturally relevant pedagogy is not new. Baldwin’s 1963 argument is poignant: the purpose of education is to address injustice in society. To do so, one must dismantle myths about one’s own superiority and embrace critical thinking and action.3 Classrooms must reflect the unique needs of students from diverse backgrounds, yet many teachers are inadequately prepared with the relevant content knowledge, experience, and training.4 Research confirms that students’ academic engagement and achievement increases when they are taught in a culturally relevant manner.5 But, with ever-growing political pressure placed on teachers to maintain race-neutral classrooms, many face challenges applying culturally relevant pedagogy and strategies to implement the framework within their classrooms. Culturally relevant pedagogy is important as these pedagogical tools foster equitable and inclusive classrooms. It also emphasizes tools for creating inclusive spaces for teachers to reflect on their practice while examining how personal bias may impact their teaching. The national conversation about the validity of these practices, and in some cases the call for the complete removal of them, is concerning as cultural gaps between teachers and students hinders the ability of educators to effectively teach all students.6
The House On Mango Street provides an occasion for students to analyze the similarities and differences between themselves, their lives, (the main protagonist) Esperanza's life of marginalization, and how she orients herself within systems of power. While developing this unit, considerations were paid to how the objectives, strategies, and lesson of this unit envisions ways to do this so students can approach the novel as both a great work of literature and an entry point into examining systems of power in a culturally affirming context. To do this, instruction will remix reading and writing objectives of past lessons to help students to “see” the novel through different perspectives. First, this remix will help students to understand that on its surface, the House On Mango Street presents as randomized short stories about growing up Chicano and within a specific socio-economic class as told through the perspective of a young female protagonist. But as the novel unfolds, a larger obdurate context emerges foregrounding the confluence of race, racism, and power that systematically excludes minority groups from the “American” mainstream. Secondly, lesson activities will provide space for students to unpack what this means by exploring the novel’s commentary on the experience of “otherness.” For example, the protagonist, Esperanza poetically alludes to this in the chapter My Name, “In English, my name means hope. In Spanish, it means too many letters. It means sadness. It means waiting. It is like the number nine, a muddy color.” This can be heavy work. However, teaching House On Mango Street without critical inquiry into issues of race, racism, and power is problematic as it may leave student engagement at the surface level. Lastly, given my sense of responsibility as an anti-racist teacher, this unit presents a newly understood challenge of how to teach this novel in a way that is both culturally affirming and influences students to reflectively engage with the House on Mango Street and build their own agency over how they understand themselves, each other, and the world around them.