When something universal really isn’t

September1

Sorry for the lack of posting. My family issues continue, but I’ve been doing a lot of planning (don’t worry, I got unit credit for it 😉 and felt the need to share this observation. I’m working with a Pearson text that’s part of a supplemental adoption for English and Language Arts. This text has some good points, and bad.

An example of good: based on research by Allington, they focus on providing students with text at their lexile level for independent reading, while providing the controversial “text at grade level complexity” (better known as Reading Standard 10) through the text shared at class level. But there is something that while seemingly small, got me thinking. Bear with my nit-picking.

The first lessons are about Reading Standard 2 to determine the theme of a story. When teaching what a theme is, the teacher is instructed to direct students that “a theme applies to universal ideas about people…” to which I say, whose universe is this? The themes being explored in the unit given are about the changes that happen as human children grow up. That’s not an area of glaring discrepancies, since although concepts of childhood and how one goes from childhood to adulthood has huge variety among the cultures found on Earth, whatever the timeline, people go from some form of childhood to adulthood. Childhood may end at 4 or 14, but we all pretty much “grow up” and our lives change. Let’s look at a couple common themes in literature and see how some of the really big themes are not really “universal”.

Family is paramount and one often has to subvert their own needs to fulfill these obligations

Variants of this theme can be found in western literature, but those are mostly in prior centuries, and this theme would be very dated as to be laughable and would need to be about a specific sub-culture for a modern piece of work. On the other hand, this is a very normal idea and theme in some non-western cultures. Let’s look at the opposite case with this theme.

Pursuit of personal fulfillment is good thing
THAT is a theme that would be abhorrent in many cultures but it’s quite common in western writing and literature. I can recall many years ago when I developed the habit of reading travel books, and came across some pretty obscure tomes at my local library system and in the Friends of the Library used book store. One book was about a man from Benin who made it his goal to go to the Arctic Circle. He transgressed local custom by saving his earnings from working in another country (Nigeria) rather than remitting it to his family to make the trip. He went on his own to Greenland. This is a good example of this particular theme, but that book was clearly aimed at a western audience, and not for his relatives (who never understood him) or other inhabitants of West Africa.
Why is this an issue? Some of those cultures that are sending kids to your classroom would not recognize these themes as desirable, so they really aren’t “universal”. You’ll teach these themes to them, and it’s probably fine to call them common or themes in Western culture. Saying they’re universal, when they aren’t, could cause some disconnects for your students who could well think, “I don’t understand why the universe believes this this because that’s not something I believe or my family believes”.
Now, part of this is a problem because you can see there is a difference between the level of detail in my “theme” and what my text publisher is calling a theme. They’re using a very truncated version of themes that don’t exceed three words. They would say a better theme descriptor is “family” and “individual” which at a certain point, sort of makes it just meaningless mush.
Part of the problems is that we’ve gotten here because the standards do not give direction on what they mean by theme. I’ll share this nice nugget from Tom Hoffman, who blogs at TuttleSVC:
I’ve been worried from the beginning about the implied notion that “Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development” in fiction (or poetry, etc.) was a relatively straightforward, foundational sort of process or skill. It just isn’t how literature works. Also, “theme” is just left hanging relatively undefined. Is Pearson’s definition correct? Who knows? It isn’t in the CC glossary. The Common Core ELA is simply underspecified. It is unfinished. It is rushed hackwork.
I will also note that at a district training using the materials today, some teachers complained of not being able to discern the theme in some materials. When it’s not clear to the teachers, how can it be clear to the students.

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