This article outlines a course for international college students in the US that sought to develop academic multiliteracies around issues of race, which are current and relevant in US culture. Two white teachers structured a course around the novel A Lesson Before Dying, about a black man in 1940s Louisiana wrongly sentenced to death (Gaines, 1993) and connected it to current racial tensions, such as the Black Lives Matter movement. They used multiliteracies as a framework for the course, with fours phases: 1) experiencing, connecting new knowledge to what they already know, 2) conceptualizing, generating frameworks based on specific examples, 3) analyzing, critical evaluations of interrelationships between the issues and 4) applying, using what they’ve learned in real-world situations (Cope & Kalantzis, 2009). Beyond the main text, the teacher supplemented with other sources to help students develop background knowledge necessary to understand the novel, make connections to current events and to incorporate voice, multimodality and intertextuality into the course. They also draw on counterstorytelling to challenge dominant narratives and epistemological racism. The teachers describe how they situated the novel historically (after realizing that some of the students thought the characters were slaves), and gave texts that show the persistence of racial issues today. They analyze the texts using critical intertextual analysis, focusing on themes of language (AAVE) and black masculinity, and helping students understand AAVE as a legitimate language variety (not just “bad English”) and develop empathy for the characters and, by extension, other black people experiencing racial injustice. They also describe the final written assignments for the course, where students drew on what they learned to produce their own essays. Guerrettaz and Zahler list the sources used in the course and call on other teachers to de-silence race in their ESL classes.
Having done as much research as I have on critical race theory, race in TESOL and multiliteracies, the frameworks used in this article were very familiar to me, so it was mostly interesting to see how they connected them in their course design. While the approach seems straightforward, it’s good to have more examples out there for teachers who might be less comfortable with racial issues, providing an example of how they can integrate them into the classroom. While this piece focused exclusively on the teachers’ perceptions of their course design, I would be interested in hearing about students’ perspectives in classes like this, especially since they mentioned that most of their students were Asian, and often race in America gets constructed as a black/white dichotomy and the experiences of Asians and Asian-Americans tend to be sidelined. While I think anti-black racism is particularly pressing, and the exploration of AAVE is interesting from a language equality perspective, race in America is more complicated than that. While I haven’t read Gaines’ novel, I imagine from this article that it focuses on characters who are either black or white. I’m wondering how to keep the focus on anti-blackness in the US, which is absolutely crucial to understanding US culture and definitely something international students in the US should be exposed to, while also not simplifying America’s racial landscape.
I also wished the piece, given its title, did more to actually engage with Black Lives Matter, and how TESOL can better engage with black students, black teachers and black English. (For a really compelling look at Black Lives Matter and bilingual education, check out Nelson Flores’ excellent blog post Do Black Lives Matter in Bilingual Education? and the follow up by Joseph Wiemelt, Do Black Lives Matter in Dual Language Education in Urbana School District 116?)
This article is currently available for free online here.
Gaines, E. J. (1993). A lesson before dying. New York, NY: Random House.
Guerrettaz, A. M. & Zahler, T. (2017). Black Lives Matter in TESOL: De-silencing race in a second language academic literacy course. TESOL Quarterly, 51(1), 193-207.
Cope, B., & Kalantzis, M. (2009). “Multiliteracies”: New literacies, new learning. Pedagogies: An International Journal, 4, 164–195.