Cultural Literacy on the Front Porch

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So this weekend we hosted a block party on our street. While it was great fun, I’d be remiss if I didn’t take the event and apply it in some way to education. 😉

Here we are sitting in front of my house chowing down hotdogs, wishing away the summer heat when I thought to myself, “Well, this certainly doesn’t compare to one of Gatsby’s parties, but we sure are having a nice time!” WAIT – no I actually thought, “If Bradbury could just see us now! All these people hanging out together and not one of them mindlessly on a technological device! We sure are showing him!” WAIT – no, as I looked upon the diverse ethnicities of those represented in my yard I thought, “Man tolerance like this certainly didn’t exist for Atticus and even Scout growing up. What a shame.” And what is more embarrassing is that I know that had I verbalized my thoughts not one of my party goers would have known what I was talking about. – Such a shame!


Not one of those things even remotely crossed my mind for a second! And even if they had would it seriously have mattered if no one knew what I was talking about because they themselves hadn’t read The Great Gatsby?

For over the last year much of my time has been spent in conversation around trying to get a real handle on cultural literacy. One sticking point teacher proponents of teaching the classics keep coming back to is that they want to equip their learners with key literary references so that as adults, they can be “in the know” when such references organically come up in social situations.

Let me just say, for over three hours we laughed, talked, told stories at the party and not once was a book quoted or referenced – directly or indirectly. In this case, not one hour that I had spent reading all those books of Cliffs Notes  about the classics in high school paid off.

But now, let me tell you what would have come in handy:

1. More geographic, economic, and cultural awareness of other countries. 

One lady and her husband had recently moved from the Dominican Republic. I hardly known where that is much less anything worthy to contribute to the conversation. I wish I had more context about her culture in order to find out from her what it was like growing up there.

2. The current state of American currency. 

One gentleman is a passionate coin collector and the only thing I could think to contribute to the conversation was some shallow joke about collecting the 50 stated quarters when I was a kid.

3. Anything about cats. 

I can’t say that I like cats, but learned that one of my neighbors is the crazy cat lady on the block. She has 10 cats! And while she wanted to talk to me about the importance of getting your animals spaded and neutered, I honestly had nothing of substance to contribute. The only thing I could think about was no wonder there are so many cats loitering around my house!

In all of these situations I was the one that felt uncultured and uneducated and I just couldn’t help but think that there is so much more to life than a classic piece of literature. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot to learn from a classic text or any text for that matter, but if your only real reason for picking a classic text to teach is so that your students will have that experience in their back pocket for a “just in case opportunity,” you might want to have them read something else.


3 thoughts on “Cultural Literacy on the Front Porch

  1. Ruth August 1, 2014 at 4:44 pm Reply

    and to accept all people who come within your view


  2. amyrasmussen August 1, 2014 at 8:57 am Reply

    This is my favorite line: “not one hour that I had spent reading all those books of Cliffs Notes about the classics in high school paid off.” It’s true. Few students read the classic texts that teachers assign anyway. In my own experience (before I knew better) maybe 5% of my students actually read those books. Like you, I’ve heard the same argument “I need to prepared my students so if Frankenstein comes up at a cocktail party, they will have something to contribute to the conversation,” and more recently, “Teaching the classics is an equalizer.” Hmmm. Maybe. But isn’t a better equalizer the critical thinking skills individuals need to contribute to ANY conversation?


  3. Ruth July 29, 2014 at 2:36 pm Reply

    Well, not only read some other books as well as the classics, but also meet other people. It was not only for the “shock” value that I had a biker friend come to abduct me from the playground during our field day, but also so my cherubim could meet a real “biker dude, one complete with lots of tattoos, long grey hair ponytail and earring. We all need to be part of many groups.


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