National Writing Project

Book Review: Culture, Literacy, and Learning: Taking Bloom in the Midst of the Whirlwind by Carol D. Lee

By: Stephen Gordon
Date: January 28, 2009

Summary: Carol Lee reports on her teaching students to respond to literature in a Chicago public school. She concludes that teachers can succeed if they have knowledge about the language, culture, cognition, motivation, and social/emotional realities of urban students.


I was an English teacher at a Boston high school for over 30 years. Relentlessly, often self-critically, I asked myself, “What can I do that embodies the theories and practices, knowledge and pedagogy, that will do justice to the intellect, cultures, and individual realities of students, encouraging and leading them to academic learning?”

Often I felt I did too little, or not the right thing. I wasn’t sure what I needed to know about literacy, the content of my subject, its pedagogy, and the language and culture of my students that would enable me to teach well and lead them to master the language, thinking, and discourse that comprised literary reasoning. I wish I had read Lee’s challenging, essential book Culture, Literacy, and Learning: Taking Bloom in the Midst of the Whirlwind at the beginning of my teaching career.

It is Lee’s contention that the “achievement gap is, at least in part, influenced by the limitations of the knowledge base and assumptions that inform decisions about curriculum, assessment, pedagogy, teacher credentialing, and the conditions under which teachers work” (xxiv).

In this text Lee, a professor of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University, reports on her three-year project teaching freshmen, sophomores, and seniors to respond to literature at “Fairgate High School” in Chicago. She concludes that urban teachers can succeed if they know the content, practices, and discourse of their discipline and if they have specific knowledge about the language, culture, cognition, motivation, and social/emotional realities of urban students. Taking issue with the difficulties reflected in the intractable achievement gap, she concludes, “I do know how to be successful with low-income, minority, urban youth.” (182)

I do know how to be successful with low-income, minority, urban youth.

Cultural Modeling

Lee’s approach is based on her work on cultural modeling, “a framework for the design of learning environments that examines what youth know from [their] everyday settings to support subject matter learning” in school so that “differences between community-based and school-based norms can be negotiated by both students and teachers” (15).

African American students, for instance, are encouraged to make explicit their responses and interpretations in the context—brought into the classroom—of their vernacular-based out-of-school language experiences. Their responses are then “scaffolded in the service of academic learning.” (18)

In this way students are provided with support for making public the tacit knowledge they possess about how to make sense of a particular problem. They use a language to talk about the problem-solving process that helps them make connections between what they already do and what they are expected to do with “canonical, school based problems” (61).

For instance, when examining the role of satire in literary interpretation, cultural modeling pairs “exemplars of this genre from students’ everyday experiences with film, television, music and oral traditions” (49). Students develop explicit strategies for detecting satire found in music lyrics (De La Soul, Ice Cube, Dead Prez), film (Hollywood Shuffle), and television (Chris Rock’s performances). Then they move to finding satire in African American canonical works (Langston Hughes, The Best of Simple; Ishmael Reed, Reckless Eyeballing) and then in non–African American canonical works (George Orwell, “Shooting an Elephant”; Jonathan Swift, “A Modest Proposal”).

In another example students identify the role of symbolism in literary reasoning. Lee begins with student insights analyzing cultural artifacts of their everyday experiences—rap lyrics (“The Mask”), rhythm and blues lyrics (“People Make the World Go Round”), rap videos (“I Used to Lover H.E.R”), and a Julie Dash HBO minifilm (“Sax Cantor Riff”)—and ends with their perceptive noticing and insightful interpreting of problematic scenes in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Most convincing are the classroom transcripts, which reveal teacher and student discourse in interpretive reasoning expressed in African American English Vernacular (AAEV), the students’ everyday language (and mode of thinking), the use of which privileges their interpretation and leads them to insights into, and negotiated meanings of, complex literature. Lee shows us a “classroom in which passionate debates about the meaning of symbols and satire abound, in which students feel a deep compulsion to make their interpretations public”(50).

Not Correcting How Students Speak

Lee insists that teachers can achieve these results if they understand the power of instructional talk based on the norms of AAEV. She “place[s] more emphasis on helping students reason in a literary fashion than ‘correct[ing]’ how they speak” (85). Her decision not to correct students when they are responding to literature shows them that “they [can] be authoritative voices in the classroom” and that “deciding who [can] talk [is] not controlled solely by the teacher.” (87).

Lee documents the power of AAEV by analyzing transcripts of classroom discussion, showing how “instructional improvisational talk”—multiparty overlapping talk, call-and-response, and use of rhythmic prosody and intonation, body language, and gesture—realizes and expresses student literary insight. She analyzes student responses to and interpretation of the opening two paragraphs of chapter 5 of Morrison’s Beloved, showing how students “employed rhetorical features of AAEV to communicate their arguments” (89).

Lee argues that teachers must have both content and pedagogical knowledge. The content knowledge “required for the best teaching is both rigorous and complex” (120). The teacher in these urban circumstances must be able to design instruction in ways that will facilitate students grappling with literary questions. She must know how to how to tap what students already know and value and must hear and respond with understanding to the range of arguable student responses

Lee also specifies some essential pedagogical knowledge, including such skills as understanding developmental progression, awareness of multiple routes to maximizing learning, and the ability to assess what students understand and don’t understand. She believes that teachers must come to urban classrooms aware of the typical array of developmental and social problems exhibited by those who have been explicitly labeled as incapable. Presently, she believes, this is a need most schools of education ignore.

In chapter 6, Lee examines a class video focusing on one student, Taquisha, in a single period of class time, “to reconstruct the sources of knowledge on which I drew to make in-the-moment pedagogical decisions” (132).

She enumerates her “instructional decisions.” For example, Lee uses Taquisha’s resistance, (she appears to be reading a newspaper rather than watching Sax Cantor Riff) expressed by Taquisha’s question,  “what does the film have to do with anything we’re studying,” to elicit generative questions. Lee comments: I used “my knowledge of adolescent development . . . [as] a framework for interpreting Taquisha’s resistance;  as well as my knowledge of Taquisha as an individual . . . [and] my knowledge of African American discourse practices to reconfigure the situation by initiating a form of ‘signifying’ with Taquisha” (134–135).

She summarizes that “it is both my content knowledge and my pedagogical . . . knowledge, working in tandem, that allow me to understand Taquisha’s emerging question as an instance of a proposition . . . that is important and generative” (136).

Lee shows us a ‘classroom in which passionate debates about the meaning of symbols and satire abound.’

Lee also gives us “six principles for teaching” in ways that make explicit the reasoning specific to complex subject matter, and provides examples (142). Her examples include using guided questions; creating culturally responsive participation structures; and re-voicing student utterances to direct students to larger propositions within the subject matter.

Lee desires accountability, but is dubious of questionable assessments that are not “rigorous and authentic . . . in disciplinary reading at the secondary level” (170), and therefore do not result in students “learning to engage in highly complex reasoning and problem solving across subject matters” (155). In chapter 7, “Documenting Student Learning: Challenges and Opportunities,” she provides examples of pre and post assessments of literary reading, focusing on students’ ability to understand relationships, develop argument structures, and make use of talk-aloud protocols that provide evidence of academic learning. I wish she had included sample student essays, which would have shown the language of literary reasoning her approach cultivates.

Trying to do justice to my students and their teachers, I have sought many articles and books about literacy and urban students. Lee’s book is one that stands out. The text starts with knowledge and passion about literacy and learning, commits to a belief in young people, and insists on education that respects and marshals student culture and intellect in the service of academic achievement.

Lee suggests that succeeding in urban schools will not be easy for teachers. It will require minimally a deep knowledge of subject matter, of how students learn, of language and language socialization, and of child and adolescent development. But learning is our calling. We need to read and discuss Lee’s Culture, Literacy, and Learning if we seek to know and do enough for our urban students and our teaching craft.

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