Organizing Ideas in Discourse and Writing

October 28, 2007 at 12:18 pm | Posted in best practices, culturally relevant teaching, elementary, graphic organizers, inner city, learning modality, second grade, strategies, thinking maps, writing | Leave a comment

One of the tenets of Culturally Responsive Teaching is that students from different cultural background would have different communication styles which may clash with the communication style of the teacher.  So, how do we teach students who communicate differently from us?

Topic-Centered

In America, the dominant way to organize communication is “topic-centered”.  We focus on one topic at a time and logically follow through to a conclusion in an orderly manner.  It’s very linear.  If we are part of the dominant culture, we automatically think this is the correct way of organizing our thinking, our speech, and our writing.

Topic-Associative

Research have shown that Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans and Hawaiians are inclined toward topic-associative style of organizing communication.  This style is thematic, associative, and integrative.  A topic-centered communicator would view this form of communication as rambling, straying off topic, and not organized, when in fact, the topic-associative communicator is giving you ALL the information, ALL the associations, EVERYTHING relevant to the topic.

In the Classroom

Be honest, in the classroom, particularly in a culturally diverse classroom, how many of you teachers think that your ethnic students are ramblers and don’t communicate well and that their writing is awful and disorganized?  I can point to each child and give an illustration of how the child is a topic-associative communicator in my classroom, and if I didn’t know about the difference in communication style, I would have immediately said my students are disorganized thinkers.  In actuality, they are organized in an associative manner, not topic-centered. 

Here’s an anecdote.  My grandmother would try to tell these stories about her past.  However, for us young grandkids, she never quite got to the “point” of the stories.  She never gave us a plot with a problem and a solution or a punchline.  We never got to hear the ending of the stories because we got impatient and walked away.  Why?  She would spend all her time talking about the people and places related to the stories.  “Once, your grandfather took me to visit Uncle so and so.  Remember Uncle so and so?  He had that daughter who married so and so.  What was her name?  I think her name was so and so.  He gave her a pig for her wedding day.  That was a great day.  Your aunt so and so was there…”  We missed the entire point of why grandmother was talking with us..she was talking about people, not plotlines.  Grandmother was very much a topic-associative communicator.

How to Bridge the Styles in Writing – An Example

As a culturally responsive teacher who wants to use the students’ strengths to build a bridge to academic success in a dominant culture that IS topic-centered, what do you do?

Well, I’ve been thinking about why the way I’ve been teaching writing has been such a success with my inner city students.  I build in all sorts of scaffold.  I give them all sorts of graphic organizers.  I expect and receive successful writings.  All this and more.

But, looking at it through the lens of communication styles, I can clearly see now that I have created a bridge from one style to the other for my students, using the strength of one and carefully teaching my students how to do the other.  Or, to be more precise, “Write from the Beginning”, the writing program, has built this bridge.  I merely strengthen it.

Looking carefully at how I teach writing using Thinking Maps, we can see that we start with my students’ strength, topic-association, by using a Circle Map.  First in conversation, then in the graphic organizers, my students are encouraged to think about and write down everything that is associated with and related to the writing topic.  Because we are using a circle to organize our thinking, everything is related and nothing is more important than the other.  We honor all associations.

Next, we start making decisions about what we need to focus on, beginning the bridge to a topic-centered piece of writing.  We do this through a Tree Map, picking out three main ideas.  We then move to a Flow Map and piece, by piece, organizing our ideas in a topic-centered sequence, moving from one completed idea to the next and coming to a conclusion.

Our final writing is very much topic-centered and would please any topic-centered communicator.

When I remove this bridge, my second graders immediately produce writing that is topic-associative because that is their communication style.  That bridge is clearly not solid yet and my students still need scaffolding, but as we continue working together throughout the year, my students will become more adept at crossing that bridge independently. 

My goal of course is for my students to be able to use two styles of communication and be able to make decisions about when is appropriate to use one or the other.  Already, I see two students who are able to do this by themselves, with minimal guidance.

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