Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Teachers learning from students in cross-cultural course

To explore how the experiences of blacks and American Indians relate to one another, students in English Assistant Professor Christopher Teuton’s Cross-Cultural Conversations course are thinking outside the classroom.

The five students in Teuton’s fall-quarter class are required to do community service at the Newcomer Center of South High School, where they help foreign-born high-schoolers, primarily from East Africa, learn to read and write English.

As students observe real-life cultural adaptation at Newcomer, Teuton says, they also gain a wider perspective on cultural confrontation and change through novels they are reading by Zora Neale Hurston, N. Scott Momaday, Ishmael Reed and Eric Gansworth, among others.

Teuton received an $1,800 grant from the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning to incorporate service learning into his syllabus.

“[The Newcomer Center] relates really closely to the themes in a lot of these novels, which are basically the struggle of a society within a society,” says J.J. Friedman, a junior digital media studies and creative writing major.

At the high school, the Newcomer students are an independent social group, says Megan Barber, a senior creative writing and journalism studies major.

While watching the Newcomer students quickly pick up the language, DU students also observe the young people as they confront American culture. Homecoming, for instance, held no special place for the Newcomer students. Rather than sharing in their classmates’ excitement over getting a half-day off for the school celebration, Barber says, these students were disappointed they had to eat lunch an hour late.

As the young people at Newcomer adopt American culture — some now say hamburgers are their favorite food — the DU students go into the classroom with critical questions about how the young people’s adherence to their native culture has changed.

But it’s not fair to view these changes as an abandonment or diminishment of their home traditions, says Elissa Croghan, a senior English, Spanish and women’s studies major.

“In the literature, the characters can’t just stick with their tradition because that becomes really chaotic, so there has to be adaptation,” she says. “It’s not loss.”

Teuton says that through the literature and their experiences at South, his students are thinking critically about what it means to be American.

Senior creative writing major Jillian Mukavetz says she’s realized the label “Caucasian” is inadequate.

“You are so many things other than white,” she says. “Through the literature, I’ve seen that American identity is an adaptation, a creative adaptation.”

Croghan relates the Newcomer students’ experiences to that of Janie, the main character in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. In the story, Janie is forced to mitigate the expectations of both black and white communities. Rather than conforming to the preconceived notions of either group, Croghan says Janie forges her own identity based on selfless love.

“Love is really important because that’s what supports you through the adaptation,” Mukavetz says.

Although the course ended in November and volunteering is no longer a requirement, Teuton and his students continue working at Newcomer.

This article originally appeared in The Source, December 2006.

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