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As cultural diversity in our societies and within the classrooms increases, the teaching of transcultural awareness becomes more and more important, and YA literature has been suggested to be valuable for confronting students of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) classrooms with contemporary social issues of cultural plurality (Groenke, Maples & Henderson 29). Hence, this part of the paper will discuss the following research question: How can Here to stay be used for transcultural learning and for encouraging empathetic understanding? To answer this question, Here to Stay, which effectively describes a character’s fight against Islamophobia and racism, will be discussed for its potential use for transcultural learning in the Austrian EFL context.
Intercultural learning is an important teaching concept of European EFL curricula. For instance, one of the main aims of the Austrian upper-secondary AHS curriculum for EFL teaching is to help students to develop intercultural competence’ (Bundesministerium fјr Bildung 1). This competence refers to the understanding of and open-mindedness towards other cultures and the critical awareness of cultural stereotypes and own experiences in the setting of cultural heterogeneity of contemporary globalised societies and classrooms.
In this context, empathetic understanding is required on a more personal level, which refers to a person’s understanding about how other people feel and think and perceive things ” themselves and the world around them (Patterson 52). Intercultural aspects’ also belong to the main topics that Austrian EFL students are expected to be familiar with for the Reifeprјfung’, the final exam of their upper-secondary education (Bundesministerium fјr Bildung und Frauen 13).
The term transcultural learning’ has been suggested as alternative term for the more commonly used term intercultural learning’ in order to acknowledge recent developments in cultural theory. I agree with this suggestion since contemporary cultural theory recognises that cultures in the globalised world are increasingly in flux, intersecting, constantly changing, and also constituting a web rather than a monolithic whole and questions the binarism and territorial connotations that are sometimes inherent in investigations of intercultural learning (Reichl 107-8). Therefore, I will use the term transcultural’ instead of intercultural’ hereafter. With regard to learning theories and understanding processes, Susanne Reichl (109) highlights that transcultural learning is a gradual process’ and that classroom dialogues are valuable learning opportunities for self-distancing from one’s own position, a respectful confrontation with other viewpoints, and a positive appraisal of contradiction and irritation. In this context, literary texts are relevant for second language education and [transcultural] understanding because they encourage [the learner to put themselves] into the shoes of others and see the world through their eyes and allow teachers to bring many different voices from various cultural backgrounds into the classroom (Lјtge 103). Literary texts are therefore valuable resources for raising learners’ awareness of otherness and the fact that there are various different perspectives of a story.Reichl (110) suggests that YA novels have the potential to help EFL students to develop empathetic understanding since the novels’ fictional worlds may be similar to that of the learners or relatable in another way which enables a very subjective kind of understanding, one that relates to the characters’ motives and desires. Furthermore, YA novels are characterised by short easily readable chapters and a direct narrative perspective, i.e. a first-person or figural narrative situation, which gives the readers insight into the protagonist’s thoughts and ideas and may facilitate empathetic understanding and cultural learning (Reichl 110). For classroom use, Reichl (110-11) sketches the following plan for an ideal learning process in class, which can create potential moments of learning about cultural practices and identities: 1. The student constructs a subjective understanding of a particular identity encountered in a text. This is facilitated by a rather intimate narrative situation that allows the reader to engage intellectually and empathetically with the story. 2. The student realizes that there is a particular voice, a particular subjectivity in the story, as well as the fact that there are other stories, other voices and other subjectivities, too, and observes the negotiation processes involved in the group formation. 3. In the reading process, the student experiences moments of doubt , lack of understanding, and is thus made aware of his or her constructive understanding processes and the processes of cultural signification. The student also realizes that there are cultural schemata and other thinking patterns at work in understanding processes . 4. The student extends or adjusts his or her understanding in dialogue with others (i.e. peers, the teacher, other texts), and thus moves from subjective understanding to intersubjective understanding. (110-11) These possible learning moments should be considered when planning reading lessons that focus on YA literature and transcultural learning in EFL classrooms. Other aspects that should be considered are the learners’ possible diverse cultural and social contexts which can affect their understanding processes. Gillan Lazar points out that readers invariably interpret texts in the light of their own world-view and cultural experience (62), and to enable transcultural learning, students should be tuned-in into the topic of the reading text by making it relevant to their own experience (67) and by providing cultural background information about the issue described in the text (69).Another aspect that makes YA literature relevant for classroom use is its potential to raise complex topics, such as racism, drug abuse, homophobia, bullying, etc. Groenke, Maples and Henderson (29) suggest that YA novels provide a medium through which adolescents and their teachers can confront and grapple with the social contradictions and complexities that comprise adolescents’ lives. Like Reichl, these authors propose that learners should be engaged in classroom discussions that allow them to consider and debate the issues that are presented in YA novels with their peers and teachers (29). Thereby, learners may develop skills of how to respectfully articulate and voice opinions and listen to and receive others’ opinions and viewpoints, and teachers can encourage learners to notice and stand up to injustice, question the stories they hear about others (Groenke, Maples & Henderson 29-30). As Here to Stay is told from the perspective of a teenager and makes use of a more advanced everyday language, I would recommend reading it with EFL students of a fifth grade of an Austrian AHS, who are about 14-15 years old and have a language level of B1 (Bundesministerium fјr Bildung 6). While the curriculum specifies that English literary texts should be one of the major text types in the EFL classroom (Bundesministerium fјr Bildung 4), the Common European framework of reference for languages more specifically describes that B1-level learners should be able to understand the description of places, events, explicitly expressed feelings and perspectives in narratives  that are written in high frequency, everyday language and to follow the plot of stories, simple novels and comics with a clear linear storyline  (Council of Europe 76). Generally, the novel could be used in the context of extensive reading and development of reading fluency; however, I would use Here to Stay as a class reader with the aim of teaching transcultural and empathetic understanding through classroom discussions on cultural diversity, stereotypes, and racism. While reading should be mainly done at home, the lessons would focus on comprehension tasks and discussions.While reading the novel, the learners can accompany Bijan’s feelings and thoughts since he is telling his story as a first-person narrator. This allows the learners to engage with the story and develop an empathetic understanding of the main character’s identity, which coincide with the first specified potential learning moment of transcultural learning (see above). For the second mentioned learning moment, I would discuss the first-person narration in the novel that gives insights into the protagonist’s feelings and ideas and in how far the description of events is shaped by the narrator. As Lazar (75) suggests, learners might have difficulties understanding how the type of narrator who tells the story can shape and influence the way the story is told, and considering the narration would allow them to realise that there is a specific voice and subjectivity in the story.After the photoshopped image that portrays Bijan’s as a terrorist was sent to the school’s entire student body, his confusion about who is responsible for the anonymous cyberbullying and his growing conflict with some peers is a good starting point that teachers could use for discussing the problems Bijan is encountering and for considering his reactions to the racial assaults. Moreover, the ideas that come up in the discussion can be compared to the learners’ own experiences in order to make the topic relevant for the learners and to facilitate the forth potential learning moment of transcultural learning. As a starting point for a more extensive classroom dialogue about different standpoints and for raising topics like cultural stereotypes and xenophobia, I would use the following passage of the novel:I don’t care if you’re a Muslim. He sat on his bed but looked at me. You know what those guys out there think? They think people like you aren’t apologetic enough. With everything on the news, they’re not buying that ‘peaceful religion’ rhetoric. They don’t feel like they have to be politically correct when the facts are staring them in the face. (Farizan 215)While reading this paragraph, the learners might experience confusion about why Bijan should be apologetic for the acts of other people. This may present a great learning opportunity for a better understanding of cultural schemata and an empathetic understanding of people that belong to minority groups like Bijan. A role play could be an interesting opportunity for learners to discuss such issues. It provides the learners with a valuable communication practice, and moreover, it allows them to distance themselves from their own standpoint and assume that of other personae (Hedge 280). This may help students to extend their understanding of other point of views on the present issue. Overall, I think that Here to Stay has the potential to engage students in transcultural learning. I would recommend using it for teaching purposes either as a class reader (see section 43) or to use excerpts as a basis for class discussions and as teasers to make students interested [in the text] for extensive reading as suggested by Reichl (115).
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