Using White Bread in College Courses

White Bread, a work of fiction, can be read for pleasure, and I hope many readers use it for that. However, it can also be used in college courses. Outside of literature courses, fiction does not make a frequent appearance, yet, as a form of art, fiction has considerable power to communicate and provoke thought. Patricia Leavy explains that arts-based research pushes scholars to think thematically about rich insights in their work that can have significant meaning to readers. The arts invite readers (or viewers) to immerse themselves into a space where they might vicariously participate in another experience. What does world look and feel like from a character’s point of view? Leavy explains that research in “literary neuroscience” finds well-crafted fiction to engage more parts of our brains than non-fiction, and as a result, to prompt learning that lasts.

Fiction is probably most effective when taught in a student-centered way. In a discussion and demonstration of inquiry-based teaching, secondary school teacher Sheila Koskoff explains that literature can prompt students to pursue significant questions if the teacher is prepared to let them do so and to guide their thinking. She explains how she prepares, given that her aim is not to tell students what to think, and that the teacher cannot anticipate ahead of time what questions students will bring: “One of the things you have to do with inquiry is, you have to over-prepare. You have no idea where it’s going to go in terms of student conversation because it is so student-driven . . . . I pick out passages that I think will help them think about what they’re saying, not to change their minds, but to get them to deepen what they’re saying, to look at this other evidence.”

White Bread does not substitute for non-fiction, but ideally can be connected with other texts, readings, or learning activities in a course. Below are suggestions for how it might be used in different courses.

Multicultural Education

Multicultural education courses commonly engage students in reflecting on their own cultural identity and history. Activities such as cultural autobiographies and family history portraits appear in many courses. In White Bread, the protagonist (Jessica) learns to use many tools of family history research, such as gathering vital statistics, locating and reading plat maps, and locating digitized newspapers. She also figures out how to use census records to identify patterns of racism in her family’s past. Since the historical sections of White Bread are based on my own family history archival research, readers will not only learn tools and skills, but will also visualize how meaning can be constructed from the data.

Multicultural education courses also commonly engage students in working with curriculum and pedagogy. An important contribution of White Bread is its exploration of why curriculum should be culturally relevant to students. Readers gain a window into a Raza Studies proposal, which I modeled very loosely after the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson, Arizona. For a concise, thoughtful discussion of what Raza Studies is, students might can read “What is Raza Studies and What is it Good for?” by Roberto Cintli Rodriguez. For a review of the impact of ethnic studies curriculum on students, students can consult my work, The Academic and Social Value of Ethnic Studies.

Ethnic Studies

An impetus to my family history research was a statement an African American man made to me after listening to one of my first presentations about family history. He commented: “I never realized how much white people have had to give up.” Initially I was taken aback, since I generally do not think of white people in multicultural contexts as the main ones on the losing end of things. But on reflection, I realized that he had picked up on things like my own loss of family historical memory, German-Americans’ loss of culture and language, and loss of memory of white “moral ancestors” who worked for justice.

White Bread immerses readers in identifying and recovering what has been lost. The book asks: What might ethnic studies mean to a white person and how can a white person move from obstructing work for racial justice, to serving as an ally? White students in ethnic studies courses will likely see some of their own questions (and that of family members) reflected in Jessica’s struggles. Students of color will see ways of prompting white people in their lives to look more deeply at ethnicity in their own backgrounds.

Elementary Methods Courses (especially Reading/Language Arts and Social Studies)

In White Bread, Jessica experiments with several teaching methods that are probably part of the toolkit new teachers acquire in their elementary methods coursework. First, she realizes that her classroom collection of children’s literature does not fit her students very well; for a discussion of the underrepresentation of people of color in children’s books, students can read: “I See White People.” So, she gradually begins to develop a more diverse collection of children’s literature, concentrating first on Mexican American children’s books to respond to her own students. For helpful sources, students can consult:  

Jessica’s approach to teaching literacy gradually becomes more culturally responsive and student-centered. Resources below expand on some of the strategies she used, and the thinking behind those strategies:

US History

Given that German is the largest ethnic ancestry in the United States, U.S. history books provide surprisingly little history of German Americans. White Bread provides some of this history, with a focus on German-American communities in central Illinois and southeastern Iowa during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The book’s appendix lists historical sources I consulted, which may be useful to others who want to dig more deeply into German-American history. But for students of U.S. history who simply want to see a more fine-grain portrayal of the largest European ethnic group than they might otherwise, White Bread offers that.

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