Born in the USA

Usually before my next class with any level of students I prepare them a little bit about what is to follow. For instance, if I decide that the lesson will be about Martin Luther King, I may tell them a little about him or the Civil Rights Movement. This day, though, was going to be different from all the rest. I was still teaching in Greece then. I said goodbye to my students and that I would see them next time and they looked puzzled. “What, you’re not telling us about next time?” “No, I would like the next lesson to be a surprise and I would like to see what you will make of the specific lesson completely on your own”, I told them. “What is it? A poem, a song?” they insisted. “Well, forgive me but I would prefer not to tell you”, I said.

So the next lesson came. It was with two teenage students of an advanced level. I greeted them and told them we would start immediately by listening to something from a CD. I pressed the play button and suddenly Bruce Springsteen was heard singing his song Born in the USA.

I let it play until the end and the kids had the lyrics in front of them, but I could still see their frustration at the song and they were looking at each other in a “What is this?” kind of way. When the song ended, one of them, a really polite boy, said: “Sorry Miss Vicky, but this was the worst choice of a song. What can we possibly analyze about this song? That he is proud of his country, the USA that wage wars in various parts the world?” So I let them talk to me and vent their frustration. “Yeah”, said the girl of the pair. “So okay, he is feeling patriotic. What for, though?” she said. Quite a while passed by and the kids were telling me, in fantastic English throughout the lesson, how frustrated they had felt at listening to the song, how Bruce Springsteen could have written such a song and how he could feel proud about events like the Vietnam War. The kids were raising extremely persuasive arguments and using the most beautiful vocabulary they had learnt. So, I decided to tell them the real deal.

I started to explain Springsteen’s background – that he comes from a working-class Jewish family and that the title and lyrics of the song were actually ironic towards the policy of the USA, with reference to the Vietnam War and the welfare system that was not working and all those things that made the singer feel frustrated with what people were going through at the time. The kids were so interested and surprised and we had a wonderful discussion based on the song. They came up with some fantastic questions and we even pretended to take an interview from Bruce Springsteen, coming up with the questions we would ask him. We talked about how it was to be a part of working-class America at that time. What really satisfied me was that the students were very intrigued by the history behind the song. They loved it so much, that they asked me to bring more of this kind of songs, for the reason that they said “it made them think”. They did think, they did learn and they used a great part of the vocabulary they had assimilated until then.

So the next song I took into class was Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”…

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5 thoughts on “Born in the USA

  1. There was something that bothered me a bit about this post and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I sat on it for a bit and it came to me in the middle of the night as ideas have a way of doing. If you don’t mind, I’d like to apply a rather critical eye to this post.

    Your blog obviously has a running theme of anti-racism to it. I think we have to be a bit careful with this term as it doesn’t quite apply to every country and culture. It carries along with it quite a bit of negative and value-laden historical baggage. Racism in America assumed that an entire race of people were better than all others. It assumed that all other races were inferior by birth. I’m not sure we see this exact same idea in other cultural contexts. For example, in Turkey, where I currently live, there are various conflicts between Turks and Greeks, Turks and Kurds, Turks and Armenians, etc. However, I’ve never met a Turk that said Turks are inherently better or other ethnic groups are inherently worse. There simply exists conflicting ideas or historical grievences between the groups. I don’t think the concept of racism really applies here. In Vietnam there was a lot of negtive stereotyping of black people, but again, I never got the sense that they felt black people were by default inferior. It was more a case of general negative comments. In any case, I didn’t live there long enough to get a real good feel for it. Perhaps I’m being too picky, but I would probably use terms like stereotyping, prejudice, or intolerance instead. Racism would be what we see in America with whites and blacks or what we saw in Germany with Aryans and Jews or in the Sudan with the Dinka and the Janjaweed. Here you get a much clearer sense of the purity of blood and inherent superiority of one race over another. Thoughts?

    Moving on, I found it quite interesting that the Boss wrote that song in a sarcastic vein. I was unaware of that, so thanks:). Usually when I teach anti-Vietnam War sentiment I use Country Joe’s “Fixin to Die Rag” as the sarcasm is much clearer and the references more direct. The song is fast though and harder for the learners to understand, but I use it more as a text than as a listening. I also do a lot of lessons like this where I take a critical look at America. However, I try to present multiple sides to the story. I don’t believe one perspective is enough and I want my students to really engage with understanding the diversity of opinions that exist in a country as well as the commonalities that tie a culture together. For example, just as a starting point we will look at the anti-war and pro-war sides but also at how the American concept of freedom is something both sides strongly believe in, but interpret differently. Then we start to go deeper. With my intermediate and up classes I usually have a unifying theme running through my course of “looking through the eyes of the other.” Currently, I use a great Scrubs video to dig into American attitudes towards the Iraq War. It can be found here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s_449fe9qZc. Israel is another hot topic that is really useful to look at and I try to combat this “the Jews are secretly trying to control everything” mentality that is common in some parts of the world.

    What ended up bothering me about this post is the idea that perhaps intolerance is being reinforced with this type of lesson. You didn’t describe what other ideas came up in the class or if you discussed opposing viewpoints in a futher lesson, but the focus seemed to be on America’s antiwar opinions and reinforces or supports your Greek students’ anti-American sentiments. While this is a good lesson as it grabs the students attention, encourages discussion, and aligns with the students opinions (i.e. is relevant to their lives), it’s important to show other angles as well. If we stick with just one, we are only increasing and supporting the students’ intolerance towards another country. We’re not challenging them to engage with and critique their own value-laden assumptions.

    I also wonder if you then took this idea and looked at it from a Greek angle. Would you have chosen a song with a similar ironic portrayl of Greece? Why or why not? How would your students have reacted? This is difficult territory as an English teacher, but it is something I feel needs to be addressed. One of the reasons I left America was a rampant nationalism that I wanted to get away from. A little pride in your country is fine, but I feel nationalism is largely destructive. It often assumes that one people’s country and one people’s culture is better than anothers. It blinds people and closes their minds to the problems and conflicts that exist in their country because they refuse to believe their country or its people can do anything wrong. It also creates an us vs. them dichotomy that is far from useful in establishing positive relations. While I do many similar lessons I always do a number that look at my students’ country as well.

    We need to break down these walls of intolerance in our students. We have to teach them to critically evaluate not only other countries’ and cultures’ attitudes, but their own as well. To really fight against prejudice, intolerance, and stereotypes we have to give students the skills to look at events, attitudes, and beliefs from multiple angles and to be able to analyze why these events happen or where these attitudes and beliefs come from. We don’t want to reinforce our students negative preconceptions about other countries without providing some counterpoint. We want to teach our students to be tolerant and unprejudiced and we should show them how to understand opposing beliefs as well. In this case, there already appears to be intolerance towards another country. Do we really want to simply reinforce that? While I’m positive much was learend from the lesson, I don’t feel it’s complete without examining other sides to the story. Another question that has always plagued me is, “If we are willing to show the good with the bad of our own home countries, shouldn’t we encourage similar discourse about our students’?” Darren Elliot has a post related to this discussion up on his livesofteachers blog that some people may want to check out. What are your thoughts?

    1. Hi Nick and thank you very much for all your comments.

      First of all, I would like to say that through my lessons I do not try to impose my thinking on students, I simply try to open their eyes to diversity. There are some who accept that and there are some who unfortunately do not. My experience has shown that most do.

      Then, as you read in my post I let the kids think first on their own (they already had the negative sentiments, which I tried to dispel) and then I told them the truth behind the story. I did not impose in any way negative thoughts about the United States (which I have absolutely nothing against – as nothing against any other country; that is what I am trying to teach in my lessons, that nobody is inferior or superior). I would be a hypocrite if I said I promote muliculturalism in my lessons and then went on to create stereotypes or generalize. I have discouraged stereotyping and racist remarks in my classes (as you can also read in my first post, which is an article I had published three years ago).

      In addition, (and I do not want to go into history now) the Vietnam War was a dark moment in American history and a lot of people remember it that way. Which war isn’t a dark moment, though? From either side, wars have no benefits for the one or the other side.

      That is what I was trying to teach the students that day – not to judge things by the first time and it was also a landmark lesson for them: they learned American History (in English), so it was a “kind” of immersion lesson for them. Plus, it whetted their appetite and they learned even more later on!

      You are right, perhaps I did not provide many details into the lesson itself. However, the kids were touched about how many Americans and Vietnamese died and the stories of the veterans.

      In no case (and I say this with certainty) do I reinforce stereotyping against any country in the world in my lessons or in my life in general. That is what I have been working on these ten years that I have been teaching – and kids, no matter how young they are, undesrtand a lot of things. It is up to their parents and educators not to instil in kids negative sentiments towards countries.

      I also think that stereotyping is another form or extension of racism, only another word is used for it – since with stereotyping people make generalizations against others. They are both against people.

      I am very sorry that my post bothered you, I had no intention of offending anyone.
      Thank you very much for taking the time to read my post and to comment on it as well.

      Kindest regards,
      Vicky

  2. Hey Vicky, I think you misunderstood me. The post bothered me in the sense that something was nagging at me, not that I found it offensive or ill-thought out in any way. I’m sorry if I gave that impression.

    I think it was very clear in your post that you were not imposing anything, merely providing info that was then discussed in the class. I’m positive that it was a great lesson as these lessons always go very well for me too.

    My comment comes more from the idea that I do similar things in class, but many of my students already understand the adverse perspectives on America. They can pretty readily see why someone might feel that way. What’s interesting and really pushes them is when you ask them to see through the eyes of people who disagree with them. This is more challenging though as they are not as willing to dive in and, as an American myself, they suspect me of harboring ill will or of reporting back to some intelligent agency about dissenters, which I definitely do not.

    I think it’s a great post, I just wanted to bring one more critical lens to the discussion.

  3. Hi Nick and thank you for visiting again.

    Thank you for your clarifications.

    I have no problems accepting criticism and we all make mistakes; however, as far as the multiculturalism issue is concerned, I have been working (as many educators) on it very hard, as it is a highly sensitive issue. I consider it a very important part of education as a whole.

    The encouraging thing about it is that kids have a very clear way of thinking (thankfully they are born unbiased) and you can do wonders with them.
    Thank you again and I wish you all the best!

    Kindest regards,
    Vicky

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