Peace Corps Fiction: A Lesson in Making & Testing Cultural Inferences
(Winter 2011-2012 - Volume 24, Number 4) By Kim Joyner
A necessary and sometimes tricky reading skill to teach involves making inferences. This is something most of us do without thinking, but many high school students need to be taught to do this. When Angene Wilson, the featured writer of the 9-12 Corner of the NPCA Global Education News, asked me (an English teacher) to read an excerpt from Cold Snap: Bulgaria Stories by Peace Corp volunteer Cynthia Morrison Phoel, I immediately realized the inferences I was making about Bulgarian culture. It occurred to me that these inferences were not conclusions, but rather hypotheses that needed to be tested through research before being confirmed or denied. These realizations inspired the following interdisciplinary teaching idea.
Students will practice making inferences about a culture based on short story excerpts written by Peace Corps volunteers that are set in a different country. Students will then research the country and culture presented in the stories and determine whether or not their inferences were correct.
- WorldView magazine excerpt from Cold Snap: Bulgaria Stories by Cynthia Morrison Phoel*
- Graphic Organizer
*This lesson could be adapted to any short story written by a Peace Corps volunteer that is set in the country of service.
Ask students what they know about Peace Corps and what the agency and volunteers do. Ask students whether or not Peace Corps volunteers are reliable sources for knowledge on cultural norms in the country in which they served.
Tell students we are going to read a short fictional piece written by Peace Corps volunteer that is set in Bulgaria after the fall of communism, the country where the author served. Show them where Bulgaria is on a map and ask for any prior knowledge about the country. Ask for prior knowledge about communism and its fall. Have students make hypotheses about life in Bulgaria after the fall of communism.
Tell students that their goal is to make inferences about Bulgarian cultural norms /values based on the story.
As students read, they should make inferences using the first two columns of a graphic organizer like the following:
Teacher should guide students through reading to make the first inference. Students could then work in pairs or individually to make a few of their own.
Event in Story
INFERENCE: Cultural Value/Belief
Y or N
Source and Information that confirms or denies your cultural inference
|(the apartment owners agreed not to use the heat unless . . . () . . .||there is a communal type living|
|. people are poor||despite the mother’s good job, they can’t afford to stay warm|
|(mother is out of commission and father tries but fails to cook a good dinner).||that women run the household|
Once students have read and made cultural inferences, it is time to research to confirm or deny inferences.
As students research, they should be confirming or rejecting their cultural inferences by filling out the final two columns of the chart. Are the inferences true of the culture in general or are they just true of the family presented in the story? This could lead to a discussion on stereotyping based on limited information and caution students against doing so.
Students could look at traditional folk literature from Bulgaria and compare the themes found in this short story written by a volunteer to the country’s folktales, which hold many of a culture’s values.
As a creative writing extension, students could research a country of interest and write a short story where the cultural values are implied through character interactions, individual actions, thoughts, and dialogue.