Culture Exploration


The following unit assumes some prior knowledge and teaching to be successful.  Student should have some experience in doing research with additional modeling given as necessary.  Students had the following prior experience in the elements of storytelling:


  1. Over time I have told stories and asked students to decode them for story elements and structure.  I tell the same story several times, changing details to model for students some of the spontaneity of storytelling. They also like to hear stories over and benefit from the different emphasis placed in different tellings.
  2. As a more practical aspect, we also read short pieces of writing and decoded them for story elements and story structure. These are all skills students should have had in their reading groups but the skills don’t always transfer at the same rate.
  3. With a partner, students then chose a story from a picture book to decode for its elements and structure. They use a graphic organizer to help them with the elements.
  4. I told my story again and modeled for students how I used symbols and pictures to help me remember the story.  Using this kind of organizer helps students to add their own details, seems to encourage more personal involvement on the part of the student, and adds to comprehension by adding the visual nature.  We practiced together with my story on a piece of chart paper for students to refer to.  Note:  I changed some of the details on this second telling and they caught me on them.
  5. Students then retold their own story with picture and symbols.
  6. Students created a flannel board presentation with their story to tell to their younger partners and to other classes in the school.  The flannel board presentation helps to take away stage fright and the younger students love the visual nature or this kind of telling.


Because students will be using their own cultural heritage as reference in the following unit, there is also an experiential connection with students.


Cultural Exploration Unit


Introduction:  In 6th grade, we are encouraged to teach the Pacific Rim. This really isn’t such a bad idea considering Seattle’s position for trade, the geologic history of the area, and the cultural diversity we enjoy. The district does not provide a curriculum for this unit of study but content should include geographic and economic diversity, country facts and figures; pretty boring stuff but the students always come away with a nice notebook.  This year was probably not going to be much different.


My neighboring teacher and I have a habit of opening our doors when the bell rings in the morning and greeting the students as they enter.  This has always been a good time to hear excuses for not doing homework, receive the latest on who had a fight on the bus, check out new shoes, etc.  I have a student named Carlos who always positions himself at the end of the line so when he checks in with me he doesn’t hold up the line and no one will chance to overhear him.  I never took notice of this habit of his until my neighboring teacher pointed it out to me.  One recent morning Carlos told me a story his father had told him the night before.  This was the story of his people and how the Europeans came to his country and had “relations” with the people.  Having just read a first had account of Montezuma and the downfall of the Aztec people, I elaborated for Carlos those details.  Meanwhile, it is pouring rain on both of us and the rest of the class is in the classroom wrecking havoc, but it gave me an idea.  We would study the Pacific Rim in terms of its cultural diversity and just extend that Rim to include all the cultures in our classroom.  There are only two native speakers in the classroom.  Both are special needs students who will benefit from using the classroom model as a basis for their own research and writing.


Objectives:       *Students will research and write about their cultural heritage

*Students will create and give a presentation on their culture to the class.  Presentation to include:

                                    Story with its origins in the culture of their heritage

                                    Visual presentation of findings



DAY 1: What is Culture?


1.  Tell the story “The Blind Men and the Elephant” (copy attached) and discuss with class the lesson it teaches regarding preconceived notions about cultures.


2.  Discuss with class the meaning of culture.  Do a “Brain Dump” (akin to a graphic organizer) about what makes up a culture.  Steer them towards the following categories and give examples:




            Social Structure/Family/Customs






Homework Assignment:  At this point, investigation will be more personal than general.  Students will brainstorm their immediate culture (what they know and practice on a personal or family level) using the above categories.  This may involve interviewing family members.  Bring this information back for the next day’s activity.


DAY 2: The Culture of Me and Mine


Materials:         Pizza Rounds (left over from a math activity on fractions)

                        Crayons, markers, etc.


1.  Students divide a pizza round into eight parts.  Into each part they will draw the information they gathered for homework, one category into each section of the pizza.


2.  In their journals, students write paragraphs about two or more of their pizza sections.  Model a paragraph for students using brain dumped information from the day before (Note:  students have been instructed in how to write a paragraph using a recently adopted method called “Step Up To Writing”).


DAY 3:  Identifying cultural elements


(This activity is included to help identify cultural information in what they read, a strategy they will need when doing research just as previous lessons in how to write a paragraph will help them in writing a report.)


Materials:         “Yohana” (copy attached)

                        Graphic Organizer (copy attached, a scaled down version of the one students will use later in this unit)

                        Internet access


1.  Read “Yohana” together as a class. Discuss what information we can get from the story about Yohana’s culture.  If time allows, reread the story silently and fill in the graphic organizer, otherwise, it will be homework.


2.  OPTIONAL:  Go to computer lab and log into the King County Library System.  Identify books and materials to use in research and books and stories that have origin in the student’s native culture.  Place a hold on them to be picked up during a class field trip.  Ideally this should be done during library time when our school librarian can lend a hand in doing the search.  (I often do this with research projects.  Our King Country Library is a 20-minute walk from school and the librarian there knows our needs.  They have been very helpful in supplementing our own library resources and have access to grade level research materials than we can get at school or on the Internet.)


DAY 4 - 8:  Let the research begin


Materials:         Research materials

                        “Culture grams” (great for customs and traditions)

                        Lands and People (particularly good for historical highlights)

                        Culture Research Worksheet (copy attached)


While waiting for materials to be gathered, model note taking using materials similar to what the students will be using, i.e. a “Culture gram” from a country that is not being studied (in the case, the United States for which students have experience and to help out the special needs students), a section from Lands and People, and a grade level reading book.  All of these materials are available in our school library.  Use the attached research worksheet to gather notes.  (I haven’t really found a satisfactory way for kids to record research information.  They tend to lose note cards or write down too much information on them, webs don’t allow them to gather enough information, and highlighting is out because of the difficulty in organizing what is highlighted.  A worksheet seems the lesser of evils at this point.  However, since information doesn’t usually come in this linear form, I find it hard for kids to jump back and forth between pages.  On another note, I found one student drawing pictures of what he read, a technique he gathered when we told flannel board stories then used on our pizza rounds, AND he was able to tell me back what the information “said”.)


Research should take several days.  Since we have such a high ESL population, I will use our ESL specialist in helping to facilitate this process.  This same facilitator has promised to tell Nine in One, GRR, GRR!, a Laotian tale.  In this story is information on the culture from which it comes, a requirement for stories students will tell with this unit.


During this research period, students will use their library time to identify a story or stories they can tell from their culture. Our librarian is taking on the task of helping students identify stories and their cultural background.  The Internet has literally thousands of stories from around the world, we have many in our own school library, and many students have stories in their native language at home.  Students have previous experience in storytelling, telling flannel board stories to their younger partners.  See suggestions at the end for extending storytelling in a multicultural setting.


DAY 8 – 10:  Putting it into words


1.  By following the paragraph writing model previously introduced, students use their notes and write at least one paragraph about each topic.  Teacher will model this from the information gathered in the introductory lesson to note taking (DAY 4).


2.  After a few days, model how to write an introduction.  Students often become bogged down in not knowing where to start, so just start in the middle and worry about the beginning later.  Discuss what an introduction is meant to do and give students some tricks in writing introductions, i.e. by stating an amazing fact, asking a question, telling a brief story.  Once again, model with the information gathered on DAY 4.  Also model the purpose of a conclusion, which can be tricky.  Remind students of their personal interest in this project and perhaps interject a bit of personal perspective here.


3.  Students peer revise and edit before bringing it to a teacher for a final go through. 


4.  Publish. 


DAY 11: 


Materials:         Art materials as needed by students

                                    Poster board

                                    Paint, markers

                                    Construction paper.


1.  Discuss the various options for visual and oral presentation, which is to include a story from the student’s country (the Mythology).  Some suggestions are:

            Mobile with three-dimensional representations of the research

Personal items from home.  Many students have native clothing, etc. they can share with the class.

Collage from images cut from magazines.



2.  Students create a storyboard (rough draft) of what they intend their visual presentation to be.


DAY 12 – 15: Practice, practice, practice!


1.  Students prepare their visual presentations and practice their stories.  Once again, I will use the ESL facilitator to help students with the telling.  They should practice before one of us before presenting to the class. 


DAY 16 – 17:  Show time!




1.  Math – The statistical data sheet should be completed during this time.  I want the research for the report to be more personal than factual so want this element kept out of the actual narrative.  Students will use almanacs, atlases, etc. to gather information and present it along with a map of the country.  Once students have gathered information, the class can apply all kinds of mathematical skills to the information, i.e. mean population for a region, converting fractional statistics to percentages, drawing graphs, etc.


2.  Math – Drawing a time line of major historical events.  Students have a difficult time finding intervals for a timeline, determining important event, etc.  Major historical events are easy to locate in encyclopedias but laying them along a continuum is much more difficult.


3.  Art – Students make a quilt piece of their story.  This is one to do for sure not only to celebrate the hard work, but also to leave as a legacy for our school.


4.  Hold a Cultural Fair.  Set up a roving exhibit in which students take their shows on the road to other classrooms.  Another option would be to set up areas in a large facility like the library where students can station themselves with their presentations.  We did something similar to this earlier in the year on a Family Literacy Night with teachers being at the stations, reading stories (instead of telling), and having a few activities to go with the stories.  It would be really great if we could also have students tell in their native languages. 


More Ideas for Storytelling in a Multicultural Setting:

Specific Cultural Context
Students often short-change a tale by eliminating details. To be able to understand or include accurate details in the retelling of the folktale, have students research the following background information:

To better understand the life style and voice of the people who told this tale:


Proverbs: Wisdom Tales Without the Plot
Have students choose a familiar proverb and develop a story that can surround and carry that thought. Multicultural proverbs offer interesting insights into the universality of wisdom. Students can interview their parents or other members of the community for background information or specifics on the application of the proverb.


A Picture is Worth 1000 Words
The class selects a classical painting. Looking at the painting for inspiration, the class constructs the first few sentences of a tale through group discussion and suggestion. The paragraph is then sent on to another class, which reads the first paragraph and adds on another. The process is repeated including as many classes as possible until the tale seems finished. All the classes then gather to hear the result of their group effort read out loud and to see the painting that inspired the story. This can be done in small groups if time is a factor or there are few other cooperating classes.  Part of the power is in the group process.


The Blind Men and the Elephant

Long ago six old men lived in a village in India. Each was born blind. The other villagers loved the old men and kept them away from harm. Since the blind men could not see the world for themselves, they had to imagine many of its wonders. They listened carefully to the stories told by travelers to learn what they could about life outside the village.

The men were curious about many of the stories they heard, but they were most curious about elephants. They were told that elephants could trample forests, carry huge burdens, and frighten young and old with their loud trumpet calls. But they also knew that the Rajah's daughter rode an elephant when she traveled in her father's kingdom. Would the Rajah let his daughter get near such a dangerous creature?

The old men argued day and night about elephants. "An elephant must be a powerful giant," claimed the first blind man. He had heard stories about elephants being used to clear forests and build roads.

"No, you must be wrong," argued the second blind man. "An elephant must be graceful and gentle if a princess is to ride on its back."

"You're wrong! I have heard that an elephant can pierce a man's heart with its terrible horn," said the third blind man.

"Please," said the fourth blind man. "You are all mistaken. An elephant is nothing more than a large sort of cow. You know how people exaggerate."

"I am sure that an elephant is something magical," said the fifth blind man. "That would explain why the Rajah's daughter can travel safely throughout the kingdom."

"I don't believe elephants exist at all," declared the sixth blind man. "I think we are the victims of a cruel joke."

Finally, the villagers grew tired of all the arguments, and they arranged for the curious men to visit the palace of the Rajah to learn the truth about elephants. A young boy from their village was selected to guide the blind men on their journey. The smallest man put his hand on the boy's shoulder. The second blind man put his hand on his friend's shoulder, and so on until all six men were ready to walk safely behind the boy who would lead them to the Rajah's magnificent palace.

When the blind men reached the palace, an old friend from their village who worked as a gardener on the palace grounds greeted them. Their friend led them to the courtyard. There stood an elephant. The blind men stepped forward to touch the creature that was the subject of so many arguments.

The first blind man reached out and touched the side of the huge animal. "An elephant is smooth and solid like a wall!" he declared. "It must be very powerful."

The second blind man put his hand on the elephant's limber trunk. "An elephant is like a giant snake," he announced.

The third blind man felt the elephant's pointed tusk. "I was right," he decided. "This creature is as sharp and deadly as a spear."

The fourth blind man touched one of the elephant's four legs. "What we have here," he said, "is an extremely large cow."

The fifth blind man felt the elephant's giant ear. "I believe an elephant is like a huge fan or maybe a magic carpet that can fly over mountains and treetops," he said.

The sixth blind man gave a tug on the elephant's fuzzy tail. "Why, this is nothing more than a piece of old rope. Dangerous, indeed," he scoffed.

The gardener led his friends to the shade of a tree. "Sit here and rest for the long journey home," he said. "I will bring you some water to drink."

While they waited, the six blind men talked about the elephant.

"An elephant is like a wall," said the first blind man. "Surely we can finally agree on that."

"A wall? An elephant is a giant snake!" answered the second blind man.

"It's a spear, I tell you," insisted the third blind man.

"I'm certain it's a giant cow," said the fourth blind man.

"Magic carpet. There's no doubt," said the fifth blind man.

"Don't you see?" pleaded the sixth blind man. "Someone used a rope to trick us."

Their argument continued and their shouts grew louder and louder.

"Wall!" "Snake!" "Spear!" "Cow!" "Carpet!" "Rope!"

"STOP SHOUTING!" called a very angry voice.

It was the Rajah, awakened from his nap by the noisy argument.

"How can each of you be so certain you are right?" asked the ruler.

The six blind men considered the question. And then, knowing the Rajah to be a very wise man, they decided to say nothing at all.

"The elephant is a very large animal," said the Rajah kindly. "Each man touched only one part. Perhaps if you put the parts together, you will see the truth. Now, let me finish my nap in peace."

When their friend returned to the garden with the cool water, the six men rested quietly in the shade, thinking about the Rajah's advice.

"He is right," said the first blind man. "To learn the truth, we must put all the parts together. Let's discuss this on the journey home."

The first blind man put his hand on the shoulder of the young boy who would guide them home. The second blind man put a hand on his friend's shoulder, and so on until all six men were ready to travel together.

Identify the cultural traditions in the following story:




Yohana walks down the difficult path toward the open plain, herding his father's cattle before him. It is early morning and the cattle are still slow and sleepy from their night in the homestead compound. The boy sings a song to himself about his father's finest kamar steer. Cattle are the most important things in the herdsman's life and the Pokot people have great respect and affection for them.

Yohana's stomach growls, and he knows he will be hungry in a while, but he is used to it. No one takes a second helping of the breakfast of millet porridge and milk. Even at feasts his people never over-eat. Anyone who does is ridiculed and looked down upon. Even when the harvest of maize and millet is good and the cattle are healthy and productive, nobody becomes fat.

The herdsman's main source of protein is a mixture of cattle blood and milk. Meat is a special treat, eaten only during community feasts, which often accompany special rites and rituals.

Africa's Pokot people live in Western Kenya and Eastern Uganda. They are made up of two main groups: the "cattle people," herdsmen who live on the plains, and the "grain people," farmers who live on the mountainsides. The two groups are dependent on each other for more than just food. Besides their trade relationship, they have close kinship ties. They intermarry and often get together for special occasions or visits, or to work cooperatively.

The lives of the herdsmen are harsher than those of their farming neighbors, but they have more status and wealth, because cattle are considered to be valuable by both groups. In addition to cattle, both groups have some goats, sheep and a few donkeys or camels.

Yohana thinks of his friend, Chermit, one of the grain people. Chermit, like Yohana, works to help support his family. He does so by guarding the crops of maize and millet from birds. He scares them away by throwing clods of Earth from a high platform overlooking the field. Yohana is glad to be a herder even though he often has to sleep in the open, and he and his family sometimes have to travel to new areas to avoid having their cattle raided by others.

The Pokot are very proud of their culture. They belong to one of the last groups in Africa that have refused to be influenced to any extent by European or American ways. Yohana remembers his grandfather's stories of the attempts to convert them away from their religion and to show them how to farm and raise cattle "properly," and how the Pokot resisted. His grandfather taught him to believe in the ways of the Pokot people, not to envy anyone else and to believe that their god, Tororut, approves only of the Pokot ways.

Yohana lives in an extended family consisting of his paternal grandfather and his wives, an uncle and his wives, and his father and his wives. They all live in the same compound, but different groups sleep in separate huts.

Yohana watches the morning mist rise from the plains to cover the grain people's homes and farmland on the hillside. He sees his cousin with his uncle's cattle some distance away. His cousin is wearing shorts and a tee shirt, an outfit that has made his grandfather very angry. Yohana is dressed in a long cloth tied over one shoulder. His sisters wear elaborate hairstyles and jewelry and cowhide shirts and capes, but may soon be wearing cotton dresses.

He is almost old enough now to go through the ceremony that initiates a boy into manhood. After the initiation, he will leave the village for a year or two and work on a plantation or a large cattle ranch. When he returns, he will have acquired enough wealth to get married. He will be welcomed back as a man and given a special ceremonial feast.

The initiation ceremonies for both boys and girls always include village feasts. These feasts are given on any special occasion, or when certain rituals are being performed. Meat, usually beef, but sometimes mutton or goat meat, is eaten. The main drink is beer made of maize or millet. Intricate dances are performed. Often men and women dance separately, facing each other.

Yohana thinks of his girlfriend, Chesinen, and how she smiles whenever he gives her a present that pleases her. He admires her looks, her strength and her sense of humor, and he frowns as he thinks of her initiation ceremony, which will take place soon. Then she will be a marriageable woman and her family will certainly demand that a rich dowry be paid for her. Already he has heard that the first wife of Lomuria would like to have Chesinen in her household, and he knows that first wives often have the true power in any family.

Officially, the most respected people are the older men. However, each man takes such pride in himself that even the older community leaders have no power to command and no person's word is law. Disputes are settled at a Kokwo, a kind of open court where grievances are discussed and communal decisions are made. Every man is considered to be equal to every other man, but there are some differences in formal status according to age. The only people who are consistently respected above everyone else are the "chief diviners," those who can tell the future from their dreams.

Although the women are in a different category, they do not play an inferior role in their society. The farmwomen do much of the planting and harvesting, and the herdswomen herd cattle. The women of both groups haul water, grind grain and do the cooking, so they are often responsible for both food production and preparation.

Yohana thinks again of Chesinen and how she has suggested that they run away together at the beginning of the summer. The month of the summer solstice is the only time that young adult couples may elope without being severely punished. By then both of them would be initiated into adulthood.

Suddenly he shivers and turns around. He feels as if someone is watching him. Perhaps it is one of his ancestor's spirits coming to do him some harm or cause some mischief. Maybe running away with Chesinen is not such a good idea.

Although western ways have become common throughout Africa, it may be a long time before they fully penetrate the proud traditions of the Pokot people. Yohana watches the cattle and begins to sing a new song about a young steer his father has promised to give him. The tune is one that he has often heard on his cousin's transistor radio, but the words are his own.



Assessment for Storytelling


The following assessment is based on the elements presented in Kendall Haven’s book, Super Simple Storytelling, but highly edited and formatted like the assessments we use in reading and writing.


  1. Story Selection:

Is the story representative of the culture studied?

  1. Learning and Editing:

Has the teller learned the flow and sequencing of the story?

Has the teller included enough details?

  1. Telling:

Was the teller’s voice clear and audible?

Did the teller use varied and interesting words?

  1. Stage Presence:

Did the teller seem relaxed and maintain eye contact?


4 - All the above elements are included

3 - Three of the above elements are included.

2 - Two of the above elements are included.

1 - Only one of the above elements is included.

0 - Try another story.