It’s common knowledge that May 1st is known as May Day. However, in the literary realm, National Mother Goose Day is celebrated on May 1st. In 1695, Charles Perrault published his collection of fairy tales, with an English version of these stories published in 1729. Even today, these traditional tales and verses hold a place of importance. They form part of what is known as our cultural literacy. “Cultural literacy is a term coined by E. D. Hirsch. The culturally literate person is able to talk to and understand others in that culture when they use allusions, references to past events, idiomatic expression, jokes, names, etc.”
Truth be told, prior to taking coursework to become a reading specialist, I’d never heard the term cultural literacy. I learned that it refers to that body of stories, poems, movies, historical events and more that are readily familiar within a particular culture. Without thought, we use references based on our cultural literacy with the expectation that meaning will be clear to others within our culture. Here’s a few examples…
“Mary is so good with children. She is the Pied Piper of the neighborhood.”
“You better watch out for him. I think he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
“You don’t want to go down that rabbit hole again.”
All of these sentences allude to a story, movie or book familiar in our culture. Additionally, cultural literacy includes expressions and references people within that culture are expected to understand. Cultural literacy is acquired through our schooling but also through exposure to books, poems, movies, conversation and experiences in all the other aspects of our life.
Back in the early 2000’s, when my daughter and I were teaching in the same school, we decided to do a unit on fairy tales. Prior to starting the unit, wanting to assess prior knowledge, we asked seventh graders to match characters with the title of the fairy tale they were in. We were shocked at the results. A large percentage of the students had very low scores, demonstrating that they lacked exposure to prominent tales that are part of our cultural literacy. We gathered tons of books and other resources and designed a unit to acquaint kids with these stories. They read fairy tales, wrote original fairy tales, discussed fairy tales and ended the unit watching Shrek and eating popcorn. That was a long time ago, but I still remember how delighted we were by the positive reaction of our middle school students.
Are your children seeped in cultural literacy? Throughout their lives, they will be confronted with allusions to stories, characters, and events. A lack of familiarity will become an obstacle. Perhaps today is a good day to pull out that old book of fairy tales or Mother Goose rhymes. Perhaps this time of social distancing offers an opportunity to watch some classic movies together. Cultural literacy is accrued when something can withstand the test of time, usually because it resonates so deeply from one generation to another. Don’t let your kids miss out on this important aspect of their education. Discuss historical events, seek out classic movies, visit notable places and read literature that has withstood the test of time. In this challenging environment, we might all find comfort within the pages of a Mother Goose book.
I’ve chosen the two winners of this book by Aimee Chase. I will announce their names after I contact them personally.
The Real Mother Goose by Blanche Fisher Wright – Offers all the essential rhymes handed down from generation to generation along with lovely illustration to entice readers.
The Land of Stories series by Chris Colfer – Imaginative tales that take you into a world populated by fairy tale characters. Great for Kids from Grade 3 up. Two of my grand kids read the entire series and loved it!
Cultural Literacy, What Every American Needs to Know – Delve into this important text to discover why building cultural literacy is essential.