Assimilation and Culture Reading and Discussion

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SWBAT identify and explain the themes of assimilation and culture by actively reading “The Cutting of My Long Hair” in small groups and by discussing pp. 7-24 of The Absolutely-True Diary of a Part-Time Indian in class.

Big Idea

The theme of fitting in is universal and interesting to trace throughout literary texts.


The focus of  this lesson is to introduce a key theme in the novel so that students can begin to trace this theme along with character development as they read.  By examining the theme in both a short work of literature and in the novel, students can develop strong insights into the theme.


Image credit from Creative Commons search:  Sherman Alexie.


Activate Prior Knowledge and Hook

5 minutes

My goal in this section is to provide what is called "a cultural data set" which is a relevant, smaller prompt that will flesh out the kind of thinking that will surface in the book. I plan to present assimilation as a somewhat problematic construct.  Thus, I provide the following prompts to elicit thinking from the students on the theme that will emerge in the short story we discuss today, and the novel we will read throughout this unit.

First, I want students to think about how assimilation works.  I will give students a minute to think and talk about how the Borg are a collective of creatures in the Star Trek series that help turn people into computer cyborgs.  The students will likely think that the Star Trek image is a little bit on the geeky side, but the idea of being turned into a computer probably will resonate with them, especially the idea of forced assimilation. 

I then plan to pose the following questions for initial class discussion (SL.9-10.1): 

Have you ever tried to blend in? 

Are you supposed to marry somebody of your own culture or not? 

This second question will like get a lot of incendiary responses as some students are dead set on finding that opposites-attract person out there, while some know that they must date/marry/exist within their own cultural set.  

The idea is to get the definition of assimilation on the board (literally: to approach a state of being similar) and to get students thinking. 

Small Groups read "The Cutting of My Long Hair" and annotate key questions on assimilation

20 minutes

This story presents harsh images of a young Native American girl who is forced to cut off her braids when she attends an all-White missionary school.   To access student understanding of the text, I ask my students to read the story in small groups and to add two questions per page, with notes on key quotations (RL.9-10.1).  

I have selected this story because it presents a short parable-like story on the dangers of assimilation, and I believe that the story is grade appropriate enough so that students can read it successfully on their own.  

Then, we can have a discussion across texts about the theme of assimilation.  The tone valence of the two stories is different, as the short story, "The Cutting of My Long Hair" presents a very dour and even frightening telling of the events, while the novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian which we will discuss throughout this unit reveals the theme with some humor and poignancy. 

In the discussion that follows, I expect to ask students to identify key word choices that relate to the narrator's perspective and mood (RL.9-10.4)  For example, the scissors are 'cold' and 'gnaw' her hair, both negatively charged, dehumanizing words.  I will collect the stories to see which students have been internalizing the work that we have been doing on questioning. 

I was able to find the story online, and you may be able to purchase it in a collection of Native American short stories. 



Connect theme of Assimilation to Absolute True Diary and Discuss Key Text Moments

15 minutes

Students had read pages 7-25 in the book for homework, so our discussion (SL.9-10.1) will aim to connect the theme of assimilation to the story (RL.9-10.2) as well as to gain an initial impression of the characters (RL.9-10.3). The goal of these questions and student responses is for students to understand the main character's home culture and the degree to which it is a challenge for him to break out of that culture to make an attempt to assimilate into mainstream culture by switching schools.  The short story provides a point of contrast so that the theme is all the clearer in the novel.

Some of the questions I plan to ask my students during the discussion are:

  • What type of world do his parents come from?  
  • How does he feel about their backgrounds?  
  • Is it a world that the main character, Junior, wants to fit into?
  • Do you think that his home culture is important to him?  As important as the home culture of the characters in the short story, "The Cutting of My Long Hair"?  Why, why not?

I also plan to ask the following questions:

  • Who is Rowdy, and is he a good friend?  
  • What does it seem are Junior's priorities in having and maintaining friends?  Would  you do the same?  
  • What does Rowdy do to protect Junior, and what do you think about these actions?  
  • Do you think that Junior would identify Rowdy as someone who as benefited from his home culture or who has been impoverished by it?  
  • To what extent would walking away from relationships such as this be problematic for Junior? Would it be as problematic as the events in the short story when the long hair is cut against their will?