Shocking Rituals of the Nacirema

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SWBAT identify and explain Miner's perspective that American culture is as strange as any observed by anthropologists by reading the story in pairs and participating in discussion of the text.

Big Idea

How would you describe the rituals of our everyday, American lives? This essay takes a surprising tack.

Pre-Reading for "Nacirema"

5 minutes

Why this text?  The current unit builds across disparate texts.  It investigates the idea that perspective and point of view really do define the story in a given report or narrative.   Later in the unit, students will read a story called "Hollywood and the Pits," which intersperses scientific descriptions into the narrative, and today's reportage will be good training for that.  

Photo elicitation.  After reminding students that we are still in a unit focusing on point of view and perspective, that seeing things from a particular vantage point or perspective dramatically alters the story itself, I plan to ask the students what anthropologists do or if they have read National Geographic or viewed any documentary shows like the history channel.  Taking a look at the following link, I will ask: What do anthropologists try to explain?  How do they do it?  (link) 

Other points of entry.  I am hoping that my questions can elicit the fact that anthropologists use a kind of detached academic style.  If that fails, I'll just mock up a professor describing the lunch room in a quasi-British accent, and that should do the trick.  

I also plan to ask them a couple of questions about the strange things that teacher do or that freshmen do.  The idea will be to elicit the idea that the familiar can somehow be strange.

We will turn our attention to reading the Nacirema, a sort of "trick essay" in which the author describes American culture as if it were ruled by magic (RL.9-10.6).

As you read the essay, don't be turned off and think that it's ridiculously academic and would never 'work' with your students.  Get them to take on the adventure of reading something over their heads, if possible, at a higher text complexity band!   I'd be curious to hear how you got them to read it.  Also, check my reflections on this essay, as it was a surprising event in class! 








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Teacher Reading of First Paragraphs of Nacirema

10 minutes

Reading and situating the class.  Because the author's prose is dense, I plan to read at least the opening segments of the article, just to make sure that the students are caught up on the idea of describing a "strange" tribe of people. I DO NOT tell them that the article is describing US, everyday Americans ("Nacirema," spelled backwards).  The idea will be to sensitize the students to the overall picture being described and to encourage them not to be too disappointed if an individual word or two is unknown (RI.9-10.2; RI.9-10.10).  The reason for this is that I want them to read the article on their own and to be pulled in to Miner's trap: that our culture may seem normal but isn't beyond its paradoxes. 

Just for grins, here is my rendition of the first body paragraph.  See if you can sell your own reading to your students, get them situated and see if they can read it long enough to get "caught" by the surprise point in the essay.


Students Read in Pairs Nacirema

15 minutes

This is the first time I will teach this piece with grade-9 students.  It is very academic and potentially a deal breaker for them.  I am curious to see how they will deal with reading this kind of prose (RI.9-10.10).  I plan to have them read and annotate in pairs for awhile and then begin to pull out some of their observations.  Since the text is challenging, I will guide the students' annotations to focus on summarizing and reader response type reactions.  

Processing Discussion of Nacirema

10 minutes

The students have just grappled with a difficult text.  At this point, I will likely know that the students either got the gist of the story or didn't.  If they got the gist, they should react with a bit of a gobsmacked curiosity about whey they didn't see it earlier that the Nacirema is really an American (spelled backwards).  Once they see this aspect of the story, it's impossible to "unsee" it, but a few students might still need a bit of help making the connection with this basic information.  However, assuming that they will comprehend this basic meaning, it's time to get after why the writer chose this point of view to structure his observations about American culture (RL.9-10.5) and maybe even begin to wonder a bit about why he was writing this essay to begin with.  

This episode is a teacher-led discussion "chalk talk" in which the students offer a few brief observations, and I'll transcribe them onto the board, adding a few comments here and there.

Again, another T chart in discussion: 

How he describes the Nacirema:



Ruled by magic



Now, I plan to let them know that the article is about America (Nacirema spelled backwards).  We will write our own mythology of American culture:

Think that we are scientific