What’s Culture Got To Do With It?

Our academic explorations of writers and how they write tend to be framed from two different perspectives: the neuropsychological perspective, which focuses on learning and brain development, and another that is socio-cultural. While some might choose to draw battle lines between the two, I believe that we have much to gain by assuming each vantage point and considering what it might illuminate about the writers that we serve. Researchers from both fields actually agree on much, including the important role that  interaction plays in the growth and cognitive development of children. Those who have supportive caregivers thrive. This includes the caregivers that live in their homes and the ones that teach in their schools (Wyse 2017).

We have so much power here, all. 

It’s my understanding that regardless of where writers come from, their brains are programmed to change what has been given and even done to them. They are genetically designed for growth. What that looks like from one individual to the next varies, of course. But if I accept this as a given, and if I enable so-called “resistant” writers to do the same, beautiful things happen. In my experience, understanding the influence of history and culture on the brain is a critical part of this work. Our history is with us, and it influences how our brains work–and write–today.


There is another lens, and it’s one that we don’t often apply when we’re trying to understand learners and what helps them and what hurts: the socio-political lens.

Race matters. What has happened and continues to happen to people of color and students of color within and beyond our schools matters. Much. So much so that I can’t help but wonder: Is that battle that some are waging over how we should or should not build literacy skills really allowing all of us to avoid the real work that must done to dismantle systemic racism? Because I’m pretty sure that issue impacts the achievement gap more than any other might. Yeah, the discussion of the differences between collectivist and individualistic cultures that follows could overshadow and even inspire some dangerous misperceptions if I don’t begin right here: The systemic racism that continues to thrive inside of our schools is a bigger and a far more critical conversation when it comes to serving students of color who appear to be “resistant writers.”

Unpacking archetypes without speaking to that reality allows all of us to avoid that far more critical conversation, especially if some of you assume that culture and race are one and the same. I don’t do that, and I certainly don’t want to enable, either. I need to be more careful here.

I’ll be honest: I don’t speak about race often, and when I do, my knees shake. I’ve tended to stay in my lane. Discussions about race are not my place, after all. Better to elevate the voices of people of color instead, and I do. But perhaps Twitter is right: If I am going to get real about so-called “resistant” writers in this particular post, I can’t ignore race. My first thought may have been that my white self has no business going there. But maybe this is a better thought: If I intend to discuss “resistant” writers, I have no business doing so without discussing race.

And I hear that. I hope you will hear me, too: I think that I have to be willing to write about my thinking and my learning and share my work widely, as imperfect as it may be, if I’m going to serve anyone well. I have to be willing to share my drafts and my works in progress. And I especially need to invite feedback–even harsh feedback–if I want to know and do better. That Zaretta gave me her time and attention was a gift, and I’m grateful for it. That you might do the same means a lot. All learning is social, and social media enables it, if that’s how we choose to use it. It’s how I choose to use it.

So please know this: When it comes to understanding why students of color specifically may or may not embrace “writing” (as white teachers like me have commonly defined it), simply considering the  CULTURAL archetypes below could be a very dangerous thing. RACE is a much bigger conversation than the one I intended to begin here today, and it isn’t one anyone can ignore.

Understanding the history that follows and the differences between cultural archetypes matters. These understandings have helped me serve so-called “resistant” writers far better, too. But I let me be clear: These understandings contribute to the work that I know I must do in order to create equitable writing and learning experiences for students. They are not the whole of it, and they certainly don’t replace it.

But they do matter.

Orality and Literacy

We are all descended from oral cultures, and yet the shift from orality to writing was not evenly paced or uniform, and this reality continues to shape the backdrop of every single writing workshop in wildly different ways. We like to think that our classrooms are neutral spaces, but they are not. They are typically reflective of our own world view and the dominant cultures inside of our communities (Hammond 2015).

We can speak about this in terms of what we notice when we take a walk around our schools. The books in our libraries are often reflective of this reality. The way we decorate our classrooms and hallways can be revealing, too. Our tendencies to pity and treat disadvantaged students with levels of concern that are based on our assumptions and that only work to divide them further are not useful. And our superficial attempts to support multiculturalism through festivals and celebrations that draw attention to the surface of any culture aren’t nearly enough to make a difference, either–especially when it comes to engaging and supporting “resistant writers.” 

No, if we truly want to understand what makes many resistant writers different from those who are print comfortable, we have to do much deeper work, and this begins by understanding and centering cultural archetypes in our decision making. 

Zaretta Hammond speaks to these archetypes in her book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. Deepening my own understanding of collectivism and individualism and their relationship with oral and chirographic minds challenges much of what I thought I knew about how to serve “resistant writers” best.

Socrates was a collectivist, and many of his concerns about the rise of writing in Ancient Greece were based upon its threat to collectivism. The Greeks were a communal people, as were most of our ancestors, because community was protection. People worked and learned and played and grew old together. They shared resources and divided their workloads. And over time, their brains became hardwired for company. Intimacy. Cooperation. In time, as people gravitated toward urban communities, they became far more individualistic. Rather than valuing interdependence, cooperation, collaboration, and community, the individualistic mindset grew to value achievement, independence, and a more personal kind of power. 

Wealth and mobility foster individualistic values, which may explain why America and Canada, both settled by immigrants, are home to some of the most individualistic people in the world. The most individualistic members of historically collectivist cultures were the ones who tended to rebel against what they felt was an oppressive and invasive culture. Each value system has its strengths and its flaws, and each present themselves in very different ways inside of our world.

There is no one way to be individualistic or collectivist, and there is no benefit to framing these archetypes rigidly. Understanding their influence on the brain and on the writers in our workshops might help us serve them better, though. Especially since the majority of the world’s population remains collectivist (Goleman 1990).

Source: https://tinyurl.com/ycscpas8

If you’ve understood where Socrates was coming from and you’ve been reflecting on the global transition from orality to writing, then it’s likely you’ve already considered the effect of this shift on the mind. Walter Ong speaks to this in great detail in his seminal text, Orality and Literacy (Ong 2012). Here, we are challenged to remember that the shift from orality to writing was hardly smooth, steady, or complete. As the alphabet began jumping around the world, changing shape, and giving ideas form, many cultures remained rooted in oral language–particularly those with more collectivist values. This primary orality, as Ong refers to it, continues to have a profound effect on how people think, work, and yes, read and write today. 

Understanding what makes the oral mind different from the chirographic (or for our purposes here, print-comfortable) mind can help writing teachers unlock the mysteries of the so-called “resistant writer”, developing a deepened and necessary respect for the strengths that come from our diversity.  

Here are some important ways that they compare.

So…what about race, then? How does that factor in? And how might we ensure that our awareness of cultural archetypes doesn’t distract us from the greater work to be done when we’re speaking specifically about children of color?

I’d love to talk about this more if that interests you. Because I’m still learning here. Come find me on Twitter or Facebook or drop a comment below.


Goleman, Daniel. “The Group and the Self: New Focus on a Cultural Rift.” The New York Times, 25 Dec. 1990, https://www.nytimes.com/1990/12/25/science/the-group-and-the-self-new-focus-on-a-cultural-rift.html.

Hammond, Zaretta. 2015. Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. CA: Corwin Press.

Ong, Walter. 2012. Orality and Literacy. 3rd ed., UK: Routledge.

Wyse, Dominic. 2017. How Writing Works: From the Invention of the Alphabet to the Rise of Social Media. UK: Cambridge University Press.


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