Looking Through Lenses

Author: Jill Torrey Emmons
Editor: Scott R. McDaniel

Time: 2 class periods
15 minutes copying the short story
Materials: Copies of the short story “What Means Switch” by Gish Jen

Students will consider the various societal and cultural “lenses” which color their perspectives and life experiences by reading the short story “What Means Switch” by Gish Jen. In this story, the main character, Mona, is a Chinese teenager who is dealing with the pressures and challenges of her “American” society while being influenced by a host of other cultural ideas and beliefs, including those of her family. In analyzing the cultural influences faced by this character, students will begin to reflect on the various societal values and ideas which influence their lives.

Purpose – The goal of this lesson is to allow students to explore the ways in which cultures and societies affect our actions, thoughts, and perspectives on a variety of issues.

Students will be able to:
1. Distinguish between the terms “culture” and “ethnic groups.”
2. Analyze how the cultural ideas and beliefs affect the perspectives of characters in a multicultural text.
3. Discuss how the environment where one lives affects perspectives.

National English Education Standard
Standard 2: Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of the human experience.

Standard 9: Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.

Teacher Background
Gish Jen’s short story can be found in a variety of anthologies, including:

  • Coming of Age in America: A Multicultural Anthology. Ed. Mary Frosch, published by New Press, May 1995. ISBN: 1565841476
  • Growing Up Female: Stories by Women Writers from the American Mosaic. Ed. Susan Cahill (Mentor 0-451-62863-2, 1993)
  • Growing Up Ethnic in America: Contemporary Fiction About Learning To Be American. Ed. Maria M. Gillan, published by Turtleback Books Distributed by Demco Media; (November 2003); ISBN: 0606296077

Related and Resource Websites
The Racial Genetics Paradox in Biomedical Research and Public Health by Seymour Garte at http://www.publichealthreports.org/userfiles/117_5/117421.pdf
Gish Jen site: http://voices.cla.umn.edu/newsite/authors/JENgish.htm



Day One
1. At the beginning of class, have students answer the following journal prompt:

“How would you define the word “culture”? Explain your answer in a half page journal entry.”

Allow the students 5 or 10 minutes to ponder and write about this question.

2. Have a short discussion about the word "culture." What does this word mean? Some students might use synonyms such as “heritage,”“beliefs,” or “traditions.” Explain that all of these are elements of culture. The term race may be used by students; it is important to be aware that it is a very loaded concept and should be explored carefully.

3.Articulate that culture has to do with the beliefs, traditions, and values which are associated with a specific region or population. The term race is typically associated with traits of inheritance; it is important to be clear with students that genetic differences among human groups are extremely limited. The greater differences that exist among humans are cultural or environmental rather than genetic in origin. Stress that the concept of race in humans is of little to no importance in biological terms and should be avoided.

4. Ask the students to compare and contrast the concepts of ethnicity and culture. Are these the same? How are they different? Discuss the differences and interplay between culture and ethnicity.

” Most social scientists, drawing on such biological research, believe common race definitions in humans have little taxonomic validity. They argue that race definitions are imprecise, arbitrary, derived from custom, and vary between cultures.” http://encyclopedia.laborlawtalk.com/Race

5. Pass out copies of the story “What Means Switch” by Gish Jen. Explain to the class that today they will be reading about a young girl and her experiences growing up in America, surrounded by different cultures and ethnicities. Ask the class if they are familiar with the term “melting pot.” Briefly talk about why some people refer to the U.S. in this way. As the class begins to read the first half of the short story, ask them to think about the following questions:

  • How does the main character, Mona, reflect the many cultures surrounding her, both at school and at home?
  • What different cultures are mentioned in the text? Which seem to be having the most success in America, and which seem to be struggling?
  • Why do you think Mona’s family came to the U.S.? What was their perception of this country? Was it realistic?

6. Read about half of the text with the students in class, preferably aloud, using a method which allows all the students to have a chance to read. Practice chunking by pausing the flow of reading at the end of each page and ask the students to summarize what is happening in the text. Refer back to the above questions during the reading, or at the very end, and conclude with a brief overview of Mona’s experiences.

Day Two
1. At the beginning of day two, post the following question on the board: “What is Mona’s ethnicity? What is Mona’s culture? How is she affected by the neighborhood and city she lives in? Explain your thoughts.” Give the class about 5 minutes to answer these questions in their journals. You may invite a few students to share their thoughts, or collect the journals for later evaluation.

2. Briefly review the events of the story from the previous day. Have the class continue reading the second half of the story silently, while writing a dialectical journal entry. Have students use a separate sheet of paper divided in two columns (draw a line down the center). In the left column, students will write a short summary of the story, drawing out the main ideas and major details. There should be no opinion in the summary, but in the right hand column students should write their thoughts, opinions, and questions about the text. This will be collected at the end of the hour. Allow the class about 20-25 minutes to finish reading and writing.

3. Discuss issues of culture and race raised by the short story. Students may use their journal entries as a jumping off point for discussion. Consider also the following issues:

  • What is Mona’s impression of Sherman Matsumoto? How does her opinion of him change over the course of the story?
  • What is Sherman’s ethnicity and cultural background? How does he feel about his heritage? How does Sherman’s attitude about culture contrast to Mona’s?
  • What does Mrs. Chang think about Mona’s friendship with Sherman? Why? What cultural history colors her views?
  • Do you think Sherman and Mona would have become different people if they had grown up in their countries of origin? Why? How does living in America affect each of them?
  • Why do you think Sherman’s and Mona’s attitudes about their cultures are different?
  • How does our culture become like a “lens”? How does it affect the way we look at life?

At the end of class, ask students to think about the ways in which our environment and cultural surroundings affect the person we become. This is a very interesting short story which brings up many different questions concerning cultural values. Some students may feel strongly about these topics, and you may want to remind the class to be sensitive of this.

None for today.

Embedded Assessment
Assess students’ responses in journal entries and during discussion. Check to see if students understand the text, and see that their analysis focuses on the cultural questions brought up by the story. Students should be able to identify the different beliefs and values of the characters, and explain how these affect their actions and perspectives.


PULSE is a project of the Community Outreach and Education Program of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center and is funded by:

NIH/NCRR award #16260-01A1
The Community Outreach and Education Program is part of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center: an NIEHS Award


Supported by NIEHS grant # ES06694

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