Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Teaching Multicultural Literature : A Workshop for the Middle Grades
Workshop 1 Workshop 2 Workshop 3 Workshop 4 Workshop 5 Workshop 6 Workshop 7 Workshop 8
Workshop 2: Engagement and Dialogue - Judith Ortiz Cofer and Nikki Grimes
Authors and Literary Works
Judith Otriz Cofer
Nikki Grimes
Key References
Video Summary
Teaching Strategies
Student Work
Interactive Workbook -- Explore two poems using strategies from these workshops. Go.
Channel-Talk -- Share your views on the discussion board. Go.

Authors and Literary Works
Talking with Nikki Grimes

How might middle grade students become more interested in poetry today?

I think that more and more teachers are introducing poetry and exploring it and becoming a little less intimidated by the form. Some of that has to do with the focus of National Poetry Month and the added exposure that people are having to the genre.

As I travel around the country and talk to librarians and teachers and try to nudge them beyond their reticence to explore poetry with students, I discover that they have had some negative experiences in school where poetry was concerned. And so I emphasize the importance of presentation. If you present poetry as if it were castor oil, no one will be interested. Instead, teachers can approach it as something fun, and also explore poetry that connects to the students and their lives (as opposed to choosing poetry that they feel "should" be studied). It's more important to go after the passion and to choose poetry to present that you are passionate about, that you love, that you get, and share that with your students, because your students are going to pick up on your passion. The fact of the matter is, kids are writing poetry -- they're just sticking it in their drawers somewhere. So let's bring that interest into the classroom and play with it and explore it and give it room to grow and breathe.

How did you come to love writing poetry?

I was fascinated with the notion that one word could mean different things, and so I would explore that in ways that turned into poetry. I was also challenged by the idea of painting a picture or telling a story in as few words as possible. And I would challenge myself to do shorter and shorter poems, which is why I absolutely adore haiku. It is my love of language that has drawn me to study foreign languages and to expand my ability to think and to visualize, to see the world. So much of a culture is housed in its language, and the more languages I explore and study, the greater a resource I have to draw upon in terms of images and ideas.

How important is a personal response on the part of the reader?

When I create a work, I'm not looking for a singular response from the reader. As with any work of art, writing is layered and complex, and if the work is done well, every reader is going to walk away with something different. I'm always pleasantly surprised when people walk away with things that I hadn't even imagined, or when I discover that the audience for the work is larger than I knew. For example, What Is Goodbye? is a collection of poems about grief that follows a brother and sister who have lost their older brother. It tells the story in their two voices. I wrote this for kids who are experiencing grief and needing some way to work through this experience. They may not have the luxury of a grief counselor, or parents who are really there for them. What happens very often with adults is a complete disconnect: they're caught up in their own grief, and the basic rule of thumb is, if little Johnny isn't acting out, then little Johnny's fine. Well, little Johnny is dying inside, but nobody knows that. I wrote that book for Johnny. But I'm getting responses from adults who had losses in their own childhoods and they're responding -- the child in them is responding -- to this work, and they're finding healing in it.

Recently a friend shared that book with some students who had lost a friend and were struggling with it. There was one particular boy who not only contemplated suicide but also had already attempted it once and been interrupted. When this work was shared with him, he suddenly realized the kind of emotional damage his death would create for his brother and sister. He gave up thinking about suicide and he's completely turned around. And who would have thought of that as a possibility?

Discuss the importance of using multicultural literature in school.

I come back to that often in talking to teachers and librarians because there is a pattern of marginalization in education: the works of African American authors are brought out in February for Black History Month, or the works of Asians are brought out in time for Chinese New Year, or the works of Latin Americans are slated for César Chávez Day. I want to move away from that. It's more important, actually, if you don't have students who are African American or Latino or Asian, that you bring those works into your classroom so that students can get a window into those cultures. That's what literature is all about, and that's what makes it so valuable. And there are so many wonderful works out in the marketplace now that there's no reason not to use them. So if you've got a kid who's into baseball, there are baseball poems. If you have a kid who's into science fiction, or astronomy, there's poetry a volume of poetry that's right for him. Whatever the subject matter, whatever the culture, quality literature is being produced today that can help students make connections.

Who are your favorite authors?

It's a very, very long list. But some of the earliest strong influences for me, the two that I absolutely could not live without in high school, were James Baldwin and Kahlil Gibran. I loved [Gibran's] poetry and the fact that he wrote about spiritual things in such a clear and powerful way. I connected with that. With Baldwin, it was just his mastery of the language in all of his writing and that everything was so palpable in his work. And his characters -- it was like meeting friends and family or meeting real people. You knew these people. You knew that he knew these people. So those were early influences.

As far as contemporary authors who mean a lot to me -- as I said, the list is long. But among those who write for both young people and adults are Lucille Clifton (who I want to be when I grow up), Naomi Shihab Nye and Gary Soto. Those are among my clear, clear favorites. There's Pat Mora, there's Paul Fleischman, these are just really amazing people. Mari Evans. The literary marketplace is a veritable candy store!

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