Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

Monthly Update sign up
Mailing List signup
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 5: Historical and Cultural Context
Authors and Literary Works
Video Summary
Teaching Strategies
Laina Jones
Tonya Perry
Peggy McIntosh
Student Work
Interactive Workbook -- Explore two poems using strategies from these workshops. Go.
Channel-Talk -- Share your views on the discussion board. Go.

Peggy McIntosh
Founder and Co-Director
National SEED Project on Inclusive Curriculum (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity)

How does Laina engage her students in the classroom?

Laina respects her students, and you can tell she does by the way she looks at them and the way they look at her. She listens to them, and that sets a model for their listening to each other. When a student speaks, she pauses. She doesn't jump in to validate or invalidate something that somebody has said. All the children, therefore, are included. For example, in the poetry-writing activity, Laina insists that every word contributed by every child be included in the final poem. The message this delivers is that every contribution counts; there's no such thing as an unsatisfactory contribution. This is the kind of teaching, I think, that can keep children engaged in school: wanting to learn, coming to know themselves as learners, and then, as part of this unit, coming to know themselves as actors [in the dramatic activities] and as teachers of younger children.

How does Laina encourage her students to write?

I notice how comfortable the students are with writing, and that they are also comfortable with critiquing each other's work, and comfortable with having their own work critiqued. Laina does very little correcting; she's always eliciting comments from the students. She empowers the students to become writers and to see writing as something that can be useful to them. It's a very powerful model of teaching writing.

What are the students learning when they create the radio play?

When Laina's students create a radio play about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, they're bringing it back to life. Pedagogically, that's very smart, and it's also true historically. We are in history and history is in us: we reenact the struggles of the civil rights movement continually in our society.

The radio play also helps Laina educate her students in media literacy. When the students write the drama, they come to understand that people create media. Dramas don't spring out of the TV set or the radio by themselves. Being media literate also means understanding that media come to us in different versions. The radio drama is the students' own version of what happened. Once they've written the radio play, they can begin to look at the media and ask questions such as, "Who wrote this version?", "What do I think of the way this version tells things?", and "Who is best served by this version?"

I also value the radio play structure that Laina has created. Each small group of students wrote one scene, and the radio play included all the scenes. When they work together to write their scenes, they don't just wing it; they've studied pictures, they've watched videos such as Eyes on the Prize. They're being educated in the uses and limits of several kinds of media.

In what ways are the frozen tableaux effective?

One thing about multicultural teaching is that it is plural: it involves deeper understanding of oneself and others. The frozen tableau activity draws on the students' ability to empathize with others, enact scenes that they weren't in, and take them seriously. You know Laina is successful when she achieves race crossover, persuading kids to play out the palpable life experience of somebody who is not of their race. How did she carry off this degree of empathy and of role switching? I think that she is a very intentional teacher. She has her eyes on the prize: she wants these children to grow and develop. She has tremendous faith that they all will and can. All that energy drives her through exercises like this. You see at one point, in the role playing, she gets so upset about what she's hearing at a lunch counter that she almost loses it, and that part makes me laugh. She's both directing the class and highly involved in this charged material.

How does Laina make the idea of social justice relevant to her students?

Laina follows up the unit on the civil rights movement with a look at social conditions today. This is a great way to respond to those who say that the civil rights movement was "back then" and everything has changed. When Laina takes her students to look at the Boston suburb of Newton, MA and then at their own home, Dorchester, MA, they pick up on the fact that there are so many liquor stores in Dorchester, and they see the differences in how the two communities look. She's helping them to realize that things haven't changed. They're learning to think critically by comparing and contrasting and then accounting for the differences they see. Laina makes it possible for them to imagine that, perhaps, systemic racial bias produced the circumstances of their neighborhoods.

Are the students too young to do this? I don't think so. Laina's thinking of their future. It's very important that she's given these children the ability to look around Dorchester and say, "This isn't fair." I think she's using The Watsons Go to Birmingham and the civil rights movement to empower the students and to illustrate that we needn't be stuck in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

How does a multicultural education benefit students?

I think of multicultural education as teaching, promoting, and developing a plural sense of reality in students. The world of biology is diverse, the world of nations and cultures is diverse, and also inside ourselves, we are plural as well. We have had many kinds of experience that touch us deeply, and they constitute identity in us.

I think that getting students to honor the complexities in themselves helps them to honor the fact that other people are also complex. So I believe in multicultural work that leads to self-examination and self-reflection: "What are my feelings?" "What do I think about this?" "What else is out there that other people have thought or experienced or known that I haven't?" "What else is out there for me to learn?" This is what Emily Style refers to as the balance of windows and mirrors in education. Emily Style is the co-director of the SEED Project, and in an essay she wrote called "Curriculum as Window and Mirror," she implies that curriculum is like an architectural structure which we build around the mind of the student. Ideally, each student will find a balance of windows out to the experience of others and mirrors of his or her own reality and validity which say, "You are fully real. Your emotions count. Your own development counts and is part of history."

What advice would you give teachers who feel they're not qualified to teach multicultural literature?

I think that some teachers may feel, "Well, I can't teach multiculturally because I'm not a person of color." Multicultural teaching involves interacting with students and interacting with one's own experiences, and having a wide range of strategies for thinking about, feeling about, wondering about, and talking about experiences. Students are experts on their own experience, and they should have a chance in school to think about, talk about, and take seriously what they know from what they've experienced in the world. That interactive repertoire of teaching is demonstrated beautifully in Laina's style.

Additionally, there are some teachers who feel that they simply don't have the cultural understanding needed for the literature of people of color. I think that was true of me when I first taught literature by people of color at the University of Denver. I was not in tune with the cultural nuances of what I was teaching. But hey, that's what homework and self-education are for, and at the deeper level, the interactive exercises that allow all the students to bring their own lives into the literature. You need to facilitate students to put their own experiences, as you also put your own experiences, in relation to the works of literature you're assigning in the class.

What is the benefit to students when language arts and social studies teachers work together to coordinate curriculum content?

We need literature teaching that corresponds to the complexity of who we are socially. As babies, we're all able to get along with many kinds of people, but then social forces may persuade us that there are some people with whom we shouldn't get along. Multicultural literature can get us back together to see what is common to humanity.

If a multicultural understanding of ourselves in the world were to be translated into national sentiment, that would make us, as a nation, sensitive to the existence of others in the world, respectful of the differences among us, and aware of a shared humanity. We need all that, and multicultural literature can help us in that direction.

Students need to learn that past events have an effect on their lives today. The thinking skills they learn in English, and permission to express their emotions, can animate the subject of history to make it more real.

At the same time, if they get fired up about the connection between what happened in the past and what's happening now, there's a chance that they will become better writers, better thinkers, and more interested readers. I have seen language arts students come alive because they were excited about something they learned about from social science or from history. I've also seen students who were unable to speak in public start to do so because they had something to say about a topic that was real to them. It's wonderful when educators can bring their different trainings to a flexible kind of cross-disciplinary teaching.

back to top Next: Student Work
Workshop Home Support Materials About this Workshop Sitemap
Teaching Multicultural Literature : A Workshop for the Middle Grades Workshop Home

© Annenberg Foundation 2017. All rights reserved. Legal Policy