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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 7: Social Justice and Action - Alma Flor Ada, Pam Munoz, and Paul Yee
Overview
Authors and Literary Works
Video Summary
Teaching Strategies
Commentary
Laura Alvarez
Patricia Enciso
Sonia Nieto
Student Work
Resources
Interactive Workbook -- Explore two poems using strategies from these workshops. Go.
Channel-Talk -- Share your views on the discussion board. Go.


Commentary
Sonia Nieto
Professor
University of Massachusetts Amherst


What can multicultural literature offer to young students?

Literature -- whether it's children's literature or adult literature -- is not only a window to the world, it's also a window inside oneself. Children are riveted by the conversations literature can create. So I would really encourage teachers to allow these conversations to take place. They are difficult, but it's worthwhile because kids are living these realities all the time. Even kids who are not living these realities need to know about them. So whether we're talking about Mexican American children, African American children, white children, or kids of any socioeconomic background, they all need to know what our reality is.

Immigration is an issue that isn't talked about enough. I think it's really important to include it in curriculum through children's literature. There are more foreign-born, first-generation Americans and residents of the United States than ever before. This is a reality. We're living through a historic time. One fifth of all U.S. residents are foreign born or first or second generation. Now that's really an amazing fact. If we neglect to deal with that, we are avoiding a very important part of our reality right now.

My attitude as an educator has always been that you take any problem, any question and when you put it in the curriculum instead of sliding it under the rug, you're better able to deal with it and make it transparent. This is really what education should be about: to look at things critically, to teach kids to engage with the subject matter. The subject matter in this particular case, in this particular classroom, happens to be their lives.


In my own experience, I did not read a book or see a book about Puerto Ricans until I was 16 years old. I was working at the Brooklyn Public Library, and one day I found a book that was about Puerto Ricans and it just stopped me in my tracks, because I had never seen anything in writing about Puerto Ricans. It was a book on mental health. I was just so excited to find anything that was about Puerto Ricans that I rushed home with it.

I think kids deserve more than that. I think kids deserve to read about their backgrounds and their experiences. All children need to see themselves reflected in literature and need to see a wide variety of people represented in literature. It's unfair to children to just present them with one reality, as if that were the way things are. That's not the way things are. That is why infusing the language arts program with a multicultural perspective is really important ... because it gives a sense that the students have a place in school and in our society.

Why is it important to teach kids about social justice?

I don't think we do a very good job, in our society or in our schools, of teaching children how important it is for them to develop their voice and their sense of agency in the world. I think we need to do a much better job of that. We have to start encouraging children very early on to speak up, to ask critical questions, to think of knowledge not as something that's set in place but as something that is changing all the time, and to see their role as connecting with and challenging what they learn. It's also important to teach children to really question and to be critical thinkers. It's important to use that critical pedagogy in the classroom as Laura did -- to have children question the way things are, to think about the way things could be, and what their role is in that. If we do this, then I think students will develop a voice and a greater sense of agency. They will know that they can make a difference in the world and they can't just be bystanders.

Talk about Alma Flor Ada's visit to Laura's classroom.

Alma Flor Ada is an incredible educator, and those children were really lucky to have her in the classroom. She definitely showed a tremendous respect for them and at the same time she gave them important questions to think about. She's done a lot, not only in terms of that classroom but also in terms of the children's literature that she's written over the years. She's been a pioneer in this kind of literature written in English and in Spanish. The books that she's written in English allow a whole generation of kids who are not Latinos to read about the Latino experience.

My Name Is María Isabel emphasizes the importance of names and how children are either affirmed or dismissed based on how teachers name them. Alma's book can make and has made a big impact in that sense. And of course, so many of her other books, such as the folktales that she's written, include the broad expanse of the Latino community. You know, she's Cuban American and she writes about kids from various Latino backgrounds, which I think is really an important thing to do. So she's done a great service to our community.

I think that it's important for teachers and the general public to really know the diversity within the Latino community, because otherwise people see us as, "you know one, you know them all." We're so different, not only because of our ethnic backgrounds but individually as well. You can get a group of Puerto Ricans together and each one of us will be very different because of gender, because of how long the family has been here, what language or languages we speak, different socioeconomic issues, and so on. So if that's true within one group, imagine within the larger Latino group. I think it is important to represent that diversity and not assume that everybody is the same, not assume that everybody eats tacos, not assume that everybody celebrates the same holidays or even speaks the same language, because we don't.


Why is bilingual education important?

I was a bilingual teacher in the first bilingual school in the Northeast, P.S. 25 in the Bronx, which opened its doors as a bilingual school in 1968. I was one of the first teachers in this school, and it was such an incredible experience for me because I went in there not really convinced that this was a good way to go. I was born and raised in this country, but I spoke only Spanish until I went to school. When I started school at six years old I spoke only Spanish, and we didn't have bilingual education. Within two months I was absolutely sure that this was a great idea, because I saw how the students blossomed with this approach. The entire school was bilingual -- not all the children were equally fluent in both languages, but everybody, from the principal to the custodian, was bilingual. So all the children knew that they could stop anybody in the hall and speak to them in either language. There was a climate in that school of acceptance and affirmation and belonging that I hadn't seen in too many other schools.

Language is an important part of identity, and so I think we need to do whatever we can to let students know their language is welcome, whether or not we have a bilingual program. When languages are affirmed in that way, it provides a way of telling children and their families that you can identify academically here because your language is part of our discourse. I think that bilingual education can be a really important way to let children know that they are an important part of the community. Teachers can encourage families to come in and tell stories, using some of the language and then translating. There are ways that teachers and administrators can make sure that they let families know that they respect the language that is spoken at home. Even when you don't have bilingual education, affirming the languages that children speak is a very important thing to do in the classroom. The teacher can give messages to the kids and to families that their way of expressing themselves is important. Teachers can say to families, "Please keep reading to your children in Spanish or telling them stories in Spanish or in Vietnamese or in Polish or in whatever language they happen to speak at home." I think that we're losing a great national resource when we neglect that. Too many people are losing their first language and then trying to acquire another language when they get to high school.



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