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Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades

Engagement and Dialogue: Judith Ortiz Cofer and Nikki Grimes

The program begins with a profile of the writer Judith Ortiz Cofer and then moves to Vista, California, where Akiko Morimoto and her eighth-grade students read short stories by Ortiz Cofer. They respond personally to the works, examine the author’s use of figurative language, and then make intertextual connections with books they’ve read throughout the school year. In a culminating project, the students create their own visual symbols to represent the characters and events in the text. They then explore works by Nikki Grimes and examine her craft as a writer. Grimes visits the classroom, answers questions about her work, and attends an after-school reading of student poetry.

As teacher educator Tonya Perry comments, Morimoto find many ways to “lift the text off the page.” “She makes students comfortable with who they are and what they bring to the table, and then she tries to stretch them. Through these multicultural works, Morimoto exposes students to literature that takes them to unfamiliar places and helps them see and make connections to themselves.”

Video Summary

The following is a summary of the activities featured in Workshop video 2. The activities were part of a larger study of the writer’s craft. In adapting them to your own classroom, students, and overall curriculum, you may choose to vary the sequence or timing presented here.

  • The students meet in small groups to rehearse reading aloud those sections of “An Hour With Abuelo” and “Matoa’s Mirror,” from Judith Ortiz Cofer’s An Island Like You that they have chosen as significant. They use different choral reading styles, either reading a section apiece or assigning different characters’ lines to different students.
  • Akiko Morimoto reads aloud from the third story, “Arturo’s Flight.” As they listen, the students jot down their thoughts on this story and how it connects to their own lives and stories they have read previously. (See Teaching Strategies: Making Connections with Texts.)
  • The small groups meet to discuss how the three Ortiz Cofer stories are alike.
  • The whole class comes together to share their observations about the writer’s craft in these three stories.
  • Morimoto asks the students to return to their small groups and discuss text-to-text connections to stories by other authors, including Sandra Cisernos’s “Eleven” and Anne Tyler’s “Teenage Wasteland.” After their small-group discussions, the students share their ideas with the whole class.
  • Morimoto asks the students to meet in small groups and choose a character from one of Ortiz Cofer’s stories. She explains that they will be creating symbols, metaphors, or similes to describe this character. They can draw their symbol if they like, but they must write about how their symbol represents the character. (See Teaching Strategies: Creating Visual Representations and Symbols.)
  • The small groups meet and brainstorm ideas, then begin illustrating and writing.
  • The small groups present their ideas to the class. When all the groups have had an opportunity to present, the whole class reflects on how they came up with their symbols and how the activity encouraged them to think more deeply about the characters they chose.
  • Students read aloud poetry from Nikki Grimes’s Bronx Masquerade and A Dime a Dozen (selected beforehand by Morimoto and a student). Morimoto reminds them to focus on the words and images as they read.

  • In their small groups, the students use handouts on the writer’s craft to answer questions about how Grimes reveals character, setting, and situation through her poetry in Bronx Masquerade, A Dime a Dozen, and Jazmin’s Notebook. The students make observations and connections they can share with their small groups, the whole class, and the author, who will visit the class the following day.
  • The class comes together as a whole, and each small group reports on what they have discussed. The students point out aspects of the poetry that they admire, mention ways the poems connect to each other, and share how the poems relate to their own lives. Morimoto probes the students’ ideas about stereotyping based on language use.
  • The small groups come together to prepare questions to ask Grimes when she visits the following day.
  • Grimes visits the class and reads her poetry aloud.
  • The students ask her questions about the three works they have read, including questions about the topic of being “bilingual” in formal “school language” and in informal “street language.”
  • After school, for those who choose to stay, Morimoto and Grimes host an open microphone poetry reading. The students read their own poetry aloud to the group in an opportunity to share their language and voices with one another. (See Teaching Strategies: Open Microphone.)

Video Materials & Standards


  • An Island Like You, by Judith Ortiz Cofer
  • Bronx Masquerade, A Dime a Dozen, and Jazmin’s Notebook, by Nikki Grimes
    (Selected short stories and poems available in Workshop 2: Readings) PDF
  • Handout on observing the writer’s craft (PDF)
  • Large sheets of paper and colored markers or pencils

Standards for the English Language Arts

General Resources


Allen, JoBeth. Class Actions: Teaching for Social Justice in Elementary and Middle School. New York: Teachers College Press, 1999.
This book describes strategies that teachers can use to make issues of social justice the focus of their curricula.

Barton, David, and Mary Hamilton, eds. Situated Literacies: Reading and Writing in Context. New York: Routledge, 1999.
Key scholars remark on literacies in specific contexts as well as broad practices.

Carey-Webb, Allen. Literature and Lives: A Response-Based, Cultural Studies Approach to Teaching English. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2001.
This book uses classroom anecdotes to illustrate reader response and cultural studies methods, making numerous connections between canonical works and multicultural writers, popular culture, politics, history, and contemporary youth issues. It is full of useful information about literary scholarship and theory, and provides extensive annotated bibliographies for multicultural literature.

Christensen, Linda. Reading, Writing, and Rising Up: Teaching About Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools, 2000.
The author offers lesson plans, essays, student work, and strategies for teaching political and social issues in the language arts classroom.

Close, Elizabeth, and Katherine Ramsey, eds. A Middle Mosaic: A Celebration of Reading, Writing, and Reflective Practice at the Middle Level. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2000.
In this collection of 15 essays, the editors connect literacy, reflection, and other themes of middle school teaching, to provide ideas for teachers to use in their classrooms.

Cook, Lenora, and Helen C. Lodge, eds. Voices in English Classrooms: Honoring Diversity and Change. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1995.
This collection of essays explores the need for new content and procedures in the language arts classroom based on the notion that “diversity connotes the challenge and reward of providing quality programs and instruction that tap into the experiences that students bring to their learning.”

Derman-Sparks, Louise. Anti-Bias Curriculum: Tools for Empowering Young Children. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Youth, 1989.
This book gives the rationale for creating an antibias curriculum and discusses ways to create an antibias environment, learn about differences, teach about differences, and resist stereotyping students.

Edelsky, Carole, ed. Making Justice Our Project. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1999.
This book considers the political implications of whole language classrooms, with particular attention to inquiry teaching.

Fox, Dana L., and Kathy G. Short, eds. Stories Matter: The Complexity of Cultural Authenticity in Children’s Literature. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2003.
This collection of essays by authors, illustrators, editors, publishers, educators, librarians, and scholars highlights key issues, debates, and new questions and critiques related to the issue of cultural authenticity in children’s literature.

Golub, Jefferey N. Making Learning Happen: Strategies for an Interactive Classroom. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2000.
Golub shows how to create classroom activities that include every student in the classroom and allow students to work on interactive projects in groups.

Hansen-Krening, Nancy, Elaine M. Aoki, and Donald T. Mizokawa, eds. Kaleidoscope: A Multicultural Booklist for Grades K-8. 4th ed. Urbana, IL: NCTE: 2003.
This fourth edition of Kaleidoscope focuses on stories by and about people of color living in the United States. It provides an annotated bibliography of books published from 1999 to 2001, and is meant to serve as a guide to selecting books to incorporate into the general canon of literature used in schools.

Lee, Enid, Deborah Menkart, and Margo Okazawa-Rey. Beyond Heroes and Holidays: A Practical Guide to K-12 Anti-Racist, Multicultural Education and Staff Development. Washington, D.C.: Network of Educators on the Americas, 1998.
This guide includes practical ideas for transforming classroom instruction and school culture.

Muse, Daphne, ed. The New Press Guide to Multicultural Resources for Young Readers. New York: New Press, 1997.
This guide to multicultural literature for young people brings together more than 1,000 reviews of picture books, novels, poetry, biographies, and other resources, which cover more than 20 different multicultural communities.

Nieto, Sonia. Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education. New York: Longman, 2004.
In this text, Nieto examines the necessity for and benefits of multicultural education for students of all backgrounds.

—. Language, Culture, and Teaching: Critical Perspectives for a New Century. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002.
Nieto addresses the issues of bilingual education and multicultural education together, focusing on effective ways to integrate multicultural education into curricula.

—. The Light in Their Eyes: Creating Multicultural Learning Communities. New York: Teachers College Press, 1999.
Nieto demonstrates how educators can change their methods and attitudes toward learning to ensure that students receive affirmation and a strong education.

Oliver, Eileen. Crossing the Mainstream: Multicultural Perspectives in Teaching Literature. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1994.
This book focuses on curriculum development and teaching strategies for multicultural texts.

Rogers, Theresa, and Anna O. Soter, eds. Reading Across Cultures: Teaching Literature in a Diverse Society. New York: NCTE and Teachers College Press, 1997.
This collection of stories, observations, and discussions about teaching multicultural literature, from a range of students, teachers, and classrooms, also provides a list of multicultural texts and films for children and young adults.

Short, Kathy G., and Carolyn Burke. Creating Curriculum: Teachers and Students as a Community of Learners. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1991.
This book helps teachers in defining curricular goals and making changes in curricula in order to focus education on the learning process.

Strickland, Dorothy S., Kathy Ganske, and Joanne K. Monroe. Supporting Struggling Readers and Writers: Strategies for Classroom Intervention 3-6. Portland, ME: Stenhouse, 2002.
Strickland, Ganske, and Monroe stress the importance of individualized and tailored teaching methods in helping children overcome problems with reading and writing.

Unsworth, Len. Teaching Multiliteracies Across the Curriculum: Changing Contexts of Text and Image in Classroom Practice. Berkshire, U.K.: Open University Press, 2002.
This book outlines visual and verbal language necessary for students in technology-rich classrooms.

Web Sites

American Book Awards

American Book Awards

The American Book Awards, established by the Before Columbus Foundation, acknowledge the excellence and multicultural diversity of American writing. The awards recognize outstanding literary achievement by contemporary American authors, regardless of race, sex, ethnic background, or genre.

Multicultural Perspectives
This quarterly journal, published by the National Association for Multicultural Education, includes literature and articles written by and for multicultural educators and activists worldwide.

The National Council of Teachers of English
This organization for teachers offers information about workshops, publications, and other resources for teachers. The NCTE site also offers articles and information about their activities and programs.

Rethinking Schools
This nonprofit organization publishes articles and offers Web resources that address issues of equity in education.

Teaching for Change
This nonprofit organization’s Web site offers information, workshops, and resources about equity in education for teachers and parents.

Teaching Tolerance
This site offers information for teachers about various resources and activities that can be used in the classroom to teach diversity and tolerance, as well as information about the organization’s magazine, Teaching Tolerance.

Additional Resources


Delgado, Richard, and Jean Stefancic, eds. The Latino/a Condition: A Critical Reader. New York: New York University Press, 1998.
This book addresses stereotypes about Latino immigrants, their social, political, and economic positions, and how bilingualism in education has come under attack in American history.

——. Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995.
This collection of essays deals with the social construction of race as well as issues of race that are embedded in contemporary social and legal structures.

Web Sites

Centro: Center for Puerto Rican Studies
The center provides access to documents and resources about Puerto Rican history and culture, with the aim of promoting social and political action.

El Museo del Barrio


El Museo del Barrio in New York City is dedicated to Puerto Rican, Caribbean, and Latin American art and culture.

Literature and Life
Literature and Life traces important literary contributions from African American authors throughout history, offering excerpts, analysis in a social context, links to additional resources, and study guides for students.

Pew Hispanic Center
This center conducts and disseminates research about Latinos in the United States, their diverse experiences, and their contributions to the country.


Fisher, Maisha. “Open Mics and Open Minds: Spoken Word Poetry in African Diaspora Participatory Literacy Communities.” Harvard Educational Review (Fall 2003):362-389.
In this journal article, Maisha Fisher examines the connections among spoken word performances, literacy, and cultural identity in two African American communities.