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Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades

Engagement and Dialogue: Judith Ortiz Cofer and Nikki Grimes Commentary

Akiko Morimoto

Washington Middle School
Vista, CA

How do you create a learning environment in which all students are encouraged to participate?

In my classroom I try to create a community of learners. I use learning groups often because I believe that students have ideas to share. I tell them that this is the place for them to take risks. I have them discuss in their small learning group first so they can explore their ideas before sharing them with the whole class. During the learning group discussions, I circulate and listen and say, “Ooh, that’s really a good idea. Mark that down so you remember to bring that up in the whole-class discussion.”

I like heterogeneous groups because students who are stronger in a particular area can help those who are weaker. The power of poetry is evident when a student who isn’t usually strong in writing is able to convey through writing an image with which people can make a connection. That student then feels how powerful language can be.

How do you help students learn to enjoy reading?

One of the most important things I do to support learning in my classroom is to get to know my students as readers. Each month, I put 30 or more new books on my shelves to entice and engage them. During our sustained silent reading time, I help reluctant readers as well as confident readers select books. When I give them books and tell them I think they will like them, and then they do like them, they develop trust in me.

Three years ago, Nikki Grimes’s book Jazmin’s Notebook helped turn one of my students into a reader. At the NCTE annual convention in Atlanta, I asked Nikki to pick a book of hers and sign it for my student. Nikki’s book not only got this student stepping onto the path of reading for pleasure, it also gave her a sense of empowerment about school and schoolwork.

Talk about the ways in which you help your students become better readers.

From the beginning of the year, I provide my students with literature that I have reformatted so that they can record their ideas, questions, comments, pictures, speculations, and epiphanies alongside the text as they read. Since most of my students have not yet developed the inner voice with which confident readers ask themselves questions and make thoughtful comments, I read aloud with them. This is my version of “guided reading,” and it helps them develop an interior dialogue and thinking process.

What was the purpose of the open microphone session in your classroom?

The open microphone session after school was an extension of Nikki Grimes’s Bronx Masquerade. I offered it to my students as a voluntary experience of an intimate, yet public sharing of their writings. Some students who had been reticent to take the big step of presenting their poetry to an audience found this smaller venue less intimidating. For my language development students in particular, it is through the personal terror — then triumph — of experiencing the impact of their words and their emotion-filled images that they empower themselves.

Why do you emphasize making connections among all of the texts students have read during the year?

Within our classroom community, we build toward greater understanding of ourselves and the world around us. That’s why connecting with texts is always central to our reading. As students become able to see themselves in relationship to other people and other times, places, and situations, I hope they become more thoughtful and reflective, and less quick to judge.

The last quarter of the year is a time of rush and anticipation as summer, and then high school, beckon. Students are more confident in themselves as readers, writers, and thinkers. It is a special time of poignancy when they are daring to take more risks in exploring their notions about their places in a world that is expanding before them. I hope I have made them aware that there is so much more to read, and I hope I’ve asked them just enough questions to keep them seeking to learn.

How do you address cultural diversity within your classroom?

I don’t go into the students’ cultures overtly. I talk mostly in terms of stereotypes and perceptions and the façades that we wear. I use myself as an example, telling them that that they’re going to be like me one day and look at that mirror and say, “Who is that old person? There used to be a young person in the mirror!”

I used to do a project in which students would research somebody and write about him or her. They would interview the person and look through his or her old photographs and/or scrapbook. They would be amazed: “You were beautiful. You were handsome. You did all these things. Oh my goodness!” For me, something similar happened when I packed up my mother’s belongings after she died from cancer, and I looked at her yearbook and saw she had the same innocuous inscriptions that I had in my yearbook. I realized then that she’d been a teenager, too.

I think it’s worthwhile for students to have conversations where they can grapple with stereotypes that come up in a story because many students never have these conversations at home. Yes, the conversations can be uncomfortable. Yes, everyone has to be very clear about what they’re thinking and how they’re presenting it. But if they haven’t learned to reflect on who they are and their place in the world, then I don’t think I’ve done my job as a teacher.

Tonya Perry

University of Alabama at Birmingham

Discuss the ways Akiko engages her students in literature in the video lessons. 

Akiko employs several teaching strategies to get the students to interact with the text, to lift the text off the page for them. For example, Akiko uses the strategy of reading aloud in her classroom. Read-alouds are very important in any English classroom because students can hear the language, hear the voice, and hear the tone of the piece as interpreted by the person who’s reading it. That’s very rich in itself.

Additionally, the students have the opportunity to respond in writing to the literature during the read-alouds. This is a “writing to learn” activity in which they process what they want to say before they say it out loud in front of the whole class. Akiko, as an expert educator, knows that the more different ways students interact with a text, the better they understand its meaning, and she’s giving her students the opportunity to interact with the texts in multiple ways.

The students then have an opportunity to discuss the texts within their small groups. This can be somewhat challenging, particularly for a new teacher or someone who’s new to teaching multicultural literature. In order to do this effectively, first you have to set up an environment in which students can have honest discussions about literature that presents a variety of perspectives.

What is significant about the way Akiko’s students make connections among texts they’ve read over the course of the year?

I really liked that Akiko is able to let the students make their own text-to-text connections. It’s not easy for a teacher to step back here — many teachers want to tell students what those connections are. She allows them to do it. You can tell her groups were not novice groups: she’d helped them learn how to compare and contrast, and how to work together. That takes time. It also takes time to get kids comfortable with themselves being the holders of knowledge. The students are bringing in prior knowledge they have from other readings and from their own experiences, and they’re seeing themselves and their peers as authorities on the literature, rather than looking for the right answer from Akiko. She’s helping them become thinkers. They’re comfortable with the idea that a line in a text can have multiple meanings from multiple perspectives, and Akiko is comfortable allowing them to come up with those meanings, as long as they can support their ideas. The explication of texts sometimes allows teachers to give their own point of view, and there’s nothing wrong with that — students do need to have guided discussions. But in addition to that, we have to allow students to come up with their own connections, then challenge them on their thinking and have them support their ideas.

What is important about the activity in which the students draw symbols to represent characters in the texts? 

In the drawing activity, what is important is the way Akiko scaffolds the students’ learning. She first has them talk about what happened in the texts, then discuss the similes and metaphors in the texts, and only at the end of the lesson does she ask them to draw and write about the symbols. If she hadn’t scaffolded — if she’d started class by asking the students to do the drawing — she would have received illustrations of what happened in the texts. As a result of her scaffolding, she got visual representations of the students’ thinking about the texts.

I’d like to also add that it’s important that Akiko is using art within the English language arts classroom. Art is another way through which students can express themselves, in addition to speaking and writing. Anytime we can integrate music, drama, and visual art to help students extend what they’re thinking is important in the English classroom. Through this activity, Akiko is reaching those students who have an interest or strength in art and helping them build their ability to think metaphorically. A classroom where students can use their multiple intelligences to access the knowledge they hold will be a successful classroom, and Akiko does an excellent job of this.

What advice do you have for teachers about leading respectful discussions about literature that highlights racial differences? 

In the video, Akiko’s students discuss Nikki Grimes’s poem “Bilingual.” In “Bilingual,” Ms. Grimes talks about having two languages: one that’s “good” and one that I guess she speaks with her friends, “black English.” Bilingualism doesn’t necessarily mean speaking two official languages. Language is a way of communicating, and if you communicate in two different ways, you’re bilingual. That in itself is an interesting way of looking at the different speech registers that people have. As teachers, we can help our students understand that, actually, it’s not that one language is good and one is bad, or one is good but the other is better, but that they’re different, and each brings a rich part of the speaker’s life to the table. How do teachers help students respect that? It can be difficult sometimes, because students may already come in with the notion that one language is better than another, and that can be a product of our society or their homes or whatever influences they have. We see Akiko do an excellent job of scaffolding here. She begins to ask questions that help the students begin to understand and explicate this text. She does this by bringing it into the “I” mode for students: “What languages do you speak?” And when some students look confused and say, “I speak only one,” then she asks them to compare the way they speak with their friends to the way they speak with their parents. She’s helping them understand that we all have different registers, different audiences to whom we speak differently. She does an excellent job of getting students to wear other people’s shoes and helps them learn how to value otherness.

Another technique that helps her do this is allowing other students to chime in and help explicate the text for their peers. Akiko is not the only teacher in this classroom; she understands that she’s not the only holder of knowledge in the classroom and is allowing the students to use one another as resources. This is important for any teacher who is trying to set up a multicultural classroom in which students value not only the different languages their peers speak but also the different experiences they bring to the table.

How would you advise teachers who want to introduce literature from different cultures to a homogeneous group of students?

It’s very important that the teacher first do some research to understand the culture enough to understand the story. I can remember when I was teaching a piece of Vietnamese literature, I had to learn about Vietnamese culture in order to help the students develop the background knowledge they needed to understand the piece.

Then, the teacher might want to scaffold the learning by having the students investigate a community or culture and dialogue about that culture in class before introducing the literature. Through this process, the students may discover commonalities they have with the people represented in the literature. After the students have read the piece, if they still don’t understand it well enough, the teacher can call on other resources, including other texts and television series. The classroom becomes a learning community where everyone works together to find out more about the literature and the culture of the literature. They don’t abandon it; they stay with it. It’s very much worth the journey!

I remember in my own classroom needing to scaffold when we were working with a text that was not multicultural. One of my students didn’t recognize the term “record player,” so I brought in an old 33 rpm album. My point here is that we scaffold with any type of literature we teach, so we need to do the same for multicultural literature. Certainly we don’t say, “Our students weren’t alive then, so we don’t teach that literature.” No, we don’t give up, and we approach multicultural literature the same way. If classroom discussions aren’t enough to help our kids bridge the gap between what they know and the literature, part of the scaffolding process can be involving the community in the discussion. It might come alive for students if you invite someone in to speak to the class or ask the students to interview people outside the school.

Why is it important to teach multicultural literature in middle school?

It’s our responsibility to make our classrooms conducive to multicultural learning so that students can grow to accept others’ perspectives. It’s important for students not only to be able to see themselves reflected in literature but also to have a window into the lives of people from different ethnic backgrounds. Middle school students are so funny: they want to express themselves, but not so much that you realize they’re different. They develop emotionally and socially when they learn that we grow into our different cultures just like we grow into our bodies; it’s all part of learning to accept ourselves and others.