Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades
Engagement and Dialogue: Judith Ortiz Cofer and Nikki Grimes Teaching Strategies
Making Connections with Texts
Reader response theory holds that a reader’s understanding of a text is based on the unique connections he or she is making while reading — connections to personal emotions, life experiences, knowledge of other texts, and knowledge of the world. Teachers help students become more skillful at articulating unique interpretations by asking them to make three kinds of connections as they read: between the text and themselves; between the text and other texts they know; and between the text and issues, ideas, facts, and events in the world. Teachers refer to these as “text-to-self”; “text-to-text”; and “text-to-world” connections.
Sharing personal responses shows students that they are “holders of knowledge,” and that readers may have wide-ranging interpretations of the same text. The teacher’s role is to ensure that all responses are grounded in the text and its cultural and historical context. By reminding students to connect their responses explicitly to the words of the text, teachers can help them discover how making meaning comes, in part, from prior experiences and linguistic and cultural background.
Making Text Connections in Akiko Morimoto’s Classroom
As the students read a text, they relate to the characters, their emotions, and their dilemmas. The students also might relate to thematic issues confronting the literary characters, such as “Who am I?” or “What is friendship?” One of Morimoto’s students makes this kind of connection when she relates the poem “Bilingual” to being stereotyped by fellow students because she is biracial. Later, other students connect Grimes’s poem with their bilingualism, and discuss how they can express certain thoughts and emotions more easily in Spanish or Vietnamese than in English.
As the students read, they compare the text to other literature they have read or experienced — whether fiction, nonfiction, films, or visual art. Morimoto explicitly asks her students to make these connections by finding commonalities between Judith Ortiz Cofer’s stories and stories they’ve studied previously. Her students match the protagonists of “Arturo’s Flight” and Anne Tyler’s “Teenage Wasteland”: both are troubled teenage boys who find someone older in whom they can confide. Another story, “Matoa’s Mirror,” reminds the students that a Gary Soto character also had “layers” of identities. When making text-to-text connections, the students should note authors’ different cultural and linguistic backgrounds and consider how that might affect their portrayal of character, theme, conflict, and plot.
As the students read, they draw parallels between the text and the outside world, including history, a contemporary issue, or a current event. In Morimoto’s class, for example, the class discusses stereotypes of certain language communities. The students see that while they stereotype others’ speech, they, too, can be stereotyped.
Tips and Variations for Making Connections to Texts
- Early in the school year, students may not feel comfortable participating in open-ended discussions such as those Morimoto leads. Teacher educator Tonya Perry recommends taking steps right away to establish a safe environment in which the students feel comfortable expressing themselves and know how to have respectful discussions even when they disagree with a classmate. “It’s a good idea to establish guidelines for discussions, such as ‘What do we do if we feel offended by something someone has said?’,” Perry explains. “Teachers might want to let students know that it’s not appropriate for them to clasp their arms and roll their eyes. Instead, they should maintain eye contact and continue to listen. Students can keep note cards on their desks so they can write down anything they find offensive and think about how to respond. They should remember that they are responding to something a classmate has said, not commenting on his or her character. When their classmate is finished speaking, they can raise their hands and address the issue that’s on the table.”
- Another strategy, which can be used throughout the year, is to have the students discuss everything in their learning groups before sharing their thoughts with the whole class. As Perry notes, members of a learning group have built trust in one another and can bounce ideas off one another before taking the risk of sharing their thoughts with the whole class.
If middle school students have difficulty making text-to-world connections, bring in a current newspaper and ask them to connect the characters, themes, conflicts, or cultural milieu of their text and the articles, photos, and advertisements in the newspaper in as many ways as possible. After using this strategy a few times, students may bring their own newspaper clippings to discuss.
Benefits of Making Connections to Texts
- When students recognize and practice the three kinds of textual connections, they broaden their sense of both text and context. They gain personal insight into characters, experience new worlds vicariously, and recognize how a “point of view” affects a story.
- As students articulate text-to-self, text-to-text, and text-to-world connections, they recognize they have the responsibility and the authority to construct and negotiate meaning.
Creating Visual Representations and Symbols
Teachers can deepen and extend students’ responses to literature by inviting them to create visual and/or symbolic representations of what they read. Working either independently or collaboratively, students can plan and make visuals that convey their understanding of a literary character, conflict, or theme. Visual representations might include posters, drawings, collages, photographs, bulletin boards, sculpture, jewelry, or costumes.
Creating Visual Representations and Symbols in Akiko Morimoto’s Classroom
Akiko Morimoto begins by asking her students to discuss the writer’s use of similes and metaphors. This scaffolding prepares the students to create their visual representations. “If Akiko had started by asking the students to draw, she would have received illustrations of what happened in the text,” says teacher educator Tonya Perry. “With the scaffolding, she got visual representations of the students’ thinking about the text.”
Following the discussion, the students move into small groups. Each student selects a character to represent, and they discuss that character’s personality and any important physical, emotional, or psychological traits. The groups then begin to brainstorm objects, symbols, metaphors, colors, or images that might represent this character or be important to him or her.
As individual students make suggestions, the other group members ask questions to spur more critical and creative thinking. For example, in Morimoto’s classroom, the students challenge each other to make their representation symbolic rather than literal.
Once each of the group members has decided upon a visual symbol or metaphor, they write a detailed explanation of what it is and how it represents the character, draw a picture of it (sometimes with a caption or quote under the drawing), and present their work to the class. (See Student Work.)
Tips and Variations for Creating Visual Representations and Symbols
Teachers may finish with a whole-class discussion of the process and its effects on interpretation. Questions might include:
How did the visual representations add to or change your understanding of the character?
- How did your interpretation of the character change or grow as you worked on your project?
- If more than one person selected the same character, in what ways were the visual representations alike or different?
- What have you learned about responding to literature through visual representations?
- How might this strategy help us as writers? As readers?
Benefits of Creating Visual Representations and Symbols
When students create a symbolic visual representation, they build higher-level thinking skills of inference and interpretation.
- As students visualize texts and question each other’s visualization ideas, they come to recognize the value of complex and multifaceted symbolism.
- As an exercise that honors diverse learning styles, making visual representations can be especially engaging for students for whom reading and writing is challenging.
Open microphone (often called open mic or open mike) is a strategy in which students write and perform their own poetry for an audience. The poetry usually reveals the writer’s emotions about a personal topic or social issue such as identity, discrimination, or justice. Often students appreciate an open mic session after they write poetry in response to published poems, such as those of Nikki Grimes.
Open Microphone in Akiko Morimoto’s Classroom
After her students read Bronx Masquerade and meet author Nikki Grimes, Morimoto extends their engagement with poetry and offers them an experience similar to that of the characters in the book by organizing an after-school open mic session for them. The students are encouraged to write poems for the event. This not only provides a forum for students’ voices but also, as educator Tonya Perry notes, “Many standards were met in this after-school time. Academically we see voice, we see tone, mood. We see the ability to connect to an audience. We see the writing skills, the drafting that obviously has taken place. It’s academic, social, it’s emotional — the open mic session certainly spoke to different parts of the middle schooler.” (See Student Work.)
Tips and Variations for the Open Microphone Strategy
As the students select poetry for an open mic session, they should consider their audience. By selecting a topic or issue that has personal and/or social relevance, the students communicate their feelings and insights, but they should also consider what message they want to convey to their peers. One way to encourage this is to have them practice reading their poetry aloud in small groups before the open mic session.
- Their listeners might consider the following questions:
- How does the speaker’s voice convey his or her emotions about the topic or issue?
- Which words does the speaker emphasize?
- How do the volume, pace, and rhythm of the speaker’s voice communicate the poem’s meaning?
- How do the speaker’s nonverbal gestures, body posture, eye contact, and facial expressions enhance the performance?
- What is the overall effect of the poetry performance on the audience?
- If the students are revising the poems as they practice reading, the listeners can also ask:
- What is this poem saying? What is its message or focus? Is it clear? What words express it especially well?
- Look at the poem’s structure. How does it begin, build, and end? How well does that structure lead the audience through the message or theme of the poem?
- Which words, phrases, or images in this poem are especially powerful? How do they seem to contribute to the speaker’s tone (or attitude about what he or she is saying)?
Based on the feedback from their classmates, the students can revise their poems and polish their presentations. Teachers may audio- or videotape the rehearsals so that the students can critique their own (and each other’s) performances. If the live performance includes the use of the microphone, students should practice with it to find out how they can alter their vocal performance through feedback, “noise,” volume, and the use of hand gestures.
- The open mic event is often held in a community venue, such as a café or small theater. The audience is an important partner in the performance; teachers should encourage listeners to participate by snapping fingers, clapping hands, or stomping feet.
- After the open mic event, the teacher and students can discuss how the audience responded to the poetry performances.
- Note: Open mic sessions, such as Morimoto’s and the session depicted in Bronx Masquerade, are different from poetry slams. Both poetry slams and open mic sessions are casual, but poetry slams have a competitive component in which the audience “votes” on the best poem/performance. They are also more structured than open mic sessions, although rules vary greatly.
Benefits of the Open Microphone Strategy
Open mic sessions build students’ creative expression skills.
- Students who prepare for an open mic session learn to consider audience; they also become aware of the connections among reading, writing, speaking, and listening. For example, during rehearsal, students use speaking skills to convey their feelings and listening skills to offer feedback.
- In Morimoto’s class, the open mic session helped her students to enact an event in a book and therefore connect to it viscerally.
- By participating in an open mic session, students see themselves as real poets with a real audience. This encourages them to hone their individual voices.
- By writing, rehearsing, and performing work for classmates, students create a meaningful classroom community.
Additional Teaching Strategies Resources
Daniels, Harvey, and Marilyn Bizar. “Representing to Learn.” In Methods That Matter: Six Structures for Best Practice Classrooms, 96-129. York, ME: Stenhouse, 1998.
This essay provides tips and strategies for teachers in reader-response classrooms.
Graham, Maryemma, Sharon Pineault-Burke, and Marianna W. Davis, eds. Teaching African American Literature: Theory and Practice. New York: Routledge, 1998.
Teachers discuss methods for teaching African American literature in middle school, high school, and college English classes.
Keene, Ellin Oliver, and Susan Zimmermann. Mosaic of Thought: Teaching Comprehension in a Reader’s Workshop. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1997.
This book offers strategies and tips for discussing readers’ issues in class.
Lee, Carol D. Signifying as a Scaffold for Literary Interpretation: The Pedagogical Implications of an African American Discourse Genre. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1993.
The author explores African American discourse patterns as they are enacted in conversation and literature, and discusses ways of facilitating African American students’ literacy development through this discourse.
Livdahl, Barbara Smith, et al. Stories From Response-Centered Classrooms: Speaking, Questioning, and Theorizing From the Center of the Action. New York: Teachers College Press, 1995.
This book presents reflections on teaching with reader-response strategies.
Fisher, Maisha. “From the Coffee House to the School House: The Promise and Potential of Spoken Word Poetry in School Contexts.” English Education 37, no. 2 (January 2005): 115-131.
Published in an English Education issue about literacy and democracy, this article discusses spoken word and its use in schools.
Workshop 6 Historical and Cultural Context: Langston Hughes and Christopher Moore
Stanlee Brimberg and his students in New York City study the important contributions of African Americans to the United States and the recent discovery of the African Burial Ground in Manhattan through factual texts, video, art, photography, and poetry. The students interview writer, historian, and documentary filmmaker Christopher Moore to learn more about the everyday experiences of African slaves in early New York. They examine the works of Langston Hughes, and then — drawing on all of the texts — they write their own poetry and engage in peer review. As a culminating activity, the students take a field trip to the African Burial Ground Memorial, and then design their own postage stamps to commemorate the site.