Skip to main content Skip to main content

Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades

Engagement and Dialogue: Julia Alvarez, James McBride, Lensey Namioka, and more

In New York City, Carol O’Donnell and her seventh-grade students explore themes of multiple worlds and dual identities. They read poetry by Diana Chang and Naomi Shihab Nye; James McBride’s memoir, The Color of Water; and essays and short stories by Gish Jen, Khoi Luu, Lensey Namioka, and Julia Alvarez; and watch Tina Lee perform a monologue. O’Donnell uses historical documents and a documentary video about the U.S. Census to provide context for the works. Through a series of innovative drama, role play, and writing activities, the students examine the social and cultural experiences of the characters and reflect on their own definitions and experiences of identity.

Teacher educator Valerie Kinloch notes, “Carol encourages her students to create their own stories, to share their stories, and to grapple with the ways that we can define our identity in the texts that we read.”

Video Summary

The following is a summary of the activities featured in Workshop video 1. The activities were part of a larger study of identity. In adapting them to your own classroom, students, and overall curriculum, you may choose to vary the sequence or timing presented here.


  1. Carol O’Donnell tells her students that they will be studying “dual identities and multiple worlds” through a range of texts. The students read and discuss poems by Naomi Shihab Nye and Diana Chang.
  2. As a whole class, then in pairs, the students talk about times in their lives when they came to recognize something about themselves that made them different from others.
  3. O’Donnell shows a short segment of the PBS series Matters of Race that explores biracial identities in the context of the 2000 census. The students then fill out a census form, noting how difficult it can be to categorize themselves according to a standard form.
  4. The class begins reading The Color of Water. O’Donnell asks them to write their reactions, craft discussion questions, and choose important quotes. They use their notes to guide a whole-class discussion about the book. (See Teaching Strategies: Peer Facilitation.)
  5. In small groups, the students analyze historical documents concerning legal restrictions on Asians and biracial marriages in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They make connections to the characters and issues in the short stories and essays they are reading.
  6. The students discuss Gish Jen’s short story “What Means Switch” and Khoi T. Luu’s short piece “Family Ties.”
  7. As a whole class, the students discuss “I Want to Be Miss América” by Julia Alvarez and “The All-American Slurp” by Lensey Namioka. They continue this discussion in small groups, using discussion questions they have prepared. Then they share their own written pieces, which they have also prepared prior to this lesson, in which they describe one of their family’s cultural practices.
  8. O’Donnell engages the class in an “identity exercise” to help foster discussion about stereotypes and “structures of value” in society. She plays three selections of music — opera, rock, and R&B — and then asks the students to discuss their first impressions of each type of music, speculate on who listens to it, and describe their own associations with the different selections.
  9. Writer and performer Tina Lee speaks to the class and performs part of a monologue on her Korean American identity. Following the performance, Lee answers students’ questions about her writing and her identity.
  10. The class stages a “Talk Show” in which students take on the roles of the characters from the memoirs, stories, and essays they’ve been reading. The students in the audience act as reporters, posing questions about the characters’ lives and points of view on identity issues. (See Teaching Strategies: Talk Show.)
  11. O’Donnell gives a writing assignment, three-page “identity stories” that the students will share with the class. (See Teaching Strategies: Identity Stories.)
  12. Students read their pieces aloud to the whole class. The pieces vary widely in genre and content, including essays, poems, and a rap. This is the culmination of weeks of thinking about identity, and the students respond respectfully and enthusiastically to one another’s work.

Video Materials & Standards


  • “Half-and-Half,” by Naomi Shihab Nye
  • “Saying Yes,” by Diana Chang
  • The Color of Water, by James McBride
  • “What Means Switch” by Gish Jen
  • “Family Ties: The Lighter Side of the Vietnamese American Experience,” by Khoi Truong Luu
  • “I Want to Be Miss America,” by Julia Alvarez
  • “The All-American Slurp,” by Lensey Namioka
    (Selected works available in Workshop 1: Readings) PDF
  • Matters of Race, Program 2 (“Race Is/Race Ain’t”), video by Lulie Haddad and Orlando Bagwell
  • Census form (PDF)
  • Historical documents related to immigration and interracial marriage in the 19th and 20th centuries, which may include political cartoons, newspaper articles, and court records
  • Three musical selections of different styles or genres, such as opera, rap, and rock

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
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

Adler, Bill, and Stephen Sumida. Growing up Asian American. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.
Stories for and about adolescents from the 1800s and 1900s are presented in this collection.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987.
Anzaldúa explores the uncertainty of living between two worlds in terms of sexuality, nationality, culture, and language.
Boosahda, Elizabeth. Arab-American Faces and Voices: The Origins of an Immigrant Community. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.
Boosahda uses interviews, photographs, and historical documents to explore the experiences of Palestinian, Syrian, and Lebanese immigrants in the United States from 1880 to 1915, and the lives of their descendents in Arab American communities.
Funderburg, Lise. Black, White, Other: Biracial Americans Talk About Race and Identity. New York: Quill, 1995.
Funderburg presents more than 40 biracial individuals who share their experiences from childhood to adulthood, and their views on race and identity.
Haizlip, Shirlee Taylor. The Sweeter the Juice: A Family Memoir in Black and White. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.
In this memoir, Haizlip tells the story and history of her family, and identifies the issues of race and identity her family members have dealt with.
Hurh, Won Moo. The Korean Americans (The New Americans). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.
This book gives information about the immigration of Koreans to the United States, how Korean communities have adapted to their new surroundings, and how they contribute to and are received by American society.
Lim, Shirley Geok-Lin. Among the White Moon Faces: An Asian American Memoir of Homelands. New York: The Feminist Press, 1996.
Lim recounts her experiences in war-torn Malaysia and the struggles she faced as she moved to a new country and developed her identity as an Asian American.
Root, Maria P. P., ed. Racially Mixed People in America. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1992.
This book offers ethnographical, sociological, and psychological analyses of mixed-race people in the United States, and discusses issues of racial identity, race relations, and the deconstruction of race.
Root, Maria P. P., ed. The Multicultural Experience: Racial Borders as the New Frontier. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1996.
Root presents essays that discuss the experiences of mixed-race individuals in the institutions and structures that race relations have created in the United States.
Tran, De, Andrew Lam, and Hai Dai Nguyen, eds. Once Upon a Dream: The Vietnamese American Experience. Kansas City, MO: Andrews and McMeel, 1995.
This series, for both adults and young adults, features short stories and poems by and about Vietnamese Americans and their experiences in history and in the United States.
The Asian American Writers’ Workshop
This organization aids in the creation, development, and publication of writings by Asian American authors. It publishes a journal, a literary magazine, and many anthologies, and sponsors workshops and discussions.
Asian Educational Media Service
This site helps educators find multimedia materials (including films, CD-ROMs, and slide units) for teaching about the people and cultures of Asia and Asian America.
Ask Asia Web Site
This site compiles numerous resources — historical, literary, and cultural — on Asian American culture in general, along with resource guides about specific Asian cultures. It includes sections for teachers, students, school leaders, and international educators.
National Asian American Telecommunications Association
This organization funds, distributes, and produces films, educational videos, and other media that reflect the diversity of the Asian Pacific American experience.
Becoming American: The Chinese Experience. PBS and WNET, 2003.
This site provides a wealth of information, accessible to students, about Chinese immigration to the United States and Chinese American life.