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Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades

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

Carol O'Donnell

Carol O’Donnell
Manhattan Country School
New York, N.Y.

How do you build a safe environment for learning in your classroom?

A teacher constructs a respectful, generous, safe, expressive classroom over time where inquiry, diverse skills, creativity, and the power of different voices are valued. Using diverse texts and materials ensures inclusion and critical thinking challenges. But every great learning environment evolves and experiences highs and lows. Teachers have to remember that there will be moments of conflict and problems — and see them not as failures but as vehicles for growth. If anything, those are the moments that really help solidify the trust and work of the classroom, sometimes more than the novel, the story, or the writing exercise.

It helps when teachers model taking risks themselves. I think teachers ultimately are facilitators, but there are moments when they need to share parts of their lives or they also need to be able to share something that’s difficult or that has been a struggle.

And I think it really helps students also to see the process in developing curriculum, to discuss choices and have them be part of some of those choices. Valuing a student’s voice and having students truly believe you honor their voices is a first building block.

How do you plan your curriculum?

Truthfully, I have a complex pedagogy that incorporates a combination of philosophies and practices that I feel creates the “best learning” for children. At the same time I try to have an open framework for, one, critiquing my curriculum for its effectiveness, relevance, and inspiration, and, two, listening to what children think and say in the course of our work. I bring in the creative, the critical, the skill-based, and the multicultural, all in efforts to develop students’ mastery, achievement, self-confidence, and engagement as citizens. Lastly, I want them to be able to succeed in all kinds of educational settings, of high school and beyond.

Sometimes it helps to not have your agenda entirely planned as a teacher, and really open with questions. It can be very helpful also to ask students, “What do you think is missing from the curriculum?” I asked that one year and they spoke about how they had had so much experience with American novels and American history, and that they really wanted to think more about young people in other countries and other cultures. It was just a moment where I turned it over to them and I got this feedback that helped me a lot as a teacher.

You often refer to yourself as a “multicultural teacher.” Talk about what this means to you.

When I talk about “multicultural teaching” I mean many things. On one hand, I mean a kind of education that is cognizant about creating equal opportunities for children in educational settings by reflecting the diversity of who we are in our worlds, who we are in our classrooms, who we are in our schools.

I also see it as a kind of examination of society. As educators such as James Banks or Peggy McIntosh write, multicultural education beautifully explores the idea that identity is constructed, knowledge is constructed — a goal that many educators advocate. When students begin to “decode” and digest those processes, they also can more easily feel part of the process of constructing who they are, and hopefully can feel that choices exist as they are growing up. The best of multicultural education encourages students to see themselves as scholars, academics, and creators of knowledge.

Furthermore, multicultural education provides a toolkit of skills that are going to help students in the world, so that they can navigate society and be successful in many contexts. Some of that is inquiry, some of that is critical thinking, some of it is vocabulary.

Why is multicultural education important to you?

Multicultural education is a pedagogy with inclusion, diversity, democracy, skill acquisition, and examination of self and society at its core. In addition to the focus on equality, people’s lives, and the history of thought and culture, multicultural pedagogy builds competencies of reading, writing, and dialogue. So when people ask, “Why teach multicultural education?” to me, that would be a little bit like asking, “Why teach math? Why teach science? Why teach history?”

Multicultural education also becomes a valuable asset for students in terms of college and work life. People who somehow either have more experiences or multicultural understanding are also more successful in handling different kinds of situations. Yes, we want to teach our students skills that will create a better society. We also want to teach skills that will help our students be successful in their futures and whatever they choose.

Why include multicultural literature in the curriculum?

Multicultural literature provides a basis for thinking of the diversity of our society, for creating a more democratic country, for presenting mirrors and windows for students of their own lives and experiences. I also believe that all of my literature is multicultural. I think it’s important that school literature is diverse, but I also think that all literature can be deconstructed to look at politics and identity and power and good writing and everything else.

I think in every classroom, you want children to discover themselves as well as learn about others. When you start to look at the fabric of our American society, you want the histories and experiences of all its peoples, with examples of oppression, achievement, and specifics, reflected in your classroom. You desire such inclusion because hopefully you think such multiple truth-tellings and diversity of perspectives are right and equitable, and because you think it’s what democracy should be about.

How do you approach multicultural literature when you may not have background in the culture or ethnicity presented in the literature?

You take risks, you read a lot, and you act as a facilitator to your students. Truthfully, how many texts do we teach that represent our identities? Discomfort is natural in teaching where one wants the best for students and their learning. But discomfort shouldn’t be an excuse for not challenging oneself. I don’t feel that as a teacher you have to be some historical or cultural expert to introduce multicultural literature. The more we can model in our classrooms that we are learners and we’re in a process of inquiry as we teach over many years, the better it is for our students, and that’s really the kind of modeling we want. For example, I chose Color of Water for my curriculum because, first of all, I felt that it was a beautiful book, and second, because I felt that it presented a biracial man’s story in this very engaging way. When I started teaching the book, I found many other resources, started looking on the Web. I found the anthology Half and Half. I started to look for things that would help me learn more and that could also be material that I could present to my classroom.

I also think it helps to look at who is in your school and who is in your community, and how those people can be speakers or just a presence and an ally in the work that you’re doing.

What does multicultural education have to offer this age group?

Junior high school students are really travelers between worlds. On one hand, they’re very young children who need a lot of nurturing and support and encouragement. On the other hand, they’re young adults who really need an incredible amount of challenge and independence and pushing.

Cognitively, they’re really moving between concrete, literal thinking and abstract thinking. Socially, they’re really asking a lot of questions about their own identity, about the world. They’re both looking for role models and questioning those role models at the same time. I think it’s a time when self-esteem and the development of academic competencies are really critical and that schools and educators must facilitate that kind of development.

Multicultural education, I think, speaks to that development in many ways… Cognitively, it’s an education of perspectives and approaches, and really encouraging that kind of critical thought and examination of self in society. And I think it really helps kids develop a lot of tools of reading and writing, dialoguing and debate, and being able to express themselves and deal with conflict. Then secondarily, I think multicultural education helps support kids emotionally in bringing events and concerns that are a part of their lives into a classroom, into a curriculum, allowing a teacher to really see that dance between intellectual and social/emotional growth.

How did you assess your students’ work over the course of the unit?

I gave my students grades of different sorts reflecting their mastery of critical thinking, reading comprehension, participation, brainstorming, writing assignments, etc. Tests and quizzes also occurred on both the literary content and the actual vocabulary of The Color of Water. Lastly, much assessment in writing comes in the form of my editorial comments, highlighting the strengths and creativity of their efforts as well as indicating areas in need of development and clarity. Rewriting is actively utilized to improve and perfect writing assignments.

Valerie Kinloch

Assistant Professor
Teachers College, Columbia University

Comment on Carol’s approach to multicultural literature.

What we need to really understand is that there is no one way to teach multicultural education, or to get students involved in a critique of multicultural texts. What’s important is to approach the teaching by looking at who is being taught, and how their voices need to be a part of the larger conversation.

Starting a unit by inviting students into a discussion of identity, by looking at the poems and then leading into a larger discussion of various texts, is really provocative. And I think that was an initial way to get students in — to actually hear student voices, and for them to understand that this is a class about them, a community of learners looking and investigating and critiquing identity in order to do a final project that requires them to write and share their own stories.

What do you see as the role of the census video in this unit?

Carol talks about inclusivity, and how all of those different identity categories are not clearly represented in any census. I think the larger point there is, how are we to understand identity as something that’s not fixed or singular? I think something the video (Matters of Race) does is to enhance people’s understandings or misunderstandings of identity. Do we fill out this form and categorize ourselves as this thing that’s on this form? Or do we do a larger, deeper, more meaningful exploration of who we are? When she enters the text and the discussion of James McBride’s book, behind the story is the idea that there’s no one way of talking about James’s mother or James himself. This person represents this larger issue in society where we talk about identity by not talking about the complexities of identity. As they enter into James McBride’s text, they’re able to go back and say, “Hmm, how would James himself, or how would James’s mother fit into this larger issue of identifying oneself based on national standards, based on this form, based on data that’s collected?”

Comment on the use of historical documents in this unit.

The historical documents play a central role in students’ understanding of issues of multiculturalism — issues of race, culture, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion. Students are able to engage in history at the same time that they are able to understand how this history informs their understanding of the various literary works they’re reading and investigating, and will eventually write about.

What is your advice for teachers unfamiliar with multicultural literature?

My advice for teachers interested in using and incorporating multicultural texts inside of the classroom is to get to know the students, to understand their lives, to invite them to write about themselves, and to take that information and use it as text with which to enhance and inform their approach to teaching multicultural literature.

Also be aware of how students already have a voice, so we don’t have to teach them how to have a voice. I think we need to teach them how to enhance the voices that they already have in ways where they can look at the literature as example.

What can teachers do to prepare for a unit on multicultural literature?

I think one of the best resources for teachers to go to is the surrounding community. If you’re looking at a particular culture or race or religious practice, of course, doing library research is important, but even more important is to use the community as a resource. What sites in the community, what organizations in the community cater to your investigation, cater to your interest in multicultural literature? And how can you make use of the community as a resource in your planning, in your preparation?

Teachers can look to professional development seminars that cater to multiculturalism in education, the various books that are published on issues of cultural differences. I think we have to somehow make room in our teaching lives to grapple with these ideas, to talk with other people on staff who may know more than we do about a particular topic or group or culture, and then find ways to enhance our lessons.

How might a teacher cope with the politically sensitive nature of discussions of race and ethnicity?

One way to do that is by just getting students to read these various texts and getting students to really grapple with the ideas presented in these texts. I think another way to engage this concept of exploration of identities and student understanding of identities is by going back to the historical documents that Carol uses in her classroom. The historical documents are rich opportunities for students to look at the different issues going on in society during particular moments, but also for them to look at how identities are thought of during, across, beyond different time periods. Having historical documents inside of a conversation about multicultural education and multicultural literature enhances how students are learning to define identity across the dualities or the multiplicities of labels.

Sonia Nieto

University of Massachusetts Amherst

What is your definition of multicultural education?

A lot of people are thinking about multicultural education today in terms of the changing demographics. And that is one way of looking at it, and certainly an important way. We are more diverse than we’ve ever been as a nation. However, I started school over 50 years ago and when I was in school I was in a very diverse school. Diversity is not something new, it’s been with us since the founding of our nation, of course. Another rationale for multicultural education has been that it’s the right thing to do, the ethical thing to do. Now I buy into that, but not everybody would. I think it’s providing social justice for all children when they’re all represented, affirmed, and given access to education. But a third rationale is that we all benefit, we are all the poorer when we have only one way of looking at things.

How can we think, for example, that we couldn’t be enriched by reading the poetry of Langston Hughes? How could we think we wouldn’t be enriched by speaking a language other than English and being fluent in at least two languages? We are enriched by these things. We are not deprived by these things. So learning about the range of experiences and possibilities in the world will enrich all of us. Multicultural education is for everybody.

It always surprises me when people say that multicultural education is about political correctness because a politically correct stance is only one way of looking at things. I think that multicultural education gives us a variety of perspectives and many ways of looking at things. That being the case means it’s not so neat. It’s not so confined. It’s messy. It can be full of conflict. That’s what democracy is about. And if we truly believe in democracy then we need to welcome those disparate voices — those voices of conflict and tension and difference — into the conversation. Otherwise we’re just paying lip service to democracy. Democracy is not easy. We need to work hard at it. And one of the ways to work hard at it is to not squash the voices of people we don’t agree with.

When I think about multicultural education, I think of it in the socio-political context. What I mean by that is that we can’t just focus on the pleasant aspects of diversity such as food, music, cultural traditions. Those are nice and certainly should be part of the multicultural perspective, but it’s far easier to look at those things than to really confront … institutional polices and practices that are unfair to some people. We need to avoid this “holidays and heroes” approach to diversity or a “tourist” approach to diversity.

I also believe that multicultural education needs to be understood as basic education. It’s not a frill, it’s not a fad, it’s not an add-on, and it’s not something that is separate from the curriculum and the climate in the school. I see it as basic as reading, writing, arithmetic, and computer literacy. It’s basic for living in today’s world. And if we don’t teach all our children with a multicultural perspective, we’re not preparing them to live in the world.

How can teachers bridge the cultural gap between themselves and their students?

We need to acknowledge that 90 percent of teachers are white, monolingual English speakers. And about 40 percent of our youngsters in school are children of color. There is a very big gap there, but it’s a gap that we can work with. In fact, we have a responsibility to work with it, because all teachers need to feel comfortable teaching all students. I’m not just talking about white teachers; I’m talking about African American teachers teaching Vietnamese kids, and about Latino teachers teaching African American kids, and so on and so forth. There’s great diversity. We can’t assume that those 10 or 11 percent of teachers who are teachers of color are effective teachers of all students of all backgrounds either. All of us need to learn how to do this better. [Teachers] have a responsibility to see their profession as one in which lifelong learning has to be the bedrock of teaching. That means learning about the students who they teach.

The more they delve into it the more comfortable they will feel teaching subject matter that doesn’t come from their own experience. If we only taught what came from our own experience we would live very limited lives. And if we only learned what is our experience we’d live very limited lives. One of the foundations of multicultural education is that we need to go beyond our own experience. We need to affirm our experience and the experience of the young people who we teach, but we also need to move beyond it so that we can embrace a much broader range of experiences. I understand that it’s hard, but it is every teacher’s responsibility to reach every child to the best of his or her ability. And learning about the content of their lives through the literature, through the history, through contact with the individual families are significant steps in that journey.

Teachers need to learn the context as well. Take The Circuit [by Francisco Jiménez], for example. In order to look at that book — which has been a very powerful book for a lot of kids — teachers need to know something of the context of the migrant experience. You can’t just pick it up. You need to really immerse yourself in learning about that experience. But once teachers do that, they become richer for it and so do the students.

I think all teachers are capable of being fantastic teachers of children of various backgrounds. The way for them to prepare is to immerse themselves in the content that they’ll be teaching and also to look critically at themselves. You can’t just learn the content. I’ve often said that to really be a multicultural educator you need to first become a multicultural person. That means looking critically at who you are, what you value, how you reflect those multicultural values, and then looking at your own biases. All of us have these biases. So we have to look very deeply into ourselves, what we value, who we are, and what we think about the students who are sitting in front of us. Then we have to think about how to deal with those biases in a way that doesn’t jeopardize the students we’re teaching. I think that personal journey is as much a part of a teacher’s development as is immersing oneself in the content. They have to go hand in hand.

Why is the discussion of identity important in a multicultural classroom?

I think we’re getting away from a sense of identity being a monolithic thing, and being something that one develops and keeps one’s whole life. My identity is always changing everyday. The person who I was when I was a child is different from the person I was as a young adult and the person who I am now. And those shifting identities have to do with your own individual experiences and the sociopolitical context in which you live. They change all the time, and teachers need to know that because their own identities are also changing.

They can’t impose their own ideas of what identity is on the kids. And identities are not only shifting but they’re very multiple right now. For example, my granddaughter is African American, Puerto Rican, Native American, French Canadian, Jamaican: she’s all those things. Culturally, she’s more Puerto Rican and Spanish since my husband is Spanish than anything else. But I want people to recognize that it’s not easy to categorize kids just by what they look like. People might look at her and say she’s African American or she’s Puerto Rican. Yes, she is those things, but she is more. And so we can’t just have these antiquated notions of identity anymore of what race means and culture means. We need to have a more sophisticated and complemented understanding of these issues.

I think it is important for teachers to dare to engage in these conversations. They are difficult, but it’s worthwhile because kids are living these realities all the time — and even for kids who are not living these realities, they need to know about them. So whether we’re talking about Mexican American children, African American children, white kids, kids of any socioeconomic backgrounds, they all need to know that this is also part of our reality here.

What advice do you have for teachers in approaching multicultural education?

When we make anything multicultural an add-on it really doesn’t work. We need to infuse it completely: not only in the language arts, but in everything. And so it means looking at things through different eyes, looking for new information and new perspectives to teach kids different ways of looking at things. I think it’s a habit that we need to develop as teachers, as educators. It means learning to look at the world in a more complicated way.

A teacher’s responsibility is to present information in as fair and multiple a way as possible, and have children learn to weigh the evidence and to ask questions, to think about things critically. It’s not to present one politically correct or politically incorrect way of viewing the world. This is very hard, whether we’re talking about a first grade classroom or a doctoral seminar. We always have to catch ourselves and think about what we’re doing and the message that we’re getting across to our students.

We always have to start with what children know. You don’t stay there, but you use it as the basis for understanding the world and then moving beyond that experience and embracing other experiences. [Students] need to know that their experiences do matter. Their lives and realities, their culture, and the language that they speak are important and that these can be a good foundation for education.