Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades
Engagement and Dialogue: Julia Alvarez, James McBride, Lensey Namioka, and more Teaching Strategies
Peer Facilitation Circle
Carol O’Donnell uses peer facilitation circles to encourage students to share their thoughts, reactions, questions, and observations about texts. Done with almost no intervention from the teacher, the peer facilitation circle involves the whole class and therefore places the responsibility for the flow of the conversation on the students. In this kind of discussion, students assume responsibility for their learning and are better prepared to work effectively in small groups. They also begin to learn how to have authentic, sophisticated conversations about literature.
Peer Facilitation Circle in Carol O’Donnell’s Class
To prepare her students for a peer facilitation circle, Carol O’Donnell assigns chapters from James McBride’s memoir, The Color of Water, and asks the students to prepare three kinds of responses to the reading: 1) open-ended discussion questions; 2) quotations that they found significant; and 3) emotional or intellectual reactions. (See Student Work.)
To begin the peer circle, one student volunteers to share a reaction to McBride’s memoir. This student then calls on another student (whose hand is raised) to contribute a related reaction. The circle continues this way, each student calling on another student to share reactions, quotations, or questions they have prepared, until everyone has participated at least once. Together they consider student-created questions by looking closely at passages in the text and talking to each other.
Tips and Variations for the Peer Facilitation Circle
- Although the structure of a peer facilitation circle is simple, many students are not used to devising discussion questions, so teachers should ask the students to prepare by bringing the text and a written response to share — such as questions, quotations, reactions, and/or connections.
- O’Donnell recommends helping the students craft discussion questions before the peer facilitation circle. She reminds them that the questions should get at “what you really want to talk about or think is important” in a text — they should be open-ended, but also “connect to our lives.” Thus, in The Color of Water peer facilitation circle, a question about the power of race is appropriate. To develop questions like these, students might try them out gradually: in pairs, then in small groups, then in a large group.
- Teachers can begin with ice-breakers, initial conversations about topics of interest. Teachers can also ask the students to begin by discussing potential benefits and pitfalls of peer-led discussion: e.g., appropriate group behavior, ground rules, and protocols.
- Teachers may intervene occasionally, but should be deliberate in choosing when and how. Some teachers keep time, set protocols, and intervene if a behavior issue crops up. Some refocus discussions that have gotten off track, pose new questions, or make sure individual students’ questions or comments are addressed.
- The teacher or class should determine protocol before the discussion. Will the students raise their hands or simply speak? Will there be a set time established? Similarly, the class may want to develop ground rules: e.g., no one can interrupt a speaker, or everyone must speak at least once.
- One of the most difficult parts of a discussion for students is learning to have a real conversation, rather than just a series of contributions. The students must learn to respond to their peers. Teachers can remind them to make connections and to speak in the circle only if their contribution is related to the last comment. A teacher might even note the best responses and talk about why they were effective.
Assessment of the Peer Facilitation Circle
- Periodically, students and teacher should reflect on the process of these discussions. The students can respond to questions like, “How do I feel when I am in the peer facilitation circle? What types of questions and comments invite the most interesting conversation about the text? What can I do to improve my participation in the circle?” If the group is ready, the class can discuss these questions in the peer facilitation circle.
- A peer facilitation circle might close with individual writing. The students might reflect on questions like, “What did I learn from this discussion? What questions do I have? What else would I like to discuss?”
Benefits of the Peer Facilitation Circle
The peer facilitation circle gives students responsibility for their learning. They can ask authentic questions; in choosing quotations, questions, and reactions to bring to the circle, they learn what they find most important and interesting. As teacher educator Valerie Kinloch comments, “Peer facilitation circles allow students to be responsible for the work that they are doing in the classroom in ways that go beyond these boundaries of the teacher as facilitator, the teacher as constructor of knowledge, the teacher as generator of knowledge. Here the student is co-constructor of knowledge, the student is explorer, and the student is questioner.”
- The teacher can observe and learn what the students think is important or confusing, which can help in designing future lessons or projects.
- Large-class discussions prepare students for intimate small-group work by teaching them to question, respond, and use protocols.
- Peer-led discussions help students accept divergent interpretations. The students discover that everyone has different styles of learning and brings different background experience to texts.
The talk show dramatizes the exploration of literature. Because students are generally familiar with the format, talk shows are a particularly engaging form of “reader’s theater,” or minimalist classroom theater in which the students write and perform skits based on the literature they are studying. In creating a talk show, the students interpret characters, conflicts, themes, and issues for a live audience on a classroom “stage.”
To create a talk show, some students role-play key characters from one or several texts, while other students role-play interviewers or reporters. Often, teachers will host, directing the flow of questions and answers among characters and reporters. After the class has experience with this strategy, a student might take on the role of host.
Talk Show in Carol O’Donnell’s Classroom
Before creating their talk show, Carol O’Donnell’s students read works by Julia Alvarez, Gish Jen, Khoi T. Luu, Lensey Namioka, and James McBride that explore issues of identity. Then students take on roles. O’Donnell comments, “Often I assign roles, as it helps me challenge some students to take on particular roles they might not have chosen themselves.” The students who will play reporters determine their media affiliation and write open-ended questions for a specific character or for the group. Each character-playing student writes an “identity statement,” drawing on the text and their imagination. (See Student Work.)
When the talk show begins, the students playing characters sit at a table with identifying name tags, while the students playing reporters sit across from them with media affiliation name tags. The panelists first present their statements of identity, then the reporters pose questions. O’Donnell acts as the host, directing the flow of questions and answers and occasionally adding comments.
Tips and Variations for the Talk Show
- Teachers should remind students throughout the process, as Carol O’Donnell does, that this activity must be very strongly grounded in the text. Though the students will have a great deal of imaginative input, as characters they must speak, act, and emote in ways consistent with the literature. (The students might even be required to use a certain number of actual lines from the text to make sure they have consulted the literature closely enough.) Similarly, the issues that these dramatic presentations explore must be true to the original text.
- The students might collaborate to write and perform a script based on a pivotal scene, chapter, or event in a text. Sometimes, as in O’Donnell’s class, this script is based on a text the whole class is reading, and the whole class can collaborate in writing it. Other times, a script can be written and performed by a small literature circle group to introduce to the rest of the class a book that the group is reading.
- Other formats for dramatizing textual issues include trials, newscasts, debates, or a vignette series.
Assessment of the Talk Show
To help students assess their own learning through this strategy, teachers might pose questions such as:
- What did you learn by playing a character or reporter?
- What did you learn about the text or theme from this conversation?
Benefits of the Talk Show
Students generally find this creative drama activity motivating and memorable. Drawing upon their interpretations and their imaginations, the students can demonstrate their understanding, synthesize information, and make sophisticated connections between texts and their lives.
- Including drama in literary studies provides access points for students with diverse learning styles.
- By deciding how to communicate their understanding to an audience, students are challenged to interpret texts persuasively.
- Role-playing helps students to empathize with people of diverse cultural backgrounds.
Language arts teachers find creative ways to help students see literature as a window into themselves. As they ask how situations shape literary characters, teachers also ask how the students’ backgrounds have shaped them. Carol O’Donnell takes these questions a step further. In a unit on identity, the students not only explore how literary characters articulate their identities, they also craft their own “identity stories” of various genres to share with the class.
Identity Stories in Carol O’Donnell’s Classroom
From the beginning of the unit, O’Donnell asks the students to think about their identities in terms of race, class, ethnicity, religion, gender, and culture. “Why does identity matter? When did you even realize you had one?” she asks. She begins with poems by Diana Chang and Naomi Shihab Nye, and has the students talk in pairs about critical moments in which they realized something about their identities. She then has the students fill in census forms; they note how difficult it is to categorize themselves. O’Donnell then asks the students to listen to music selections in different genres (opera, rock, and R&B), to generalize about what kind of people like each, and to think about which piece they most relate to. She also asks the students to write about and share in small groups a family cultural practice. Throughout the unit, O’Donnell encourages the class to question their assumptions about identity and examine stereotypes.
At the end of the unit, O’Donnell asks her students to collect what they have learned from the readings, discussions, and other activities into a three-page “identity story,” which they will share with the class. She tells them that the stories should capture the unit’s themes, and “some sense of duality in your own lives.” She invites them to write the stories about two parts of themselves: one based on their understanding of how race, class, gender, ethnicity, culture, or religion has shaped them, and the other about any aspect that they believe represents an essential part of who they are.
For the presentation of the identity stories, the students sit in a circle and share their work. O’Donnell ends by telling the students how much she appreciates being in a classroom where “we’re trusting each other to speak about these things and share our lives.” (See Student Work.)
Tips and Variations for Identity Stories
- Teachers should work with students to build a safe and respectful environment. The students are more likely to look deeply into themselves when they feel their ideas and identities will be respected.
- This strategy is well-suited to the study of stories, memoirs, monologues, poetry, and essays about identity. The students’ investigations are then grounded in both text and personal experiences, and connections between the two.
- Students might also illustrate their stories by selecting or creating visual images to represent who they are. (Teachers might have the students practice this by creating visuals that represent a character they have read about in literature.) (See Teaching Strategy: Creating Visual Representations and Symbols.)
- Students can combine writing with art, drama, music, or even food to create an expression of themselves that is meaningful in both content and form.
Benefits of Identity Stories
Identity stories in any form bring students’ lives into the classrooms. O’Donnell tells her students she considers their writings among the essential texts they will study for the unit, as important as the published literature they will read. O’Donnell says that this assignment is “a hallmark of multicultural education where students aren’t simply reading a text about another cultural group, they are also studying themselves” and reflecting on their own experience.
- Students understand that all perspectives are welcome, and that one’s home life is an important part of what one brings to school. As the culmination of a unit on identity, crafting an identity statement — especially in a student-chosen format — can synthesize reading and discussion into one personally meaningful whole.
- Writing identity stories helps students to find and develop their “voices.” They must create something that represents who they are in a way that is appropriate for their peers.
- As students read, write, and share identity stories, they honor the unique, diverse, and complex cultures in their classrooms. They discover that everyone — published authors, characters in books, their peers, and themselves — has an “identity story” to tell.
Additional Teaching Strategies Resources
Counts, George. Dare the School Build a New Social Order? Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978.
In this treatise, Counts writes that students should not be isolated from society and that their education should be tied to their communities.
Fine, Michelle, and Lois Weis, eds. Construction Sites: Excavating Race, Class, and Gender Among Urban Youth. New York: Teachers College Press, 2000.
This book looks at the social and academic influences that affect the way students form identities, relations, and social movements.
Greene, Maxine. Releasing the Imagination: Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 1995.
Greene makes an argument for incorporating imagination and the arts in education to allow students to find ways to relate to material and express themselves in creative ways.
Lim, Shirley Geok-lin, and Amy Ling, eds. Reading the Literature of Asian America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.
This guide contains tips for teaching Asian American literature.
Ling, Amy. “Teaching Asian American Literature.” Heath Anthology Newsletter (Spring 1993).
This essay offers analysis and strategies for bringing Asian American texts into the classroom.
Niday, Donna, and Dale Allender. “Standing on the Border: Issues of Identity and Border Crossings in Young Adult Literature.” ALAN Review (Winter 2000):60-63.
The authors use the ideas and terminology of border studies to create a framework that teachers can use with students in exploring identities in young adult literature.
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.