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Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades

Historical and Cultural Context: Christopher Paul Curtis

Laina Jones and her sixth-grade students in Dorchester, Massachusetts explore The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis. Jones uses nonfiction, documentary film, and historical photographs to contextualize the events in the novel and the civil rights movement. The students make deep connections to the literature through drama, poetry, and creative writing activities. Curtis visits the classroom, addresses questions, and leads the students in a writing workshop. The unit culminates with a service learning project in which the students create children’s books about the civil rights movement and share them with elementary school children.

In this interdisciplinary unit, Laina Jones helps her students become critical readers by providing them with a strong historical and cultural foundation for understanding the literature. “When you teach multicultural literature, it’s important to use a variety of activities to scaffold the learning for students, giving them the opportunity to contextualize the story and internalize the characters’ struggles,” explains teacher educator Tonya Perry. “It’s essential that readers understand the context of The Watsons Go to Birmingham, or else they won’t understand the obstacles the family faces.”

Video Summary

The following is a summary of the activities featured in Workshop video 5. They were part of a larger unit plan featuring Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963. In adapting them to your own classroom, students, and overall curriculum, you may choose to vary the sequence or timing presented here.


The students begin work by meeting in literature circles. As they discuss The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963, each member of the group has a role to perform, including Discussion Director, Illustrator, Vocabulary Enricher, and Investigator. The students are encouraged to ask open-ended questions, connect the book to the history they are learning, and connect it to their own lives. (See Teaching Strategies: Literature Circles.)

  • Based on a variety of nonfiction sources, including the Eyes on the Prizevideo series, the students have been writing a class play about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, with each small group responsible for one scene. This will become a recorded radio play, and in this lesson the students practice reading their work aloud in preparation. Teacher Laina Jones asks them to describe the emotions people involved in the boycott were feeling, and encourages them to let their voices show those emotions. They record the radio play after they have rehearsed. (See Teaching Strategies: Radio Play.)
  • Jones uses the overhead projector to show her students three photographs from the civil rights era. Guided by a frozen tableau worksheet, they write and then talk about what is happening in each, giving it a title and discussing how the various people in the photograph might have felt at the time it was taken. She asks the students to re-create the photograph in a “tableau” in which they mimic the expression and posture of one person in the photo, while other students help “direct.” (See Teaching Strategies: Frozen Tableau.)
  • The teacher or a student, in the role of a reporter, interviews the various characters in the tableau about what they’re thinking and feeling. The students speak aloud in the voice and from the point of view of the character they are mimicking.
  • The students form small groups and write short poems in which they are allowed to use only the words they compiled on their frozen tableau worksheets to describe the emotions in the photographs. The students then read their poems aloud, practicing showing emotion through their voices.
  • Jones introduces Christopher Paul Curtis to the students, who ask him questions about his book and his writing processes.
  • Jones organizes the students into small groups for their writer’s workshop. Each group selects one of five topics, based on The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963, about which to write a creative short story.
  • As the students write, Curtis and Jones meet with each group separately and listen to their drafts. They encourage the students to use their imaginations and voices in their stories.
  • When the students have finished writing, Jones invites them to read their stories aloud to the class.


The students work on the children’s books they are writing about events in the civil rights era. To prepare for this project, Jones had the students look at children’s books and talk about their structure. Once they chose their topics, she showed them how to find reliable information on the Internet to supplement what they’d learned from a variety of assigned nonfiction readings. Part of this process also involved having the students work on taking information from a research source and transforming it into their own words.

As we join the class in this lesson, students are at various stages of the process. Some are still researching, while others are writing first drafts or illustrating their stories. Jones conferences with individual students as they complete their first drafts. She reminds the students to write introductions that include a surprising fact or ask a question, and links her advice to things Curtis told the class the day before.

  • In self-chosen partnerships, the students offer peer critique on each other’s writing based on a criteria sheet the teacher has given them. Jones monitors the students’ work as they revise and edit their writing.
  • After the students complete their final drafts, they illustrate the children’s books. As a culminating project, the students will read their books to first-grade students in the community.


Video Materials & Standards


  • The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963, by Christopher Paul Curtis
  • Photographs from the civil rights era (from Haskins, James, The Day Martin Luther King, Jr. Was Shot: A Photo History of the Civil Rights Movement)
  • Frozen tableau worksheet (PDF)
  • Overhead projector
  • Poster paper and markers
  • Writing prompts related to the novel (PDF)
  • Materials for creating children’s books — plain and colored paper, art supplies, etc.
  • Peer response worksheets for peer critique of children’s books (PDF)

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


Beals, Melba Patillo. Warriors Don’t Cry: Searing Memoir of Battle to Integrate Little Rock. New York: Washington Square Press, 1995.
In this autobiographical account for adult and young adult readers, a member of the Little Rock Nine recounts her experiences as one of the first students to integrate Little Rock Central High.

Burns, Stewart, ed. Daybreak of Freedom: The Montgomery Bus Boycott. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.
This is a collection of speeches, interviews, articles, and letters written by participants in the civil rights movement as well as members of the Ku Klux Klan and other hostile groups.

Carson, Clayborne, David J. Garrow, Gerald Gill, Vincent Harding, and Darlene Clark Hine, eds. The Eyes on the Prize: Civil Rights Reader. New York: Penguin, 1997.
This reader includes decisions, speeches, interviews, and other primary sources of information about the civil rights movement.

Cobbs, Elizabeth H., and Petric J. Smith. Long Time Coming: An Insider’s Story of the Birmingham Church Bombing That Rocked the World. Birmingham: Crane Hill Publishers, 1994.
This is an autobiographical account of a woman who, despite considerable danger to her life, testified against her uncle in the 1977 trial at which he was charged with the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 Birmingham.

Haskins, James. The Day Martin Luther King, Jr. Was Shot: A Photo History of the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Scholastic, 1992.
This children’s book provides photographs of major leaders and events of the civil rights movement.

Kasher, Steven. The Civil Rights Movement: A Photographic History, 1954-68.New York: Abbeville Press, 1996.
This collection contains around 150 photographs that capture key moments from the civil rights movement.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. New York: Harper & Row, 1958.
The leader and spokesperson for the movement tells the history of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Morris, Aldon D. The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change. New York: The Free Press, 1986.
This book focuses on individuals and small groups that organized and spurred the movement on.

Sikora, Frank. Until Justice Rolls Down: The Birmingham Church Bombing Case.Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991.
This book recounts the historical circumstances surrounding the church bombing, and explores the cultural and psychological framework of the KKK members that perpetrated this hateful crime.

Parks, Rosa. Rosa Parks: My Story. New York: Dial, 1992.
Parks recounts in her autobiography the events leading to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, its development, and its results.

Randall, Dudley. “Ballad of Birmingham.” In Poem Counterpoem, by Dudley Randall and Margaret Danner. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1966.
Christopher Paul Curtis cites this poem as his inspiration for changing the setting of The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 from Florida to Birmingham. The work recounts the story of the bombing of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963.

Robinson, Jo Ann Gibson. The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memory of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987.
This analysis of the Montgomery Bus Boycott is written by the head of the Women’s Political Council, the black women’s group that sponsored the original one-day boycott.

Web Sites

African American World
This site offers a great variety of information and resources about African American history, art, and culture.

Africanaonline includes articles about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Little Rock, Selma, the March on Washington, and other topics related to the civil rights movement.

Brown v. Board of Education Web site
The Brown Foundation Web site contains background information about the historic case that ruled “separate but equal” education unconstitutional.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project
This site posts a collection of Dr. King’s published writings, sermons, and speeches, as well as historical and biographical information about him.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (New York Public Library)
This research center’s Web site offers online resources, as well as resources from the Schomburg Center about African American history.

16th Street Baptist Church Bombing
This site has a collection of articles and access to online resources about the 16th Street Church bombing and related events and issues.


Beyond Brown: Pursuing the Promise. PBS, 2004.
Accompanying this film on the Brown v. Board of Education decision is a rich Web site with written, visual, and interactive resources about the case and the issues related to it.

Citizen King. PBS/American Experience, 2004.
The site offers information about the film Citizen King, as well as a great deal of background information about Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders of the civil rights movement.

Eyes on the Prize. PBS Video Database Resource Page.
This Web site has teacher’s guides to accompany the episodes of the Eyes on the Prize series.

Freedom: A History of US. PBS, 2002. (See Episode/Webisode 14, “Let Freedom Ring”)
This site contains a “webisode” that gives an extensive history of the civil rights movement and its leaders. It also offers learning tools and additional resources that can be used in the classroom.

4 Little Girls. HBO, 1999.
Spike Lee’s documentary explores the lives of the four young girls who were killed in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing and examines segregation and bigotry of the time.