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Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades

Historical and Cultural Context: Christopher Paul Curtis Commentary

Laina Jones

The Harbor School
Dorchester, MA

Talk about your experiences teaching at the Harbor School.

The Harbor School is an Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound school. What other schools might call “units,” we consider “expeditions” — and as part of these expeditions we do field work and bring in expert speakers. We’re a project-based school. A lot of our projects consist of an art piece, a writing piece, and a sharing piece.

In the two years that I’ve been here, I’ve been to Maine and Seattle for conferences. This past summer I had an opportunity to take part in an amazing experience with a program called SEED, which is Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity. I went through a week-long training right outside of San Francisco, then brought the strategies for working with diversity and gender equity back to our staff and to our school. Now I have the opportunity to do professional development on these issues with the Harbor School staff once a month.

How did your training with SEED influence your approach to teaching?

At the SEED training, there were about 50 people of all races, genders, and ages together for a week going through some serious diversity training. I came back from California a completely different person and, lucky for me, a completely different teacher. I saw myself differently; I saw my kids differently; I saw my colleagues differently; I saw the work that I do differently. No matter what color you are, and no matter what color your students are, multicultural learning is a must. We shouldn’t be learning exclusively out of textbooks teaching from a white male point of view. We live in a society that is multicultural. That’s what our kids need to be seeing, but you have to see that within yourself first before you can portray it to the students.

I think that teachers have to do work within themselves with the “isms”: racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism. That then radiates to the students and makes them want to do the same type of work. Yes, I’m an African American woman who teaches at a predominantly black school. My teaching partner is a Jewish woman. She does that work within herself constantly, and our kids know that. Our kids look at us and see that we want to be here, that we want to help. They see that my teaching partner wants to help just as much as they see that I want to help. They see both of us really trying to get through to them however we can.

How did you enable your students to have open, mature conversations in the classroom?

To make students comfortable, you have to build community. Sometimes you have to put yourself out there. A lot of the kids know about my life and things that have happened to me in the past. I’ve brought those experiences into the classroom to compare or to connect or to relate. We also do team-building exercises to help the students understand that they’ll be together for three years. They all have to help each other walk across that graduation stage.

In the beginning of the year, students write in their journals more than they have conversations. We spend the entire first quarter on the issue of identity, getting them to think about who they are and what that means. We read The Gift-Giverby Joyce Hansen, and we ask them, “What gifts do you bring? What makes you who you are? Your community? Your family? Your culture?” They can’t talk about other civilizations and other groups of people until they learn how to identify themselves. They write an autobiography and create a time line of their lives. They write identity poems. We work with Tupac Shakur’s book of poetry. The kids love that and they think, “If Tupac can write about that, let me put my experiences into words.” The things that come out in their poems are just amazing. We do an oral history project where the students interview senior citizens at the senior center around the corner. This allows them to learn about other people’s identities, and at the same time do a service to their community. I have found that studying their own identities and learning about their classmates’ identities helps bring students together as a team.

The first three months of school are about enabling students to do discussion groups. Sixth-graders really want to tell you things; they’re just waiting for an opening. When I create a safe space for them to share, I’m prepping my students to be able to have a discussion, to be able to talk about themselves, to be able to listen to each other’s stories. But my kids will still pass the state and national tests. My kids will still know how to write. I am just establishing the way that they’re going be able to relate to and talk about all of the content that I have to teach by state standards. A humanities class isn’t authentic without open discussion.

Talk about the process of cooperative group work.

We do a lot of group work; that’s another piece of the Harbor School culture. The collaborative model is very good in middle school because it’s the type of support that they need. People need to learn to work with each other. In my class, I have a varied range of learners. I may have a student who is on a third-grade level in the same class with a student who’s on an eighth-grade level. Working in cooperative groups really helps both of them. It helps the lower-end students try harder and push themselves. And by helping the lower-end student, the higher-end student will better understand whatever skill we’re trying to teach.

A typical class begins with my teaching a skill in a whole-class mini-lesson; then the students break into groups to apply that skill. They finish the lesson by working individually to show that they understand the skill. There are times when I explain an idea and the students don’t get it, but by working with their peers, they tend to learn from each other and work it out. Cooperative learning allows that necessary peer teaching tool.

In the first semester, the teachers pick the groupings. We don’t know the students yet, so it’s the luck of the draw, and we change the groups frequently in the first quarter. By second quarter we start to see who works well together. In the second semester, we start to let them choose. They tell us their top three choices of people that they want to sit with, as well as one person with whom they know they cannot work well. They’re guaranteed they won’t be put in a group with someone with whom they cannot work. However, I don’t guarantee that they will be put in a group with someone they ask to work with. I try to accommodate, and I learn which students are able to work with anyone. When they choose their own groups, they’re choosing them to be successful.

Afterward, there’s always an evaluation of the group work: “Who held up their end of the assignment? Who did what they were supposed to do? What grade do you think you should get? Who was a strong leader?” Sometimes I’ll give them an individual grade and a group grade, but a lot of times I purposely tell them they’re just getting a group grade — and they’re brutally honest because it’s affecting their grade. When they say, “Well, Ms. Jones, so-and-so isn’t doing what she’s supposed to do,” I say, “Well, what are you going to do about it?” You create leaders that way — no student wants a bad grade at the hands of someone else. They learn to speak up for themselves and their group. They learn how to take charge. They learn to work together, and that’s how they’re going to be successful.

Why is it important for students to learn to critique each other’s work?

The peer editing process is hard at first. Kids don’t want to hear another student criticize their writing. The process we’ve drawn up has warm feedback and cool feedback, which means you give both positive comments as well as suggestions to help make a piece better. And you don’t say, “You should do this,” you say, “Well, you could do this,” or “This could help your paper.” It goes back to trusting that everyone in here is trying to help you get to the seventh grade, and we emphasize that point, especially in the second semester.

Once they get into the habit of trusting that the other students have their best interests at heart, then it becomes a really valuable piece of the writing process. It remains productive because there is a worksheet that they must complete and hand in. It stays respectful for two reasons: one, everyone is going through the same process, so no one is embarrassed by his or her mistakes; and two, they peer critique the second draft rather than the first. Since I have critiqued Draft 1, most of the big mistakes have been fixed. Draft 2 tends to have fewer errors for their peers to pick out.

When they critique someone else’s paper, they start to think to themselves, “I made the same mistakes.” And it sticks to them more — they experience it rather than just having me lecture them about it. Critiquing their partner’s work teaches them how to edit their own work. When it comes time for a standardized test, or when they get to high school or college, they can edit their own work.

Why is it important for you to teach the civil rights movement to your students?

It’s a part of our collective history, not just for the black students. The same way that the state expects us to teach about Massachusetts’s government or evolution in hominids, we know that the civil rights movement is a part of American history and needs to be taught. The empowering ideologies and the struggles that African Americans still face are things that I want to use to inspire my students. This is especially beneficial when we go into the “Urban Survival” expedition and the kids begin to look at their current struggle and want to take on some of the ways people in the movement changed things.

The children take a lot from it because they come to realize that there are things they have now that they wouldn’t even be close to having if it weren’t for the Little Rock Nine or Malcolm X or Dr. King. The fact that we can vote, we can sit where we want on the bus, we can go to school, we can drink from the same water fountain … I feel so passionate about this expedition because I see our kids as detached and not appreciating the struggles of those who came before them. They look at it as happening long ago. Therefore, the expedition has plenty of room for expansion and plenty of room for bringing in the idea of other struggles.

What we’re doing with the expedition right now is leading it in the direction of our next expedition, “Survival.” Our math and science teachers teach about wilderness survival, and in humanities we teach about urban survival. We push the civil rights expedition to think about: “What are we still struggling for now? What is still unjust now? We’re not at 100 percent equality. What does it mean to be able to drink from the same water fountain but still get followed around a store, or pulled over if you’re driving a nice car as a young black man?” I want my students to know that some of the overt, legal discrimination and racist tactics may be dead, but the institutionalization of racism and the covert tactics are still alive and kicking! I’m not here to make them angry, but I am here to help them see the trials they still face today. I want to give them a sense of power that they can do something about it.

Tonya Perry

University of Alabama at Birmingham

Why is the historical context of The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963significant?

It’s very important that the readers understand the historical context of this story, or else they won’t understand the obstacles the family faces; for example, why the family can’t simply stop at any hotel or restaurant as they drive south. So when you teach multicultural literature, it’s very important for you to first research and develop an understanding of the culture and what was happening during the time period of the literature, just as Laina Jones has done. And then Laina uses a variety of activities to scaffold the learning for her students, giving them the opportunity to contextualize the story and internalize the characters’ struggles. For example, the frozen tableaux and the radio play help the students feel as though they’re actually in the South during the civil rights movement, taking part in events that happened then. Even though they’re not acting out scenes from The Watsons, they’re gaining an understanding of the setting and the struggles that people like the Watsons had.

What are some of the ways that social justice issues are infused throughout the novel?

The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 has several lessons to teach middle school students, and one lesson is to accept yourself as you are. Within the text, there is a scene in which 13-year-old Byron gets a conk, straightens his hair. His mother is very disappointed because she wants Byron to be proud of who he is and wants him to keep his hair as he was born with it. Byron, on the other hand, wants to have what the world sees as “better” hair.

A teacher might want to ask students: “What does it mean to be yourself and be proud of who you are? What is it that you bring to the table that’s so unique that it makes you who you are? How do we react to people who look different from us, and how should we react?” We can talk about diversity and multiculturalism by having the students reflect on what they bring to the table as well as how they respond to differences that others bring to the table.

This text is so rich with examples of the children learning to accept themselves and be proud of who they are. I think, as a teacher, it’s important to scaffold the learning for the students and take the time to investigate the passages that deal with diversity. Byron’s hair is one example, and another is when the youngest child, Joetta, chooses a white baby doll over a black baby doll. I remember in my own classroom stopping and having the students talk about Joetta’s choice of dolls. At first, they didn’t see anything wrong with her choosing the white doll over the black doll. And in our world, there probably isn’t anything wrong with it, because it’s just a matter of choice — that’s the way the students were looking at it. Then I asked them, “Why did she choose the white doll over the black doll?” And the students stopped and thought, “Maybe the white doll was prettier.” And then I asked, “What would make her prettier than the black doll?” and “Why would Joetta think that feature was better?” As I continued to question them and they thought more deeply, they began to understand a little bit about the choices Joetta was making and how she was influenced by society.

How does Laina encourage open, respectful discussions?

When we’re teaching multicultural literature, it’s very important to bring in every student’s understanding of the text. If you only have whole-class discussions, then inevitably you’re going to lose some of the richness; you might not recognize some of the issues that kids will think are pertinent. If students have the support of literature circles, they can identify and explain those issues in their groups, and later they can share them with the whole class. I think that the literature circle strategy is an excellent way to address issues that come out of multicultural literature because it’s guided by the students — the students lead the discussion, they come up with questions that are relevant to them, they find vocabulary words that are of interest to them, they illustrate the text in a way that’s relevant to what they see in it. That’s the difference — whole-class instruction typically comes from the teacher’s point of view, and literature circle discussions come from the students.

In the frozen tableau activity, we see a good example of how Laina helps the students build from looking at literature on the literal level (“Who is in this photograph, and what is going on in this photograph?”) to the interpretive level (“What do you think the people in the photograph are feeling?”) and to the analytic level (“How do you feel when you look at this photograph?”). Rather than telling them what is going on in the pictures, which would have been easier for her, she allows the students to take chances. The English language arts class that discusses multicultural literature is a place where students can take chances, learn about other cultures, and expand on their thoughts. When we talk about multicultural literature, sometimes students have things to say that may be false or offensive, but this is the place for them to explore these ideas and have these discussions so they can learn from the experience. Where else in society will they be able to do this? Where else will they be able to challenge their own thoughts or bring their own stereotypes to the table and confront them? Laina shows her students that the classroom is a safe place to do that when she allows them to take chances as they discuss what they think is happening in the photographs, and at the same time, why it’s happening.

How might a teacher handle comments that may be inaccurate or offensive?

If you’ve decided that teaching multicultural literature is something that’s important in your classroom, setting up the learning environment is extremely important. A multicultural classroom has to have the support of a teacher and students who understand that everyone is going to be taking chances, including the teacher. All of us come to the table with stereotypes or biases that we don’t always know are stereotypes or biases. It’s important that you establish guidelines, prior to going into a piece of literature, for how the class will deal with differences of opinion, and particularly, what people should say if they feel offended. One way to handle this is to give each student a note card and say, “If you’re offended by something, I want you to write it on your note card so I can see it when I walk around, and you and I can talk about it before we have a discussion with the rest of the class.” Or, if your classroom environment is conducive to having a whole-class discussion right away, you can have the student raise his or her hand and say, “I’m offended, and let me tell you why.” And then the person responding would say, “I’m still not sure why you’re offended,” or “I understand why you’re offended now that you’ve explained this to me.” In the English language arts classroom, we’re teaching kids not only how to read and analyze literature but also how to communicate. It’s very important for them to learn how to handle situations in which something has been said that offends them or goes against what they believe.

In Laina’s classroom, you can see that she has set up a community of learners who trust each other. Laina’s students understand that this literature takes place during a time period when people were struggling for equal rights. Laina crafts the frozen tableaux and radio play activities very carefully, allowing people to play different roles. For example, she has African American students playing the roles of victims and the roles of people who are accosting others. She makes sure all the students play different roles so they get an opportunity to feel the way other people felt. This helps establish a safe environment in which students feel free to take chances in their conversations.

Talk about Christopher Paul Curtis’s visit to the classroom.

All of us would love to have Christopher Paul Curtis visit our classrooms in person, but there are several things that we can do to have him come to our classrooms in other ways. One way we can do this is by using Web sites and videos that have interviews with him about his life and how he’s used what he knows to write his texts. Another way is to talk with other teachers who have had the opportunity to meet Christopher Paul Curtis and interact with him personally, and they can share what he had to say that would illuminate the text, or enlighten your students about the writing process.

I think access to the author can be illuminating for the teacher and the students in two ways. From a cultural standpoint, it provides background that is important to understanding literature: information about the author, what he or she is bringing to the text, and how he or she came up with the idea for the story. It’s also important because it helps the students understand what writers do. Sometimes people, and middle school students in particular, believe that writing somehow comes from your head and appears on a sheet of paper. And when you ask middle school students to write, they think, “I could never write like Christopher Paul Curtis.” Well, it will help them to hear what he has to say about writing, because every writer I’ve ever heard has talked about the struggles involved with writing, the regimen it takes to write, and how many drafts have to be written before a writer is satisfied with the text. It’s an example for the students, and it may help them see themselves as writers and see that it’s possible for them to share their stories with other people; that their stories are just as important as anyone else’s stories.

What is significant about the writing activities in Laina’s classroom?

The writing process allows students to think and to grow as thinkers. Making choices about what you write about, and making decisions about how to present it, are part of the thinking process. In the video program, we see Laina encouraging students to make decisions throughout the process of writing and revising their books. When she conferences with a student, instead of telling her what to change, she asks questions about the decisions the student has made. The student then has to think critically about how she’s going to proceed, and that’s one way that students learn to be thinkers.

We teachers sometimes think that by correcting our students, by showing them exactly what’s wrong with their work, we’re helping them improve. As Laina has shown us through this video, we actually get the most thought and growth out of students when we question them and let them come to terms with their own thinking about their writing and decide what they need to do to improve it. Here’s a strategy that teachers might want to try in order to help their students through the writing process. Let’s say you’re reviewing a student’s writing after you’ve taught a lesson on commas. You might say, “Remember what we did earlier today in class? I want you to revisit your notes on that, and see if you can apply it to this paragraph.” Sometimes they’ll be able to do it, and sometimes they’ll have questions for you, but that’s how they’ll learn.

There’s a saying that “He who works the hardest learns the most.” Most teachers are very smart people because they work very hard, but what we want is for our students to think and learn, and Laina shows us how to do that through questioning. The result is that the students come to depend on themselves, not on the teacher, for their thinking and learning.

What can students learn from writing the children’s books and sharing them with younger students?

There are several stages to the writing process, including brainstorming, drafting, and editing, and the final stage is publication. Usually, the teacher is the final audience for the published piece, but middle school students like having a different audience occasionally. Some of them will feel more invested in the project if they know that it will be read by someone other than the teacher. Laina has done two things here. In addition to giving her students a new audience, she’s enabling them to contribute something to their community. They are enriching the education of other children in their community by passing on their knowledge to a younger generation. That’s what we want for middle school students, who are self-absorbed by nature. She’s making them stretch: getting them to see the larger world and the fact that they can affect the larger world. It’s very important that we produce students who are not only interested in who they are, but in sharing who they are with other people. That’s what multicultural literature is about. It’s not about keeping your knowledge about your culture to yourself, it’s about sharing it with other people and helping others learn more about you and learn to accept you for what you bring to the table.

Peggy McIntosh

Founder and Co-Director
National SEED Project on Inclusive Curriculum (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity)

How does Laina engage her students in the classroom?

Laina respects her students, and you can tell she does by the way she looks at them and the way they look at her. She listens to them, and that sets a model for their listening to each other. When a student speaks, she pauses. She doesn’t jump in to validate or invalidate something that somebody has said. All the children, therefore, are included. For example, in the poetry-writing activity, Laina insists that every word contributed by every child be included in the final poem. The message this delivers is that every contribution counts; there’s no such thing as an unsatisfactory contribution. This is the kind of teaching, I think, that can keep children engaged in school: wanting to learn, coming to know themselves as learners, and then, as part of this unit, coming to know themselves as actors [in the dramatic activities] and as teachers of younger children.

How does Laina encourage her students to write?

I notice how comfortable the students are with writing, and that they are also comfortable with critiquing each other’s work, and comfortable with having their own work critiqued. Laina does very little correcting; she’s always eliciting comments from the students. She empowers the students to become writers and to see writing as something that can be useful to them. It’s a very powerful model of teaching writing.

What are the students learning when they create the radio play?

When Laina’s students create a radio play about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, they’re bringing it back to life. Pedagogically, that’s very smart, and it’s also true historically. We are in history and history is in us: we reenact the struggles of the civil rights movement continually in our society.

The radio play also helps Laina educate her students in media literacy. When the students write the drama, they come to understand that people create media. Dramas don’t spring out of the TV set or the radio by themselves. Being media literate also means understanding that media come to us in different versions. The radio drama is the students’ own version of what happened. Once they’ve written the radio play, they can begin to look at the media and ask questions such as, “Who wrote this version?”, “What do I think of the way this version tells things?”, and “Who is best served by this version?”

I also value the radio play structure that Laina has created. Each small group of students wrote one scene, and the radio play included all the scenes. When they work together to write their scenes, they don’t just wing it; they’ve studied pictures, they’ve watched videos such as Eyes on the Prize. They’re being educated in the uses and limits of several kinds of media.

In what ways are the frozen tableaux effective?

One thing about multicultural teaching is that it is plural: it involves deeper understanding of oneself and others. The frozen tableau activity draws on the students’ ability to empathize with others, enact scenes that they weren’t in, and take them seriously. You know Laina is successful when she achieves race crossover, persuading kids to play out the palpable life experience of somebody who is not of their race. How did she carry off this degree of empathy and of role switching? I think that she is a very intentional teacher. She has her eyes on the prize: she wants these children to grow and develop. She has tremendous faith that they all will and can. All that energy drives her through exercises like this. You see at one point, in the role playing, she gets so upset about what she’s hearing at a lunch counter that she almost loses it, and that part makes me laugh. She’s both directing the class and highly involved in this charged material.

How does Laina make the idea of social justice relevant to her students?

Laina follows up the unit on the civil rights movement with a look at social conditions today. This is a great way to respond to those who say that the civil rights movement was “back then” and everything has changed. When Laina takes her students to look at the Boston suburb of Newton, MA and then at their own home, Dorchester, MA, they pick up on the fact that there are so many liquor stores in Dorchester, and they see the differences in how the two communities look. She’s helping them to realize that things haven’t changed. They’re learning to think critically by comparing and contrasting and then accounting for the differences they see. Laina makes it possible for them to imagine that, perhaps, systemic racial bias produced the circumstances of their neighborhoods.

Are the students too young to do this? I don’t think so. Laina’s thinking of their future. It’s very important that she’s given these children the ability to look around Dorchester and say, “This isn’t fair.” I think she’s using The Watsons Go to Birmingham and the civil rights movement to empower the students and to illustrate that we needn’t be stuck in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

How does a multicultural education benefit students?

I think of multicultural education as teaching, promoting, and developing a plural sense of reality in students. The world of biology is diverse, the world of nations and cultures is diverse, and also inside ourselves, we are plural as well. We have had many kinds of experience that touch us deeply, and they constitute identity in us.

I think that getting students to honor the complexities in themselves helps them to honor the fact that other people are also complex. So I believe in multicultural work that leads to self-examination and self-reflection: “What are my feelings?” “What do I think about this?” “What else is out there that other people have thought or experienced or known that I haven’t?” “What else is out there for me to learn?” This is what Emily Style refers to as the balance of windows and mirrors in education. Emily Style is the co-director of the SEED Project, and in an essay she wrote called “Curriculum as Window and Mirror,” she implies that curriculum is like an architectural structure which we build around the mind of the student. Ideally, each student will find a balance of windows out to the experience of others and mirrors of his or her own reality and validity which say, “You are fully real. Your emotions count. Your own development counts and is part of history.”

What advice would you give teachers who feel they’re not qualified to teach multicultural literature?

I think that some teachers may feel, “Well, I can’t teach multiculturally because I’m not a person of color.” Multicultural teaching involves interacting with students and interacting with one’s own experiences, and having a wide range of strategies for thinking about, feeling about, wondering about, and talking about experiences. Students are experts on their own experience, and they should have a chance in school to think about, talk about, and take seriously what they know from what they’ve experienced in the world. That interactive repertoire of teaching is demonstrated beautifully in Laina’s style.

Additionally, there are some teachers who feel that they simply don’t have the cultural understanding needed for the literature of people of color. I think that was true of me when I first taught literature by people of color at the University of Denver. I was not in tune with the cultural nuances of what I was teaching. But hey, that’s what homework and self-education are for, and at the deeper level, the interactive exercises that allow all the students to bring their own lives into the literature. You need to facilitate students to put their own experiences, as you also put your own experiences, in relation to the works of literature you’re assigning in the class.

What is the benefit to students when language arts and social studies teachers work together to coordinate curriculum content?

We need literature teaching that corresponds to the complexity of who we are socially. As babies, we’re all able to get along with many kinds of people, but then social forces may persuade us that there are some people with whom we shouldn’t get along. Multicultural literature can get us back together to see what is common to humanity.

If a multicultural understanding of ourselves in the world were to be translated into national sentiment, that would make us, as a nation, sensitive to the existence of others in the world, respectful of the differences among us, and aware of a shared humanity. We need all that, and multicultural literature can help us in that direction.

Students need to learn that past events have an effect on their lives today. The thinking skills they learn in English, and permission to express their emotions, can animate the subject of history to make it more real.

At the same time, if they get fired up about the connection between what happened in the past and what’s happening now, there’s a chance that they will become better writers, better thinkers, and more interested readers. I have seen language arts students come alive because they were excited about something they learned about from social science or from history. I’ve also seen students who were unable to speak in public start to do so because they had something to say about a topic that was real to them. It’s wonderful when educators can bring their different trainings to a flexible kind of cross-disciplinary teaching.