Skip to main content Skip to main content

Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades

Historical and Cultural Context: Langston Hughes and Christopher Moore Commentary

Stanlee Brimberg

Bank Street School for Children
New York, N.Y.

How do you plan the content for your class?

When I’m choosing language arts topics, I think about it several different ways. First of all, I have to look at the group that I’m teaching. I think each school has its own culture. It has its own crowd. It has its own neighborhood. It has its own values. But even within that group of kids, there’s going to be a range of skills; there’s going to be a range of prior knowledge. Some kids are very savvy politically, others not. Some kids know a lot of history, some kids don’t know any. Some kids read The New York Times and some kids don’t look at a newspaper. Having a diverse group of kids, it’s always going to be the case.

So I have to think of presenting material that’s accessible for different kinds of learners. You present the information and you present the content, the skills, and the concepts in a way so that different kids who are in different places can access it, and they can make meaning for themselves and they go to the next step. Kids starting at different places are going to end up at different places, but you have to really try to get content rich enough so that it can be gotten at by a lot of different kinds of kids.

One of the things that is really important to me is that kids have time to really digest a piece of content. I think what happens too often is that the pacing is driven by the content. The luxury at Bank Street — which shouldn’t be a luxury; I think it really should be the way that it is — is that we will bite off a little bit less and we’ll go over it in a number of different ways over a longer period of time. You need to have that information reinforced by reencountering it. So the more times you can go over it, the better — and of course — there’s a limit. One of your most precious resources, maybe the most precious, is time.

Why did you vary the activities in your unit as you did?

The methodology that we like to use in the school involves kids reencountering similar material in different media. Kids read some material and then we discuss it, that’s two ways. Then they might have to write about it, that’s the third way. If they reencounter it in a film or if they interview somebody, that’s the fourth or fifth way, and pretty soon they’re getting the sense that they know something, are developing some expertise.

Different kids access content through different senses. Kids learn at different rates. Some kids remember things right away and others don’t. So for some, this is going to be reinforcement; for others, it’s going to be the first time that it really makes sense to them, because they’re going to hear it and they’re going to see some pictures, and something is going to click. It’s not repetition. What this is, it’s using different senses, different parts of your brain, and things come together when you reencounter the material in that way.

Why did you assign the writing of the poem?

Very often what I’ll do … is put together a menu of options so that kids who are more comfortable expressing themselves through a piece of art will be able to do that. Some kids, believe it or not, like to make a straight research project about something, a research report. Some kids might make a cartoon. Some kids might write a poem. Some kids might act out a scene about it. But that’s where closure comes.

Conveniently, most of the times when they do a project like that, it serves as the assessment piece. You don’t have to give them a test after that. You can, and I sometimes do — I’m not against tests — but this is a good way to see what kids know.

Now in this case, it was Langston Hughes that we were reading, and since we had all this other information around the African Burial Ground, it made sense to me to say to the kids, “I want you to write a poem about one of the people buried in the African Burial Ground.”

Also, if you make something with what you’ve learned, it’s more likely to mean something. You’ll remember that time that you made that poem or the time that you shared that poem, the time that you published that poem or the time that you made that memorial model or that commemorative stamp.

Talk about the peer review process in your classroom.

I think the first thing that the kids need to do is share their poems and know that they’re not going to get wiped out. I really do believe that there are very few times when kids express themselves that you can’t say something good about it. So that’s a good place to start, because if you’re a little shy and you raise your hand or the teacher calls on you, and you hear something positive, it makes you relax a little bit, and it will be a little easier next time.

The next step is to put kids together in groups of three or maybe in pairs and have them look at each other’s poetry and use some of the editing skills that they use in other kinds of writing and make suggestions. So I give specific questions. First of all, I have each listener tell the writer what the poem was about and what he or she liked about it, again in that small group, and really to try and identify the part of the poem that’s strongest. What are the good parts that strengthen it? Let’s somehow fortify them, either with more [or] different ideas or by expanding an idea. And then if there are words that are kind of dead wood, let’s get rid of them.

I like to reinforce the notion that, like almost everything else in expression, you’re jumping in, you’re staying a while to get something done, and then you’re jumping out. So I ask kids to pay attention to how the writer gets into the poem, what’s going on and why you’re there, and how you’re getting out.

How do you decide when to intervene and when to step back?

I think it’s very, very important for kids to take charge of what they’re doing. That’s why you have to wait until a certain place in the unit to give them the opportunity to make something, because they have to have their tools, they have to have the skills to use the tools, and they have to have to the ingredients. And then you can let them go.

You stand on the side and you watch, and if you see that there’s a little piece that they need, you step in. So I have to keep on giving them skills to support the projects that they make or to support the expressions they make. However, what I don’t want to do is jump in there and correct every mistake that I hear them make. I’m always tempted to jump in to correct, to jump in and collaborate. You have to hold yourself back. You have to let the kids work.

How do you assess your students’ work?

With a piece of historically related, literature-related creative writing, it wouldn’t be fair, or even possible, to have some kind of standard expectation. What’s learned over the course of a three-week unit involving history and literature, and then how a kid expresses that in a poem, is going to be different for different kids.

Having said that, there are usually five areas I think about for a piece of writing. First, I notice whether the student did all the parts, and made deadlines. Next, I think about the quality of the ideas, or the number of ideas, or the language in which the ideas are expressed. Third, I look at clarity and organization, which can be a little tricky to assess when the piece is a poem — it’s very personal, and it may have its own logic. After that, I look at the mechanical aspects or the rhetorical aspects, I try to notice how tuned in to the conventions of language the writer is. Last, I think about pride and energy. Was there, in my opinion, a real attempt to make something good that is respectful of the reader or listener, something that shows the self-respect of the writer?

I have a sense of how kids talk. I know how they answer questions, for example. I have some experiences already of how they write essays, how they use evidence. And I’m really much more interested in developing over a period of time clarity of expression, ability to use evidence. So I have a kind of bigger view. I’m not going to use this as the be all and end all of what they learned in this unit. It’s more about where they are in the process of self-expression. And I’m going to take note if they did or didn’t use information and how well they used it or how much of the information they used, and I’m going to make that part of the bigger assessment over time.

Why did you choose to do the stamp activity?

I had been thinking about the stamp activity pretty much right along from the time I started teaching about the African Burial Ground, because the Office of Interpretation and friends had been lobbying the postal service to do a commemorative stamp about the African Burial Ground for years. They came close last year and made some kind of seal to honor the reinterment, but no stamp. We could have also considered doing some kind of memorial. For a while, before they began to reinter the remains, they were thinking about what should the memorial be like, and so there was a while where I would ask the children to design a memorial.

You want to try to do something where the kids can access as much of what they’ve learned as they possibly can. We could have done a debate, but the debate was just a part of the whole story. It’s around this age where you start working with kids on making generalizations, summarizing, talking about symbols and what image can symbolize: something bigger than that image. So it’s good practice. It fits in with what kids are working on cognitively. You can say that while you want to teach kids to appreciate individual events and individual people and you don’t want them to generalize about people, the other end to that is that you have to be able to reduce things to concepts that you can fit in your hand, or symbols. You have to figure out different ways to organize all of this information that you’re getting.

I don’t think making a postage stamp per se is how you teach kids to symbolize. But it gives them one opportunity to say, “If I had to represent what I learned about the African Burial Ground, what picture would be appropriate to do that?” And again, kids with different levels of drawing skills can participate. Some kids can do it representationally, some kids can do it abstractly, or they can trace something, or they can photocopy something. It doesn’t exclude anybody.

The other thing is that when you’re choosing an activity as a culminating activity, you do want one that draws on all the parts of the study, but also you have to think in terms of what resources you have, and how much time you have.

What do you hope your kids learned from this study?

I want my students to keep reencountering the idea that American history isn’t one story but a multiplicity of stories, some nice, some not, and that America was built by ordinary people. So I think, under the best of circumstances, this study will be another piece of evidence for that, another story that reinforces the notion that ordinary people are not only victims of history or affected by history, but that they also contribute to history and very often make history in very dramatic ways.

I also hope my students have learned that each person had a life, each had a story, each had a family, each had something to say, and each had a soul and emotions. I think that when you explore literature with kids who are 12 years old, one of the really exciting things that happens is that they begin to be able to handle the notion that the stories that they read are written by real people, and that many of the people who write these stories are, in some ways, much like they are. I want kids to hear that there are different people talking in the history of the United States, and through the literature of the United States, that they are part of history and they have a story that is unique, and then they can express their own feelings, tell their own history, write their own poetry.

Valerie Kinloch

Assistant Professor
Teachers College, Columbia University

What did you notice about Stan’s approach to teaching?

Stan begins with this idea that teachers have to know where students come from, who they are, what they come into our classrooms with, what understanding, what skills, in order to then move into a larger conversation about issues of freedom, rights, independence, and any other issue. The idea of really understanding that this one student may be different, in terms of learning level and learning skills, than another student is really significant, especially when we talk about multiculturalism: various voices, perspectives, perceptions, ideas, opinions, beliefs about who one is, and then who one can become in society.

I think that’s very helpful because when we have students whose learning levels are different inside of one classroom, we can talk about issues of differentiated instruction, cooperative learning, collaborative engagements, but we’re really talking about how best to give students the skills and the knowledge and the literacy practices that they need before they move on.

From there, we can actually include various texts, various writing assignments, various assessment measures that stimulate what they already know, but at the same time give them something to learn, to comprehend, to understand, to grapple with, and then to take with them as they move on to their journey of learning.

Comment on Stan’s introduction to the unit using the selection of texts.

Something that is very powerful is the collage of texts that he has in front of his classroom. He has a text by Booker T. Washington and one by Frederick Douglass; he has Maya Angelou’s text; he has Julius Lester’s text. And then he also has the Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence text that they will eventually study. Looking at all of these texts and asking the students if they’re familiar with them or not reiterates this idea of getting to know where students are.

These various texts were written during different time periods, written about different time periods, and written about different social conditions in society. One may think that there is not a connection among these texts, but there is a connection, and in the beginning of this unit, Stan makes that connection clear. We are talking about issues of rights, freedom, independence, perspective; and in talking about these issues, we have to consider the various texts, the various experiences, the various voices of people, whether it’s Julius Lester talking about being a slave or Booker T. Washington talking about bootstraps and lifting oneself up. All of the texts are talking about rights and some form of independence from a particular institution, whether that institution is localized in terms of segregation or more nationally based in terms of this oppressive system that lets people assume that they don’t have rights.

The inclusion of these various texts is very important and critical to what students will eventually do with the larger ideas of rights and independence — by looking at the text, by looking at the video, by listening to the guest speaker, by going on field trips, and then by coming back into the class to produce a culminating activity that may not look at all of the various texts, but looks at the overall ideas presented within these various texts.

Why teach Langston Hughes at this grade level?

Langston Hughes is one of many poets who should be studied from sixth grade on to high school. Langston Hughes’s poems are so rich with emotions and ideas and thoughts, and his works enrich what students are able to do with issues of identity, culture, race, location, representation. In seventh grade, students are still learning how to form sentences, form ideas, and to make arguments more complex. Langston Hughes’s writings can assist in that learning and in how students learn to grapple with other writings, other literary works.

He is definitely a poet, a writer, a creator who transcends boundaries, and every student can learn from him and his writing. His writings demonstrate lyricism, the beauty of music, the beauty of identity in this perpetual search for understanding. I think that should be incorporated in all grade levels.

Comment on the writing process in the poetry exercise.

It’s really important to have students … sharing their writings with other students and not just with the teacher of the classroom, because then everyone feels a part of that community of learners. Stan is really strong on getting students to present, getting students to talk, getting students to share, and then having other students really listen by either taking notes or by remembering something that a student has said in order to eventually offer concrete criticism and feedback, which he talks about at the end of the poetry-reading assignment. There’s honesty, there’s openness, and then there is room for improvement.

When Stan shows them a copy of a draft of Langston Hughes’s poem, it represents this point in the classroom where students are able to understand that writing is indeed a process, that someone as great as Langston didn’t write all of his poetry the first time around, but he went back and he revised. Students need to know that a published writer goes through many stages, and therefore they should go through many stages. Students need to see that in order to model that behavior for themselves.

How does the field trip enhance students’ learning?

In this unit, students are being taught how to empathize with the past, to assume the character of someone or something from the past. Stan has allowed them to walk into that character by looking at the video, by questioning Christopher Moore, by engaging in a poetry discussion, by looking at Langston Hughes as one artist who memorializes a past, and now they have to see, experience, feel how a different past is being memorialized and what that means. All of that reiterates this idea of empathy — not just feeling sorry for the people who died and were buried and left, but empathizing with the work that they did, the labor that they produced, the colonies that they built, the meanings that they gave to New Amsterdam, to New York, and to the entire world.

One key moment is when a student is able to stand there at the African Burial Ground site with a group of other students and say, “My goodness, Langston Hughes wrote a poem that we read in class that relates to what I see here, what I am feeling right now in this moment.” So a connection with the texts that the students are reading and critiquing leads right into how those students understand the African Burial Ground. This student is able to make larger connections across time periods, across pasts, across experiences and histories, in order to say, “There is a connection here. I can now understand; I can visualize what Langston Hughes is talking about, what he is doing in his poem. At the same time, I can better connect with the African Burial Ground in terms of representing and giving life to something that is no longer here, but in memory and in spirit, this thing will always be here.”

What is the academic value of the commemorative stamp project?

The students are not just ending this unit by having a fun time doing something that’s not critical. In fact, this is a critical assignment because they are responsible for incorporating ideas from the various class sessions into this project. Students have been exposed to these various literary texts that Stan brings into the classroom. They have listened to Christopher Moore’s presentation on the African Burial Ground and examined the video. They visited various sites — the Trinity Churchyard as a point of comparison for their entry into the African Burial Ground site. They have engaged in a poetry circle. They talked about all of the issues around freedom, rights, representation, and what it means to remember the past. Now what do we do with this information? What do we do with the learning that has happened in this classroom?

One thing that Stan asks students to do is create a commemorative stamp project that incorporates their learning into a design that symbolizes not just the beauty of the past, but the struggle and the pain of the past as we understand it by looking at something like the African Burial Ground site.

He provides an opportunity for students to experience the visual aspect of being a learner in a classroom: “This is what it means to be a slave and to be excavated, and to be forgotten for so long; and when I read this text or I visit the African Burial Ground, this is the image that comes to me.” After looking at that past very critically, reading about that past, associating that past with various other texts, students are able to create a text of their own. And that text is the commemorative stamp project, which I think, is very powerful.

How might a teacher assess the stamp project?

I think it’s really important for teachers to understand how they’re asking students to make generalizations about something; they’re asking students to summarize their learning, their experiences with documents that they’ve studied in this unit. At the same time, they have to tell a story by using symbols, by creating a symbol.

So in one way, teachers have to look for the stories that the students are telling. At the same time, I think teachers need to be aware of how literature informs writing and how writing can inform what students produce symbolically. It’s not enough to just take the project and to assess it, and that’s it. One would have to assess everything that the students have done, everything that the students have taken notes on, or particular aspects about their questioning of Christopher Moore and their understanding of how so many people were enslaved and so many people were buried at a particular site.

Teachers should be looking for some of the same things that we look for when we’re assessing a written product — structure, cohesiveness, engagement with the text (in this case, the text being everything the students have read and what they have seen at the African Burial Ground and even at the Trinity Churchyard). They should also try to understand how that image is in itself a story. Is this an accurate depiction of this particular time period? Or is it more of a contemporary creation, and if it is, does it somehow relate to the history of the African Burial Ground?

So in order to assess a commemorative stamp project, teachers would have to look for critical thinking, critical engagement with the text, a certain understanding of the history as represented in other things that they have done that somehow combine into the final project. They would have to look for structure, organization of ideas, and ask why this particular symbol represents the African Burial Ground, or an aspect of rights or freedom.