Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades
Historical and Cultural Context: Langston Hughes and Christopher Moore Teaching Strategies
Connecting History and Poetry
Stanlee Brimberg uses poetry in three different ways to “breathe life” into his class’s study of the African Burial Ground. First he asks the students to read Langston Hughes’s poetry, to steep them in the voice and themes of an African American poet. Using Hughes as a model, the students then write their own poems to reflect their personal understanding of the burial ground and its legacy.
Connecting History and Poetry in Stanlee Brimberg’s Classroom
Before introducing poetry, Brimberg asks the students to look at photographs of skeletons exhumed from the African Burial Ground. He tells them to use “a little archaeology, a little social studies, and your imaginations” to answer questions about these skeletons. His major goal, he says, is to show the students that “there was a life, with texture and dimension” represented by each skeleton.
Brimberg then gives each group a selection of Langston Hughes’s poems, commenting that he has chosen Hughes because he “wrote his poems from the point of view of someone who is being taken advantage of, discriminated against, or in pain because he or she was an African American. Hughes is giving voice to people who didn’t have voices at the time they lived.” Brimberg then invites his students to select a poem and read it aloud. He tells them that they will be writing poems, modeled, if they like, on those of Langston Hughes.
To begin writing poems, the students choose a photograph of a skeleton. Each student then imagines what the everyday life of that person might have been like. To do this, the students synthesize information from Langston Hughes’s poetry, a documentary, factual texts, and their interview with historian and author Christopher Moore.
Brimberg tells the students they can start wherever they choose — with the photograph, historical information, or an idea. They can write either about or as the person they chose. Brimberg gives them a handout to structure their poetry-writing process.
After Brimberg’s students draft their poems, they read them aloud and the class offers positive feedback on each one. The students are also asked to share their writing process in terms of the conception and composition of the poem. (They critique the poems later in small groups.) Brimberg shows the students a copy of a much-edited draft of a Langston Hughes poem to impress upon them that writing is a process, even for someone of Hughes’s stature and talent. (See Student Work.)
Brimberg also introduces writer-artist Barbara Chase-Riboud’s “Africa Rising,” a poem that accompanies her sculpture at the African Burial Ground memorial site. Although the poem is challenging, Brimberg asks the students to alternate reading stanzas aloud before the field trip. Brimberg focuses them on the last line, “All biographies become one.” “What might that mean?” he asks. “Does a tragedy like slavery or the Holocaust lump people together? Could that be a positive as well as a negative thing? How?” This discussion prepares the students to consider how memorials remember both a group and individuals.
Tips and Variations for Connecting History and Poetry
- Teachers should look for poetry that is both representative of the topic being studied and accessible to the student population. Langston Hughes’s poetry, for example, speaks both to students of different levels and to the topic of African American history and culture.
- Students can make poetic meaning of a historical text by creating “found poems.” The teacher can give them a text with rich or colorful descriptions. As they read, they can underline or circle what seems most important, vivid, or interesting. The teacher should then ask the students to reorder the words — spacing them in an interesting way, repeating crucial words or phrases, or putting words together in surprising ways. The teacher should ask the students to read these aloud and compare them with the original text.
- The teacher can have the students put prose and poetic accounts of a historical event side by side, and ask the students to compare each writer’s use of voice, word choice, or sentence structure. The students can then write a dialogue between the author of the prose account and the author of the poem.
Benefits of Connecting History and Poetry
As students explore the lyrical aspects of language, they find new modes of expression that deepen their understanding and appreciation of historical events.
- Poetry can help bring remote times and places to life.
- Having students respond to historical study by writing a poem synthesizes their thoughts about what they have learned.
- Working with poetic elements — word choice, rhythm, voice, etc. — can teach students to be more careful writers in other contexts.
Teachers use interviewing to contextualize literature, build background knowledge, and help students connect their schoolwork to their communities. Interviews with experts, scholars, and community members become, in effect, additional texts for study.
In Stanlee Brimberg’s classroom, the students use a range of disciplines (anthropology, history, archaeology, and language arts) to study the topic of the African Burial Ground. They interview and take notes from several different sources. As they work, the students learn to craft open-ended, provocative questions, take strategic notes, synthesize information, and create their own poetry.
Interviewing in Stanlee Brimberg’s Classroom
Prior to students’ interview with historian and scholar Christopher Moore, Brimberg shows Moore’s documentary video, The African Burial Ground: An American Discovery, and discusses note-taking. “How do you know when something’s important?” he asks. He also shows how to take notes while paying attention to the source. (In this case, the source is a video, but later in the unit sources will include the author himself, and two contrasting graveyards the class will visit on a field trip.) Brimberg asks each student to take notes on a specific time period from the video. The students watch the video, then combine their notes into a comprehensive time line.
By collaborating on the time line, the students create a reference for the unit, review information, spark new questions, and learn to treat classmates as resources. Once the time line is complete, Brimberg prepares the students for the interview by asking them what they know about Moore, discussing the etiquette of interviewing, and asking them to write open-ended questions.
During Moore’s visit to the classroom, the students ask questions ranging from “Why was the burial ground excavation such a big discovery?” to “What kind of work did slaves do in New York or New Amsterdam?” and “What relationship did the Native peoples have with the African Americans?” As Moore pieces together the complex and largely untold story of the African Burial Ground and the experiences of African slaves in early New York, the students take notes. They will later use the notes on this interview and the video to write poetry about the African Burial Ground.
Tips and Variations for Interviewing
Brimberg recommends asking students to practice — interview a teacher or peer, as a group or in pairs — before the real interview. They can use their notes to write a short report. The students might next interview people in their school or family. Finally, they can interview someone they don’t know.
- The students can also practice interviewing by staging a press conference or talk show. The teacher or a student can play a character or themselves; the class can invent questions and take notes.
- When the students interview in the community, the teacher should provide guidelines for respectful behavior.
- The students should practice strategic note-taking by anticipating what information they will find and writing these projected category headings in a notebook with space beneath for notes. Even if the information they receive does not fall exactly within these categories, this method should provide them with more focused notes.
- The students can create common abbreviations, such as one- or two-letter codes, for key topic words to make note-taking more efficient.
- Afterward, the teacher might ask the students to evaluate the interview.
Benefits of Interviewing
Interviewing can build background knowledge and provide cultural and historical context for texts.
- Interviewing connects schoolwork with the world.
- Interviewing builds reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills. As students ask questions and take notes, they listen carefully for the speaker’s main ideas as well as the supporting details.
- The students work with a “real” audience, and honor their experiential knowledge.
Field trips can connect schoolwork with the world, making it tangible and memorable. A field trip stimulates questions and ideas at the beginning or end of a unit. Field trips also provide an experiential “text” for students to study and interrogate.
Stanlee Brimberg carefully prepares his students to visit to the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan through readings, a video, photography, archaeology, a visit from a scholar and author, and poetry activities. By the time the students reach the site, they have absorbed background knowledge and have questions to investigate. They also have handouts to guide them in making notes and answering questions. The trip helps the students focus on the question: “How and why do we remember or memorialize people who have died?”
Field Trips in Stanlee Brimberg’s Classroom
To contextualize the African Burial Ground, Brimberg takes his students to Trinity Churchyard, where white, Christian members of the early New Amsterdam community were buried. Brimberg has given the students trip sheets with prompts such as “Draw or describe in words at least three different kinds of stone markers you see,” and “Why do you think some people were buried here and others were not? Where do you think the others are?”
Next, they visit the African Burial Ground memorial site. A handout helps the students interpret a memorial called “The New Ring Shout” and Barbara Chase-Riboud’s sculpture, Africa Rising. The trip sheet for this area includes questions such as “Does the piece seem to tell you a story? What is the story?
When the students visit the burial ground, they are again guided by a trip sheet with questions such as “According to what you learned, did this ever look like Trinity Churchyard?”, “Why do you think so (or not)?”, “You may know that the remains of the people buried here were taken to Howard University for study and that they will be reburied here. We don’t know their names. How should their gravesites look?”, and “If you could say or write something to one of the people buried here, what would that be?” The students work in small groups to compare the sites and connect them to poems by Langston Hughes and Barbara Chase-Riboud. (See: Trip Sheets.)
When the students return to the classroom, they discuss memorializing the dead. Finally, Brimberg asks them to design ideas for burial site commemorative stamps. He notes that the students now understand the concept of a symbol and how it “can mean something bigger than just that image.” (See Student Work.)
Tips and Variations for Field Trips
Before the Trip, Teachers Should:
- Visit the site to find connections to curricula, assess potential problems, and plan how the students could best use their time.
- Give as much context as possible bso that the students will understand what they see. Teachers might consider having the students do something like a journal or a K/W/L chart in which they list questions they have, expectations for their visit, or plans for ways to use what they will see. (See Teaching Strategies: K/W/L.)
- Create a trip sheet like Stanlee Brimberg’s that prompts students to draw, write responses, answer questions, or find items for a “scavenger hunt” of the location. This sheet, however, should not be so directive that the students can’t see and respond to the site in their own ways.
- Set standards of etiquette and respectful behavior.
During the Trip, Teachers Should:
- Build in opportunities for students to view the site or work alone, in pairs, or in small groups. On a trip to a museum, for example, the students could be asked an open-ended question like, “Find a work that represents our theme or time period and sketch it. In class we will share our choices and discuss why we chose them.” The students could also choose one aspect or part of the site to explore.
- Consider giving some students disposable cameras, small tape recorders, or mandates to record specific information. When the class is back at school, they can compile a complete picture.
After the Trip:
- Allow the students to synthesize their experience creatively. For example, they might create trip brochures for other classes or the school library. They might create children’s books about a theme from the field trip. Or they might present their experience orally to another class or grade.
Benefits of Field Trips
Field trips bring classroom study alive for students and help them remember and relate to what they have learned. They provide rich resources that can rarely be approximated in the classroom. They also help connect school to the world.
- Field trips provide new cultural contexts for literature and provoke questions.
- Field trips stimulate and focus class work by helping students synthesize information.
Teaching Strategies Resources
Cohen, Elizabeth G., and John I. Goodlad. Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom. New York: Teachers College Press, 1994.
This book provides strategies for group work in diverse classrooms.
Freedman, Kerry. Teaching Visual Culture: Curriculum, Aestheics, and the Social Life of Art. New York: Teachers College Press, 2003.
Freedman provides the theoretical basis on which one can build a curriculum that focuses on teaching visual arts from a cultural standpoint.
Graham, Maryemma, Sharon Pineault-Burke, and Marianna W. Davis, eds. Teaching African American Literature: Theory and Practice. New York: Routledge, 1998.
Teachers discuss their methods for teaching African American literature in middle school, high school, and college English classes.
Levine, Mel. A Mind at a Time. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.
Levine discusses strategies for identifying individual learning patterns in children and maximizing their potential to succeed in school.
O’Connor, John S. Wordplaygrounds: Reading, Writing, and Performing Poetry in the English Classroom. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2004.
This books suggests strategies for encouraging students to write poetry based on their own experiences, and offers plans for individual lessons or full courses on poetry.
Schultz, Katherine. Listening: A Framework for Teaching Across Difference. New York: Teachers College Press, 2003.
Schultz discusses the strategy of deep listening, so that teachers can understand students’ individual personalities, learning methods, and backgrounds, as well as the group dynamics of a classroom.
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.