Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades
Research and Discovery: Edwidge Danticat, An Na, Laurence Yep, and more
In Clayton, Missouri, Kathryn Mitchell Pierce’s sixth-grade students read works that explore issues of historical and contemporary immigration. Pierce uses “text sets” of multicultural picture books, poetry, and nonfiction to introduce the students to a wide range of perspectives and to set the stage for their novel study. The Students choose, and then discuss in literature groups, novels by An Na, Edwidge Danticat, Walter Dean Myers, Pam Muñoz Ryan, and Laurence Yep. In culminating presentations, they synthesize themes and pose thought-provoking questions that invite others to examine these novels in new ways. This program features author profiles of Laurence Yep and Edwidge Danticat.
Pierce’s goal is to have students come away from the unit thinking about injustice and inspired to do something about it. Teacher educator Jerome Harste comments, “Often curriculum stays at an intellectual level, not at a social practice level. And what we need to do is open up space in our classrooms so that kids can position themselves differently. [So they can ask], ‘What kind of new social action should we be taking? How should we be talking about this?’ Then they have the kind of agency that education should be about.”
The following is a summary of the activities featured in Workshop video 4. The activities were part of a larger interdisciplinary study on immigration. In adapting them to your own classroom, students, and overall curriculum, you may choose to vary the sequence or timing presented here.
Kathryn Mitchell Pierce introduces multicultural “text sets,” which consist of baskets of picture books, poetry, and nonfiction texts that touch on issues that are central to the immigrant experience, such as “home,” “fitting in,” “journeys” and “war and peace.” (See Teaching Strategies: Text Sets.)
- In small groups, the students spend two or three days choosing, reading, and sharing books from their text set basket. The students share themes from the individual books they read and make connections across texts. Periodically, Pierce asks them to do “quick writes” about what they’re thinking to help focus these small-group discussions.
- As a whole class, the students brainstorm about the issues, ideas, words, images, and themes that have come up in their reading and discussion of the text sets. Pierce then asks them to return to their small groups to come up with more connections as she circulates to listen, pose questions, and provide resources.
After several days of text set discussions, Pierce brings the class together to make a list of themes or topics that have been important in their conversations about the text sets. These include “making a change”; “finding my place”; “dreams”; and “That’s not right, and I’m going to do something about it.” The class talks about what it is like to come to the United States without knowing the culture or customs.
- Pierce introduces the seven novels her students will choose from to read in “literature circles.” The students review each book and list their top three choices. Pierce assigns each of the students to one of five literature circles, giving them their first choice of novel as often as possible.
- The students read their texts and discuss them and the issues that arise from them in daily literature circles. Pierce provides each group with a variety of primary- and secondary-source documents to contextualize the novels.
- Pierce reads to the class the children’s picture book, Momma Where Are You From? Each student writes a “Where I’m From” poem from the point of view of the main character in their novel. (See Teaching Strategy: “Where I’m From” Poems.)
- The students share their poems in pairs, giving feedback on rhythm, word choice, or other aspects they notice. They then read their poems to the whole class.
Pierce introduces the idea of “going public” with their literature circle discussions by doing a presentation to the class. (See Teaching Strategy: Presentations.) To prepare, the group members write a thesis statement. Each group also generates a “thought-provoking” question about a theme in their novel. To do this, they review their journals and reflect on the questions and responses they recorded as they read.
- As a whole class, the students consider the different forms a presentation might take, such as a skit, a poster, letters, or a discussion run by one group.
- The literature circles share their presentations and thought-provoking questions with the class. The students then break up into pairs to discuss how the questions apply to the books they read.
Video Materials & Standards
- “Text sets” of multicultural picture books and poetry
- Dragon’s Gate, by Laurence Yep
- Behind the Mountains, by Edwidge Danticat
- A Step From Heaven, by An Na
- Esperanza Rising, by Pam Muñoz Ryan
- At Her Majesty’s Request, by Walter Dean Myers
- Morning Girl, by Michael Dorris
- Tangled Threads: A Hmong Girl’s Story, by Pegi Deitz Shea
- Momma, Where Are You From? by Marie Bradby
- “Where I’m From,” poem by George Ella Lyon (Available in Workshop 4: Readings) PDF
- Student journals
Standards for the English Language Arts
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.