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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.”

Video Summary

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

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

Chang, Iris. The Chinese in America: A Narrative History. New York: Penguin, 2004.
Chang writes about the coming of the Chinese to America in the 1850s and traces the challenges, successes, and contributions of Chinese American communities and individuals up to the present.
Chin, Frank, et al., eds. Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian American Writers. New York: Mentor, 1974.
This Asian American literature anthology was a seminal book in Asian American and multicultural literary history, and offers stories and poems for readers of all ages.
Dorris, Michael. Morning Girl. New York: Hyperion Paperbacks for Children, 1992.
This novel is about the lives of two Taíno children, Morning Girl and her brother, Star Boy, in pre-Columbian America.
Kim, Elaine H. Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982.
This general introduction to Asian American literature also supplies classroom teaching tips.
Landowne, Youme. Selavi, That Is Life: A Haitian Story of Hope. El Paso: Cinco Puntos Press, 2004.
Selavi is a young child living on the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. He and a group of other children face many challenges, but soon find a voice when they start a radio program, Radyo Timoun.
Liu, Eric. The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker. New York: Random House, 1998.
In this collection of essays, Liu examines his own identity as an Asian American and questions the idea of assimilation.
Lyon, George Ella. Where I’m From. Spring, TX: Absey and Co., 1999.
This book offers insight into the formal aspects of writing poetry and the personal stories that inspire it.
Martinez, Elizabeth. 500 Años del Pueblo Chicano/500 Years of Chicano History. Albuquerque: Southwest Organizing Project, 1990.
This collection of photos, poetry, and essays narrates the Chicano history and experience.
Shea, Pegi Deitz. Tangled Threads: A Hmong Girl’s Story. New York: Clarion, 2003.
In this novel for young adults, Mai and her grandmother face complicated and mixed emotions as they leave a refugee camp in Thailand and come to live with their family in the United States.
Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. New York: Penguin, 1989.
This historical overview puts together letters, journals, newspaper ads, and other historic artifacts to tell a broad story of Asian American history.
Suggested Text Set Books
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Friends from the Other Side. San Francisco: Children’s Book Press, 1995.
This picture book, illustrated by Consuelo Méndez, tells of some of the experiences Prietita has with Joaquín, a young boy who just crossed the border into Texas with his mother.
Bruchac, Joseph. Crazy Horse’s Vision. New York: Lee and Low, 2000.
In this picture book, illustrated by S. D. Nelson, young Crazy Horse goes through a rite of passage and finds hope in a vision that can help his people.
Choi, Yangsook. The Name Jar. New York: Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2001.
This picture book for young readers tells a story about a young girl who has come from Korea and is anxious about telling people her name in school.
Ikeda, Daisaku. Over the Deep Blue Sea. New York: Knopf Books for Young Readers, 1992.
Akiko and Hiroshi’s friendship with Pablo is threatened by memories of World War II in this book illustrated by Brian Wildsmith.
Lawrence, Jacob. The Great Migration: An American Story. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.
This book offers the paintings and writings of Jacob Lawrence, who documented the migration of African Americans from the Southern states to the North in the 1940s.
Lee, Milly. Nim and the War Effort. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997.
In this picture book illustrated by Yangsook Choi, Nim strives to win the newspaper drive at her school and earn her grandfather’s respect.
Mochizuki, Ken. Baseball Saved Us. New York: Lee and Low, 1995.
Shorty, a Japanese American boy interned at a camp during World War II, builds hope and self-confidence through the game of baseball.
Nye, Naomi Shihab. The Space Between Our Footsteps. New York: Simon and Schuster Children’s Publishing, 1998.
More than 100 poets from the Middle East are presented in this book, along with some paintings.
Rodríguez, Luis. América Is Her Name. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 1998.
América uses poetry to help deal with the challenges of growing up as a Latina immigrant in Chicago.
Web Sites
Country Studies Haiti Page
The articles on this comprehensive site come from the United States Library of Congress and cover many aspects of Haiti’s societal structures, politics, history, and economic development.
Transcontinental Railroad. PBS, 2003.
This site gives general information about the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad and has a section devoted to the laborers who built it.
What’s Wrong with Frank Chin? Curtis Choy, 2005.
Director Curtis Choy documents author Frank Chin’s achievements and controversies through his own interviews with Chin as well as commentary from other writers and professors.