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Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades

Research and Discovery: Edwidge Danticat, An Na, Laurence Yep, and more Commentary

Kathryn Mitchell Pierce

Wydown Middle School
Clayton, MO

How does inquiry unfold in your classroom?

The perspective that we’re taking in our literature study is looking at literature as a tool for inquiry. We’re using the literature to study ideas that are important to the groups. And there are two kinds of ideas that are important. The first is ideas and questions that the kids generate — things that they’re curious about, things that they want to know more about, things that seem perplexing or unfair to them.

The other would be the topics that are a part of our curriculum, things that the kids are supposed to be learning about, but I want them to be posing the questions. So the text sets help immerse them in the topic, give them a chance to bring their own background experiences to the topic, give them a chance to muddle around and explore ideas and then to focus in on questions that are motivating to them — questions that they want to pursue enough to take those questions into their novels.

Because a lot of what happens is driven by the kids and their questions and their passions, I tend to follow where they’re going and then try to shape that and add other perspectives, either by joining the group and asking a question myself or by adding other materials to the group. I really believe that for the kids to make sense of this, they have to be engaged in what’s happening and what the topics are. What this means is that the topics often come from the questions and issues the kids are raising. And then once they get invested in a topic and they start pursuing it, then I can help broaden what they consider by stacking the deck with other materials.

So that’s my role: to shape what they’re wrestling with, but not to control the outcome of what they’re wrestling with. Clearly, I have a bias, and tolerance and acceptance would be a bottom line, a minimum. But I think understanding, appreciation, and valuing other people and diverse points of view is probably my goal. Within that, if there is some misinformation about a culture or a time period in history or an event that took place, I’m okay with that as long as they continue to ask questions and as long as I continue to get the materials that are out there to invite them to rethink a conclusion that they’ve drawn. There are times, of course, when I provide new information, share a new resource, or ask a pointed question in a deliberate attempt to confront students with their erroneous or incomplete conclusions.

How does this literature study fit into the overall picture of your curriculum?

The literature study is running parallel to a social studies unit on immigration. Our broad concept or unifying theme for the year is “All Men Are Created Equal.” Our literature studies offer new perspectives on how that phrase has been challenged and changed over the past 200 years. Individual book titles offer new insights into subtopics such as “fitting in,” “finding my place,” “that’s not fair,” and other issues of equity and justice.

The literature study based on the immigration novels was situated within a larger inquiry into the U.S. immigration experience of the mid-1800s. Offering both historical and contemporary immigration stories in our literature to studies helped students make connections to people’s lives in the mid-1800s and draw parallels between issues of equity for immigrant groups in that period and today. Reading and discussing the novels was surrounded by extensive work with nonfiction literature about immigration, Web searches, videos, and class discussions about immigration. We built a time line of the major groups that came to this country between 1800 and 2000 and gathered information about the reasons they came — why they left their homelands and what they hoped to find here in the United States. Immigration laws and quotas were a major topic of conversation.

How do text sets help all your students grow as readers?

We have a number of students who struggle with the reading process itself who receive additional support in being competent readers in both fiction and nonfiction. And in this context, because of the amount of talk that surrounds the reading, they are shining as very successful contributors to the group discussion. It’s always fun for me to look around and say, “Wow, this is somebody that’s really been struggling with text and today this person is sharing our most significant insights in our discussions.” Also, kids are sort of entrenched in a point of view, and by the constant, gentle nudging of their classmates, have to step back and reconsider a point of view. That’s hard to do, and they’re handling that with amazing skill and finesse.

The things I look for in determining their growth as readers include: risk taking — trying challenging texts and entertaining new perspectives; flexibility — being willing to consider alternate points of view and to revise ideas to accommodate new, conflicting information; and using new strategies to find, make, or work at creating new understandings about text or about the world. These new strategies often involve enhanced skill in collaborating with others to learn new information or using talk to sort through complex ideas.

What are some of the ways you facilitate the literature circles?

Often I ask them to actually plan an agenda to consider, “What are some questions, issues, topics that you need to continue exploring in your group because you only got partway through yesterday?” (This strategy comes from Carol Gilles — a collaborator in these ongoing inquiries.) Or I might draw their attention back to what we’ve done earlier in the school year or books we’ve read earlier in the school year and say, “Connect this. See if this doesn’t help you make a connection that takes the group deeper.” Sometimes it’s successful, sometimes it isn’t. When it isn’t, I’ll try a new frame. I’ll suggest that it may be time to talk to people who are reading other books. So I might use a jigsaw strategy, pulling students from each of those text set groups and having them engage in quick, maybe 15-minute conversations with people from other groups. They’ll ask, “What are you reading, what are you thinking?” and then bring that perspective back to their own group. Then they’ll have all those new ideas from the other groups that immediately get the conversation going again. Sometimes it takes it much deeper. So there are a number of strategies that I use, but the goal is to think of what I can scaffold and put in place to support them in digging more deeply into the books. I rarely sit in a literature study for a long period of time.

I tend to do more of my facilitating by establishing the context for reading the books, establishing the parameters for discussing the books, raising questions for a group or the entire class, or framing the literature discussions in a way that keeps students focused on “What’s the big idea here?” “What can this book offer to my ongoing inquiry?” or “What perspectives might be missing from my inquiry at this point?”

How do you help students develop skills for working in literature circles?

We start working in literature circles at the very beginning of the school year. Since the children come in the sixth grade from a number of different elementary schools, we begin with a lot of getting-to-know-you experiences built around books and activities — and also just sort of getting-to-know-you activities, icebreaker types of things. I think it’s important for kids to know who they’re working with and where they find personal connections with the different people in the classroom, and to begin to identify the resources in this classroom that they might draw upon when they need an expert on something. That begins to build a foundation of a community that’s looking together at topics and issues.

The second part of building a context for literature study, particularly literature study into difficult issues, is building a repertoire of ways of working with books. Most of them come to middle school having worked with picture books before, but some of them aren’t sure that picture books are part of what you do in middle school. So we spend time at the beginning of the year using picture books to drive conversation and to teach them how to do partner conversations about books and how to work within a group to use the books to spark ideas and conversations.

How does this student-centered approach to learning support students in demonstrating their knowledge and ability on large-scale assessments, such as those given at the state or national level?

I think anytime students are engaged in meaningful, critical reading – “critical” meaning at a higher level, above and beyond just literal recall of what happened in the book — they’re engaging in literacy practices that are broadly applicable. And if they can read and think deeply about — and question and tolerate — ambiguity in text in this classroom setting, then when they are presented with a standardized achievement test, for example, they have a number of strategies that they can take with them with confidence into this unfamiliar setting. They can begin to look at short passages with multiple-choice questions that follow and say, “I think I understand how this text is working and what I need to do to make sense of it.” They can look at words they might not have encountered before and say, “I have a strategy for dealing with that because I’ve done this before.” And some of our standardized achievement tests have become more performance based; they’re more like the way we encounter literature in the classroom. So there’s a lot of read, respond, connect, summarize, make connections, and compare and contrast between texts. Because we do that verbally and in writing constantly in the classroom, I think kids feel more confident when they go into the test. They view reading — and writing — as a problem-solving inquiry, as something to first understand and then respond to. We cover the same information, we just might do it in a different way.

Talk about how you include student journals, or as you call them, “composition books.”

The students spend time reading their books and talking about them at their table, and we frequently stop and do some reflective writing in their literature/composition books — a sort of working book where they keep notes and ideas [about] the things that they’re reading and what they’re thinking about those and plans for things that they want to discuss in [the] group. They are used as a place to sort of gush out ideas, to capture initial thoughts about the books. And we’ll come back to those again and again because oftentimes they’ll find that their thoughts have changed — they’ve either gotten deeper or changed their mind completely, or they’ve made new connections they didn’t have early on. So those comp books are pretty important for that processing part.

After a quick write of about five minutes in their comp books, usually we stop and spend some time talking. I ask them to talk to one another about the things they’ve been writing about. Some kids choose to read theirs out loud; others read an excerpt. Sometimes people just say, “Here are the things,” and they just relay it verbally without reading it verbatim from their comp books. It’s a really good discussion starter and it helps make sure that everybody gets a chance to have a voice in the conversation. For those kids who process more slowly, having the time do some writing first helps them crystallize their ideas and gets them ready to share in the group. So some of the kids who have been more quiet are better able to join in the conversation after having had some time to write. Then when they get together and they’ve shared their writing, it sends the conversation sometimes in new directions.

Overall, the students use these literature/composition books as a place to record evolving ideas. Initially they start with, “Why did you choose this book and what do you think is going to be in there?” “How do you think you’re going to connect to the book?” “What do you think you might find of interest in here?” Then as the novel study goes on, they begin to record the things they’re wondering about. That can include things about family relationships, it can include issues and questions about peer relations, and particularly fitting in and finding your placewithin the social group that you now live in, as well as in your school group, your neighborhood group, things like that. Those fitting-in issues are really utmost in the minds of students at this age in middle school, and so to be able to play those questions out through the lives of the character[s] is valuable.

Why is critical discussion such an important part of your curriculum?

I believe firmly that one of my responsibilities as a classroom teacher is to create a context where important conversations can take place among the students: conversations about critical social and personal issues, such as equity and justice and opportunity. Those conversations are the place where I think they work at those new ideas, where they craft new understandings, where they encounter assumptions and unexamined ideas of their own, where they work with others to build new possibilities — and that the conversation is key. Charlotte Huck says that literature has the power to take readers outside of themselves, into the world of the story character, and then return them back to themselves, having changed as a result of the life experiences they lived through that character. The novels have been chosen because they have a tremendous potential to support conversations that can — I know this will sound clichéd — but that can change the world that these children are creating as they move into adulthood. In a literate, democratic society, we read books and discuss them with others as part of the process of critiquing the status quo and planning a course of action for a different future — to help us be active players in creating a more democratic way of life for ourselves and others, particularly “Others” who have been denied opportunities to raise their own voice or share their own perspectives.

Jerome Harste

Indiana University

Talk about the use of text sets in Kathryn Mitchell Pierce’s classroom.

Kathryn essentially is allowing time for the kids to sort of wonder and wander their way into this topic and find their own inquiry questions — their own slant on things. And that’s absolutely marvelous, because then when she gets about the business of introducing novels, kids already can begin to have reasons for selecting the particular novel that they wish to read and discuss in their literature circles.

Truth is relative to our experience, and while that can be disconcerting to children initially, it’s very important if we want to create active decision makers and thinkers that we give opportunities for kids to bump into interesting ideas. You really don’t recognize an interesting idea until you’ve had the opportunity to actually encounter one and find one for yourself that intrigues you. That’s why in putting together text sets, you want books that really rub against each other. In a text set, those books really rub against other books and can start wonderful conversations.

Also, you know, authors are fallible and have distinct points of view, and that’s why it’s important to use multiple texts because then an author becomes a real person and that author can then be questioned. And then we’re getting the kind of questioning, the kind of active decision making that we need from the students. Alfie Kohn said, “When we lose sight of the person behind the words, we forget that those words can be challenged.”

I see the role of multicultural books in multicultural literacy as providing multiple voices on the table. When you’ve got different stories being told around the common theme, kids have to begin to see that there’re different authors, there are different truths. Those different truths can be unsettling to kids, but they get a whole lot closer to the author in that process and they begin to see what it is that authors do. I also think that by having texts butt up against each other, what you do is make clear the systems of meaning that were operating during the period of the book being written and that are still in place in society today. Multicultural literacy, besides giving multiple voices and exposing systems of meaning, really causes you to be reflective.

Where do you see social justice fitting into the curriculum?

Sometimes I think when I’m talking to teachers and I’m saying to them that curriculum has to deal with issues of social justice, they may feel, “Oh, good grief! Now here’s another expert coming in telling me what curriculum has to cover.” But if you think about curriculum as a metaphor for the lives you want to live and the people you want to be, then you have to create in your classroom a space so you can be different from what you’ve learned. So often curriculum stays sort of at an intellectual level, but not at a social practice level. And what we need to do, it seems to me, is open up space in our classrooms so that kids can position themselves differently, take on a different way of talking, a different way of being in the world. And so that phase of social justice is crucial in terms of making a difference; that really makes a difference.

Why is it important to challenge students to see more than one point of view?

I think that teachers and kids should explore themes critically. To me this means that you’ve got to disrupt the commonplace; you’ve got to interrogate multiple viewpoints, always asking yourself, “Whose story is this, and what stories aren’t we hearing?” All texts are political. And we have to look at how privilege and language and power are impacting all of us. And then I think we have to think about taking action to promote social justice. How do we want to talk about this differently than we have in the past? How are we going to position ourselves differently, now that we know what we know? What kind of new social action should we be taking? How do we want to position ourselves outside of the classroom?

I think curriculum should never just perpetuate sort of the dominant thought; it should always put dominant thought in tension — that is, dominant ways of thinking about a topic have to be juxtaposed against nondominant ways of thinking about a topic. That doesn’t mean that dominant thought is necessarily wrong, but it’s only in tension that you can bring … the dominant systems of meaning that are operating into conscious awareness. Once you have conscious awareness, then you can begin to examine such things as: How is language positioning people and giving that dominant position power? What other kinds of language and what other kinds of positioning are available? By putting it in tension, you are in fact raising a conscious awareness that allows for … bigger conversations to take place. We can explore alternate ways of talking and actively take agency in creating a different kind of world.

As an activity, one of the things I often do with literature discussions is give students a big sheet of paper, and I’ll just have them draw a learning cycle on their sheet of paper. I’ll ask them to identify six turning points in the story and at each turning point, to say what was the character fighting against at that point in time. What was the system of meaning that was operating or that was in place that the character wanted to change, and what changes were desired?

What do you say to teachers new to the inquiry approach to teaching and learning?

In an inquiry-based curriculum it’s important for kids to pursue their own inquiry questions. As you can see, in Kathryn’s classroom that doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all. And you can see the kind of potential and direction that the kids’ topics can go to. But you do have to be able to have surprises; you’ve got to be able to tolerate surprises. And in actual fact, you learn in this process, because oftentimes the student will take a question in a direction and you may say, “Geez! Where’s that going to go?” and all of a sudden you find out, well, you’ve learned something new yourself.

For me, education as inquiry is a philosophical position about what an education should be. It’s not the transmission of knowledge; it’s giving kids agency to explore their own issues. But it also means for me that the teacher needs to be an inquirer. The teacher has to demonstrate what it means to be constantly learning, constantly using the kids in their classrooms and others around them to outgrow themselves.

So for me the whole of education is about inquiry. It’s about learning. So often our schools get anchored on discipline or on standards or on benchmarks, but schools have to reflect what we know about the learning process. Curriculum has to be anchored on our knowledge of the learning process.

That’s why we need opportunities to have conversations with others. We have to have opportunities to wonder and wander and find our inquiry questions. We have to be able to take time to be reflective and to think about how we now think about things: What’s changed because I’ve learned these kinds of things? We have to think about how we’re going to talk in the world differently, how we’re going to position ourselves differently. But our models of how we set up the classroom have to be based on what and how we conceptualize learning to be.