Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades
Research and Discovery: Edwidge Danticat, An Na, Laurence Yep, and more Teaching Strategies
Text sets are resources of different reading levels, genres, and media that offer perspectives on a theme. By collecting materials ranging from fiction, nonfiction, and poetry to maps, charts, historical documents, photographs, songs, and paintings, teachers can add voices and perspectives to the study of any complex issue. This is especially important in classrooms where the whole class is using a single textbook or novel. Putting together a text set also provides all students — regardless of reading level or learning style — with a “way in” to a subject. Because even competent adult learners seek out “easy books” to learn about a new or complex topic, providing picture and children’s books in a text set gives everyone a means of connecting to or understanding some aspect of a larger subject. In addition, picture and children’s books effectively present important content in a short period of time. Students can usually read a picture book in one class, whereas longer texts require additional time.
Text Sets in Kathryn Mitchell Pierce’s Classroom
At the beginning of a unit, Kathryn Mitchell Pierce creates text sets that include multiple baskets of resources for small groups of students to explore. Each basket concentrates on one aspect of the topic, immigration — such as “leaving/journeying” or “home/fitting in” — but contains materials ranging from stories to poetry to picture books. Pierce allows several days for her students to read, discuss, and write informally about the text sets. Her goal is to provide them with multiple viewpoints through which to examine immigration. She includes, for instance, perspectives of voluntary immigrants, involuntary immigrants (e.g., slaves), and resettled Native Americans. She also seeks to steep her students in general immigration issues — historical and contemporary — to contextualize their literary discussions.
Pierce says she tries to “stack the deck” when she assembles text sets. “I fill the classroom with books and materials that are bound to present cultural conflicts and stereotypes and assumptions right up front,” she says. “I create a space in the classroom where kids feel comfortable entertaining ideas and raising questions when they’re not sure about the answers, and where the questions and the answers might be somewhat controversial… Most materials — both curriculum materials and most novels that are easily available on immigration — present part of the story: they highlight an Anglo-European view of what happened in immigration. I try to bring in a broader, fuller perspective.”
Pierce’s texts sets include books written in English and Spanish. Most are children’s books, which Pierce chose, she says, because they are short, full of visuals, and can flood her students with information very quickly. In Pierce’s class, the students explore text sets for several days; then they can choose a longer book to study in small groups.
Tips and Variations for Using Text Sets
- Teacher educator Jerome Harste echoes Pierce in encouraging the use of text sets as “a way to have books rub up against other books and start wonderful conversations.” He notes that by having multiple books in the classroom, “you have the opportunity to really hear different people. And it’s important, because if we lose sight of the people behind the books, we then don’t challenge what’s being taught.”
- Harste encourages teachers creating text sets to go through a process he calls “planning to plan,” or thinking about a theme from many perspectives. For an immigration study like Pierce’s, for instance, he suggests asking, “What would a psychologist want us to know about immigration? What would a geographer want us to know? A sociologist? An anthropologist?” Teachers can add other perspectives. For instance, in thinking about immigration, how might the perspectives of a mother, a sister, and a daughter differ? Teachers should ask themselves: “Whose story isn’t being represented in the materials I’ve found? How can I add this voice/perspective?” Harste further suggests that because English teachers’ role expands as we understand “literacy” to include the ability to read cultures, Web sites, and the like, our text sets should include nonwritten materials such as maps, artifacts, music, and art.
- Teachers can begin with text sets, as Pierce does, or introduce or return to them later. Pierce also uses them to help her students explore new questions or to revisit ideas. However they are used, teachers should provide time for the students to choose and read their books, then share what they have read in small groups, in writing, or with the class. The students should not merely synopsize, but should make connections between books and find patterns. The text set process, Pierce says, “sets the stage” for deeper study, and helps students “move from initial stereotypes and presuppositions to broaden the pool of talk.”
Benefits of Using Text Sets
Text sets provide multiple perspectives on complex issues. They show students that there are different “truths” and thus emphasize the importance of questioning dominant interpretations.
"Where I'm From" Poems
As part of her unit, Kathryn Mitchell Pierce adapts an exercise from Linda Christensen’s popular book for teachers, Reading, Writing, and Rising Up: Teaching About Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word. In the exercise outlined by Christensen, students study a poem written by George Ella Lyon called “Where I’m From,” then model their own “Where I’m From” poems on Lyon’s. Like the poet, they begin many lines with “I’m from …,” then list specific details about their backgrounds, families, and homes. Like Lyon’s poem, students include items typically found around their home, in their yard, or in their neighborhood; names of relatives; family sayings; names of foods that recall family gatherings; and names of places where childhood memories are kept. This poem provides a simple structure for beginning writers, but also invites originality and a “writer’s voice.”
“Where I’m From” Poems in Kathryn Mitchell Pierce’s Classroom
Kathryn Mitchell Pierce mentions that she and her class had already written “Where I’m From” poems as Christensen describes (e.g., each student writing about him- or herself). However, she also asked her students to interview family members, noting their answers. These notes — primary sources — helped the students develop their original poems.
In this unit, Pierce asks her students to write “Where I’m From” poems for the characters in the novels they are reading. The poems must reflect both where the character is from originally, and where in the United States the character is from (once he or she immigrates). Thus, in a poem about Celiane, the protagonist in Beyond the Mountains by Edwidge Danticat, there would be details about both Haiti and Brooklyn. As Pierce explains, “The strategy invites them to go back into the novels and take a look into the lives of their characters before they left their homeland, but also to look at their characters’ transitions to the United States, and their cultural transitions to being part of the United States. It gives students the chance to go back into the novel and find details that show how the cultural situation or the social context is different in the two settings.”
Pierce takes her students through several steps to prepare them to write poems. First she reads them a storybook by Marie Bradby called Momma, Where Are You From?, which uses the same “Where I’m From” form. She then has the students talk in their groups about where their characters are from originally, as well as where in the United States they are from. The students then write poems, individually, in pairs, or as a small group, in the voice of a character and choose specific details from the book to illuminate the two places. After an initial drafting period, Pierce invites several students to share a stanza of their poem with the class. They continue with the drafting process and then, finally, students volunteer to read their work aloud to the whole class. Pierce ends by asking her students’ permission to use these poems to introduce literature circle books next year. (See Student Work.)
Benefits of “Where I’m From” Poems
When students write a “Where I’m From” poem from the perspective of a character, they find details in a text that bring an author’s rendering of a culture to life. By crafting these poems, the students decide what is most important, memorable, and interesting to the characters; this helps them to see similar details, themes, and issues in other texts.
Teaching Strategies Resources
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.