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Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades

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

Text Sets


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 By collecting materials ranging from fiction, nonfiction, and poetry to maps, charts, historical documents, photographs, songs, and paintings, teachers can add voices and perspectives to the study of any complex issue.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.

  • Text sets give learners of different abilities, styles, and interests a “way in” to the material.
  • In classrooms where the only class set of materials is a textbook or a single novel, text sets can enrich the curriculum without great expense.
  • Using text sets in small groups, as Pierce does, encourages students to see different perspectives from which to debate issues.
  • Since text sets allow students to find questions about a larger topic, they begin an inquiry-based investigation effectively.
  • Text sets develop students’ ability to “read” multiple forms of texts and images. They support synthesis, application, and critical evaluation.
  • The multiple selections in text sets provide an opportunity for intertextual reading; students make connections between texts, reflect on texts they’ve previously encountered (including movies, television, etc.), and construct new knowledge through shared discourse.
  • "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.

  • When students write “Where I’m From” poems from a personal perspective, they can articulate and appreciate what is special about their cultural backgrounds. This activity builds community and integrates student’s home lives and individual voices into the classroom. As Christensen says in her book, this exercise can make students feel “significant and cared about” by “making space” for them, their families, and the worlds they come from in the curriculum, and by celebrating the similarities as well as the differences.
  • Pierce’s repeated use of the poem — at the beginning of the year to build community and in the middle of the year to invite deeper reading of their novels — encourages students to look for and construct connections across various units and experiences that shape their school year.
  • Teaching Strategies Resources

    Barnes, Douglas. From Communication to Curriculum. New York: Penguin, 1976.
    Barnes advocates the use of informal conversation in helping children with the learning process in school.
    Boran, Sibel, and Barbara Comber, eds. Critiquing Whole Language and Classroom Inquiry. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2001.
    This collection of essays, featuring the work of Jerome Harste, Carolyn Burke, and Patrick Shannon, offers advice and theoretical reasoning for teachers seeking to empower their students in the classroom.
    Busching, Beverly, and Betty Ann Slesinger. “It’s Our World Too”: Socially Responsive Learners in Middle School Language Arts. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2002.
    This book covers both theory and practice topics for teachers seeking to deal with issues of race, class, and poverty in the classroom.
    Christensen, Linda. Reading, Writing, and Rising Up: Teaching About Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word. Milwaukee: Rethinking Schools Publications, 2000.
    The author offers lesson plans, essays, student work, and strategies related to teaching political and social issues in the language arts classroom.
    Dewey, John. How We Think: A Restatement of the Relation of Reflective Thinking to the Educative Process. Boston: D. C. Heath, 1933.
    Dewey, one of the progenitors of inquiry-based learning, links experience, interaction, and reflection to learning and education.
    Holden, James, and John S. Schmit, eds. Inquiry and the Literary Text. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2002.
    This book offers strategies to help students engage in authentic dialogue and inquiry about literature.
    Harste, Jerome, et al. “Supporting Critical Conversations in Classrooms.” In Adventuring in Books: A Booklist for Pre-K-Grade 6 (12th edition), ed. Kathryn Mitchell Pierce, 507-54. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2000.
    Jerome Harste, Christine Leland, and others review books for inclusion into different types of text sets.
    Peterson, Ralph, and Maryann Eeds. Grand Conversations: Literature Groups in Action. New York: Scholastic, 1990.
    Peterson and Eeds provide background and ideas for using a literature-based program in the classroom.
    Pierce, Kathryn Mitchell, and Carol J. Gilles, eds. Cycles of Meaning: Exploring the Potential of Talk in Learning Communities. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1993.
    The articles in this book explore the meanings created in groups and in classrooms by using words and discussions over a period of time.
    Short, Kathy G., and Kathryn Mitchell Pierce, eds. Talking About Books: Literature Discussion Groups in K-8 Classrooms. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1990.
    Teachers from suburban, urban, and rural schools discuss how they approach literature with the goal of creating small-group discussions.
    Huck, Charlotte. “Literature as the Content of Reading.” Theory Into Practice (December 1977):363-71.
    Huck describes a strategy in which teachers and parents allow children to develop the skills necessary for reading, out of their own desires to read imaginative and compelling stories.
    Gilles, Carol, and Kathryn Mitchell Pierce. “Making Room for Talk: Examining the Historical Implications of Talk in Learning.” English Education 36, no. 1 (October 2003): 56-79.
    In this article, the authors offer an extensive bibliography of books that can be used in text sets in the classroom.
    McCarthey, S. J. “Authors, Text, and Talk: The Internalization of Dialogue From Social Interaction During Writing.” Reading Research Quarterly 29 (1994): 200-31.
    McCarthey compares students of different backgrounds and determines that the information that they internalized in a writing class depended on the quality of their interactions with teachers.
    Pierce, Kathryn Mitchell, and Carol Gilles. “New Beginnings (Talking About Books).” Language Arts (September 1997):379-86.
    Pierce and Gilles offer a bibliography of 18 children’s books that can be used in text sets about new beginnings.
    YouthLearn: Intro to Inquiry Learning
    This site offers information about using inquiry as a teaching strategy and includes links to other informative sites.