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Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades

Research and Discovery: Shirley Sterling and Laura Tohe

At the Skokomish reservation in Washington State, Sally Brownfield and her eighth-grade students study the literature and issues related to the Indian boarding school program through community involvement and self-examination. Brownfield begins with her students’ questions and supports them through a cycle of investigation, discussion, presentation, and reflection as they seek answers. The students use Shirley Sterling’s novel My Name Is Seepeetza and the poetry of Laura Tohe as lenses through which to explore topics of their choosing. The class visits the Skokomish Tribal Center to interview tribal elders about the impact of the residential boarding program on the community. Author Shirley Sterling visits the class and answers student questions related to her novel, her life, and their research topics.

As Brownfield’s students uncover a subject that has long been painful in the Native American community, they write, talk, and work together to construct new knowledge — and reflect on how their discoveries change them. Teacher educator Jerome Harste notes that Brownfield’s approach encourages students to use what they learn “to take action and begin to position themselves differently in the world — to make a difference.”

Video Summary

The following is a summary of the activities featured in Workshop video 3. The activities were part of a larger unit on Native American history and residential schools. In adapting them to your own classroom, students, and overall curriculum, you may choose to vary the sequence or timing presented here.


Sally Brownfield introduces My Name Is Seepeetza and asks her students to speculate about the book’s content based on the material on its front and back covers. The class begins a K/W/L chart listing what they know and want to know about Indian residential schools. (See Teaching Strategies: K/W/L Chart.)

  • Brownfield and the whole class begin reading the book aloud. Brownfield explains that they’ll be writing individual journals as they read, and that these will include personal K/W/L chartsreading and research guides, and blank journal pages. (See Teaching Strategies: Journaling.)
  • The students continue reading in their small groups. They may choose to read aloud to each other or read silently. Brownfield asks them to note and discuss any new or unusual words in the text — for example, the term “slipwire fence.”
  • For homework, the students write their first journal entry about the book and interview a relative or neighbor about Indian residential schools.
  • Brownfield organizes a “fishbowl” discussion about the text. (See Teaching Strategies: Fishbowl.) As the rest of the class listens, Brownfield facilitates a small-group discussion about specific scenes in the book. After these students speculate about the effects of racism in Seepeetza’s school, Brownfield asks the class as a whole, “Do you see anything like this happening here in our school?” The students talk about this and then write about it in their journals. They share their personal K/W/L charts with the whole class.
  • Brownfield reads Laura Tohe’s poem, “The Names,” and the class makes connections between the two texts. The students discuss the importance of a person’s name, and then write about it in their journals.


The students prepare for a visit to local tribal elders by learning about proper etiquette for the visit, writing questions and practicing interviewing, and making gifts for the elders.

  • The students interview the elders about their experiences in Indian residential schools.
  • Based on what they’ve read in the literature and learned from the elders, the students identify research questions to pursue in their small groups. Questions include, “What were conditions like in residential schools?” and “How were residential schools first established?” To provide some background for their research, Brownfield leads a discussion about the meaning of the term “culture,” and the extent to which Native peoples in the United States and Canada have been free to engage in their cultural practices.
  • The groups of students conduct research on their topics by using the Internet. They find primary- and secondary-source materials such as photographs and written documents.


Brownfield tells the students that each group will create a poster to present their research, and gives them the rubric with which she will assess their work. The groups begin to design their posters.

  • Shirley Sterling visits the class. She opens her presentation by singing songs of sorrow and of healing, then tells the students how she came to write My Name Is Seepeetza. After she fields their questions, she asks them to write in response to her visit. Some students read their pieces aloud to Sterling and the class, and Sterling gives them positive feedback.


Video Materials & Standards


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


Deloria Jr., Vine. Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.
At the forefront of the Native American movement to reclaim history, this book describes past interactions between Native Americans and whites, and destroys the stereotypes about Native Americans that exist in society today.

——. God is Red: A Native Review of Religion. Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing, 1994.
This book describes spirituality as an idea that does not necessarily have to be defined in Christian terms, and reminds readers of the connections between humans and the environment.

Francis, Lee. Native Time: A Historical Time Line of Native America. New York: St Martin’s Griffin, 1996.
A cross-referenced time line, this book exhibits the history, literature, religion, and politics of Native Americans.

Goebel, Bruce. Reading Native American Literature: A Teacher’s Guide. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2004.
This guide for teachers provides suggestions for introducing Native American literature to a class, and includes historical information as well as bibliographies.

Vizenor, Gerald, ed. Native American Literature: A Brief Introduction and Anthology. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.
An anthology of Native American literature from the early 19th century to the present, this book introduces and represents a broad variety of genres as well as the diversity among Native Americans for a wide range of readers.

Witalec, Janet and Joseph Bruchac, eds. Smoke Rising: The Native North American Literary Companion. New York: Visible Ink Press, 1995.
This guide offers a wide variety of both traditional and contemporary Native American literature.

Web Sites

American Indian Heritage Foundation Web site
This general reference features information on different tribes and on programs that work to preserve Native American heritage.

Circle of Stories
This Web site about storytelling traditions includes stories from Native American storytellers as well as lessons and activities for the classroom.

Native Languages of the Americas: American Indian Books and Literature
This site gives a list of books about or by Native Americans, organized by different topics and themes.

National Museum of the American Indian
This Smithsonian Museum site has information about its various branches, museum collections, online collections, and some available educational resources for students.

Oyate is an organization that offers evaluations of works by and about Native American people, as well as workshops that teach educators how to evaluate children’s books and resources for biases and incorrect information. Oyate also publishes materials that act as guides for choosing and evaluating literature and educational resources about Native Americans.


Alcatraz Is Not an Island. PBS/ITVS, 2002.
This film’s Web site offers information, video clips, and additional resources about the displacement of Native Americans from their land and their attempt to gain back sovereignty by occupying Alcatraz.

The Learning Path. First Run/Icarus Films, 1991.
Integrating documentary, dramatic reenactment, and archival footage, this film tells the story of three Native teachers who play an important role in the education of Native American youth today.

Matters of Race — Episode 3, “We’re Still Here.” PBS, 2003.
With a video clip, essay, and other interactive materials, this site focuses on the Lakota people.

Residential Schools


Eastman, Charles. From the Deep Woods to Civilization: Chapters in the Autobiography of an Indian. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1916.
Eastman’s autobiography for young readers tells of his years in school and how he became a doctor.

——. Indian Boyhood. New York: McClure, Phillips and Company, 1902.
This autobiographical account of Eastman’s life for young readers tells about the grandparents who raised him and his reunion with his father, who had been captured in the Minnesota Sioux Uprising.

Hamm, Diane Johnston. Daughter of Suqua. Morton Grove, IL: Albert Whitman, 1997.
Ida lives with her family on an island off the coast of Washington until they are relocated and sent to residential schools by the U.S. government. This novel tells of Ida, her family, and their tribe’s struggle to keep their identity.

Harper, Maddie. “Mush-Hole”: Memories of a Residential School. Toronto: Sister Vision Press, 1993.
In this children’s book, Harper tells of her experience in boarding school and her escape and recovery from her experiences there.

Horne, Ester Burnett, and Sally McBeth. Essie’s Story: The Life and Legacy of a Shoshone Teacher. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.
Ester Burnett Horne and Sally McBeth collaborate to tell Horne’s story for both adult and young adult readers, from her schooling in a residential school to her own experiences as a teacher.

Johnston, Basil H. Indian School Days. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.
In a memoir about his time in residential school, Johnston describes not only his resistance to the school but also the astonishing resilience of his cultural heritage.

LaFlesche, Francis. The Middle Five: Indian Schoolboys of the Omaha Tribe. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1963.
This account of Francis LaFlesche’s childhood tells of his time at a Presbyterian school in Nebraska during the Civil War and is suitable for young adult readers.

Littlefield, Holly. Children of the Indian Boarding Schools. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, 2001.
Writing for a young adult audience, Littlefield offers factual information, photographs of children from Indian boarding schools, and suggestions on how to critically examine photographs.

Lomawaima, K. Tsianina. They Call It Prairie Light: The Story of Chilocco Indian School. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.
Lomawaima lets the students of the off-reservation Chilocco boarding school describe their own experiences facing racism and demoralization at the school, but also the support and sense of community they found with one another.

Reyhner, Jon, and Jeanne M. Oyawin Eder. American Indian Education: A History. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004.
In this history of the Native American experience, Reyhner and Eder draw on first-hand accounts and primary documents to describe the types of boarding and day schools the U.S. government created for Native American children, the policies of the government toward Native Americans, and the Native American response to the oppression they faced.

Santiago, Chiori. Home to Medicine Mountain. San Francisco: Children’s Press, 1998.
This children’s book, illustrated by Judith Lowry, tells the story of two boys who are sent to an Indian residential school.

Standing Bear, Luther. My Indian Boyhood. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1931.
Standing Bear, born in the 1860s, writes about his traditional childhood as a member of Sioux society and describes his life up until the time he was sent away to the Carlisle Indian School in this memoir for adult and young adult readers.

Web Sites

Labriola National American Indian Data Center in the University Libraries at Arizona State University
This site has information about resources for Native American boarding schools.

Marr, Carol J. “Assimilation Through Education: Indian Boarding Schools in the Pacific Northwest.”
This essay describes the spread of missionary and boarding schools, the practices of these schools, and the effects they had on the students.

Reservation Boarding Schools
This site about residential schools contains useful links and essays about the history of residential schools.

Smith, Andrea. “Soul Wound: The Legacy of Native American Schools.” Amnesty Now (Summer 2003).
This article discusses the history of abuse in the Native American residential schools and the effects it has had on the Native American communities.


Transken, Si. “Meaning Making and Methodological Explorations: Bringing Knowledge from British Columbia’s First Nations Women Poets Into Social Work Courses.” Cultural Studies/Critical Methodologies (February 2005):3-29.
This article focuses on the inclusion of First Nation women’s poetry and knowledge in social work courses, and shows many similarities between First Nation women and social workers.


In the White Man’s Image. PBS, Native American Public Broadcasting Consortium, and the Nebraska Education Television Network, 1992.
This program discusses the assimilation policy of the United States toward Native Americans, which began in the late 19th century, continued far into the 20th century, and was actually an attempt at cultural genocide.