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Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades

Research and Discovery: Shirley Sterling and Laura Tohe Commentary

Sally Brownfield

Hood Canal School
Shelton, WA

Why do you teach multicultural literature?

In this country, several groups are not included in the typical curriculum, and when they are included, the materials often contain inaccuracies and stereotypes. The materials about Native Americans are offensive and inaccurate, and many teachers aren’t able to recognize that because they didn’t have access to authentic works by Native American authors in grade school or in higher education. I think that if we want education in this country to serve all students, the students need to see themselves reflected accurately in the selection of reading materials in classrooms and libraries, in worksheets, bulletin boards, videos, guest speakers, and class and individual projects.

Why is it important to teach students about the residential schools?

The residential Indian schools are part of our history — not just Native American people’s history, but all of ours. It’s also important to understand this part of history in order to understand the social issues that people live with on the reservations. What happened was, one generation of a family went to boarding schools, and the next generation lived on the reservations and went to public school. The parents had grown up away from their families and communities in an environment where they received a very poor-quality education and were often abused. When they came out of those schools, there was no transition and no healing. Today on the reservations, there’s a high rate of alcoholism and drug abuse, as well as a high rate of suicide, especially among boys aged 19 to 25. It has been only recently that the community has recognized that there is a need for healing.

What cultural differences need to be considered in working with Native students?

Although this is a generalization — as with any students, not all Native American children learn in exactly the same way — there are several ways in which we work with Native American students specifically. For example, the wait time — the time from when a teacher asks a question and then calls on someone to answer that question — must be longer. In the United States, the average wait time is three seconds. When you look at a class of students, most often you’ll see the non-Native American — mostly Caucasian — children raising their hands quickly. Traditionally, most Native American students are taught that words are precious and you can never take them back, so they learn to take time to think carefully about what it is they’re going to say. And by the time a Native American student does that, the question’s been answered and the class has moved on to other questions.

If teachers are aware of this, they can make everybody wait a little longer before calling on someone, because research shows that if you lengthen wait time, you get much higher quality answers from all students. Students who answer questions as fast as possible have a much higher rate of error than those who wait and think.

Why did you take your students to visit the elders?

First, I wanted the students to see that the boarding school experience described in My Name Is Seepeetza was widespread. It wasn’t something that just happened in this one story in this one place; it was an experience we had right here.

It was also an opportunity for them to see just a snippet of what traditional Native American learning was: sitting and listening to the elders’ stories. Sometimes you have to sit for a long time; those stories can go on for a long time. We don’t see that very often anymore. With the coming of schools, education took on a different look in Native American communities. But still, outside of school, on weekends and in the evenings, traditional teaching does continue. I wanted my students to experience the rich stories and the way that our elders can teach us.

How did you prepare your students for the visit?

We talked about proper etiquette when you meet elders in a Native American community. We stayed after school to make gifts for the elders: Because we were going to ask for and to take their stories, we needed to give them gifts as a way of showing our appreciation for allowing us to be there and for doing this for us. Taking the time to make gifts helped the students understand that we were doing something very special.

While they were making their gifts, I gave them some reminders of how to treat an elder. For example, at lunch, you wait until all of the elders are served, and if another elder comes after the students have begun to be served, you say, “Please come in line ahead of me.” At the same time, I prepared them for the interviewing. I first asked them, “What do you want to know?” We talked about the questions, and then about how to ask the questions clearly and allow the elder time to think and time to talk.

Many of the students were nervous about doing the interviews. In class, we practiced interviewing each other. We asked ourselves, “Do we always have to ask one question after another as we’ve written them, or might one question lead to another we hadn’t thought of before?” We talked about the importance of knowing when to allow that to happen. And I thought they did quite well when they interviewed the elders.

How did you assess your students’ work throughout the unit?

The journal is a very important piece of this unit, and I told the students that it would be a very big part of their assessment. At the beginning, I told them what they would need to put in their journals: their individual K/W/L charts, their reading guide, and their research. I did that because I wanted them to have everything organized in one place and I wanted to make sure I got their work. They left their journals after every class, and I would respond to them each night so they’d have ongoing feedback. For example, I would look at the K/W/L and ask: “What did you start out with? What did you want to know? What did you find out? How much learning is really happening?” That can vary greatly from student to student. Sometimes what they wanted to know will match up with what they learned, and sometimes it won’t. Some of the questions that they came up with were outside of this piece of literature, and they weren’t able to answer all those questions in the span of one unit on a piece of literature. That’s how it is in life — we don’t find answers to our questions immediately — so I don’t expect to see answers to all of their questions. However, at the end of the unit, we will go back and ask ourselves, “What was it that we studied, how did we study it, and why did we study it? What learning did we take away from this, and what will we do with the newfound knowledge?” Those are the deep questions we will ask at the very end of the unit.

For their final project, the poster, I gave the students the rubric that I would use. That way, they can look at their work and compare it to my descriptions of what constitutes the highest-quality work on down to the poorest work, and they can think about what they can do to enhance their own work.

How can the teaching strategies that you used in the Seepeetza unit be applied to other works of literature, including those that are not specifically about the Native American experience?

The strategies I used in teaching My Name Is Seepeetza can be applied to any literary genre — they are not particular to Native American literature. The elements include: creating a learning environment based on trust and respect, allowing students to guide their own learning through freedom and choice, and using devices such as K/W/L charts both as a class and individually to assist students in taking responsibility for and directing their learning. I feel that taking the teaching and learning beyond the classroom serves to enhance the learning and teaches students that what is studied in the classroom is relevant to not only themselves but a greater community as well. The fishbowl activity gives students the opportunity to share their voice, whether it is on the topic of the piece of literature, interpretation of the author’s intent, or finding inferences.

Joseph Bruchac


What is the history of the boarding school program?

Well, the birth of the residential boarding school program could be dated to around 1879; that was the first year, when Richard Henry Pratt founded an institute called Carlisle. It was in Pennsylvania, which was considerably far from most of the reservations of the West, which was where Carlisle drew a great deal of its population.

The idea was that no longer would the Indian be allowed to live in what they [whites] referred to as “savagery,” but he would be “brought up” to the level of white culture, although not quite. Because this, like the Hampton Institute and other programs that had been instituted for African Americans, was designed to create a class of Indians who were actually working as laborers, who were people who were not at the level of professionals — lawyers, doctors, captains of industry — but were, in fact, service personnel, people who would be working in their proper roles to support white Europeans. And in fact, that was what Carlisle did in many ways.

Between the period of Carlisle’s founding and its eventual closure in 1918, thousands and thousands of American Indian people went through the doors of Carlisle and other boarding schools like it that were founded around the country. One interesting statistic is that at Carlisle, very few people ever actually graduated. They attended and they left without a degree. They received some degree of education, but they were also used as cheap labor.

For example, there was a policy at Carlisle called “outing.” That meant that during the summers, or even for an entire year or two, they would take a Carlisle student and ship them off to some other part of the country where they would work as a laborer in some particular business, maybe on a farm.

Jim Thorpe, the very famous American Indian athlete who was a Carlisle attendee, actually was sent off on outings on a couple of occasions before he became well known as a football player. He spent two years involved in the outing program.

How pervasive were these institutions?

When Carlisle was first founded in that period of the late 1800s, there were approximately 20,000 American Indians every year attending those schools. By the time Carlisle closed in 1918, the number was up to 25,000 a year.

If you visit the Carlisle graveyard, you’ll see the names of more than 30 different Apaches buried there, including Geronimo’s son and his wife and their baby, all buried in that boarding school graveyard. Because the boarding schools, in addition to being places where you were removed from your culture, were also hotbeds of contagion: influenza swept through the boarding schools, tuberculosis swept through the boarding schools.

And in doing that research, it was very interesting for me to find how many times when an Indian became sick, they were not kept at Carlisle or wherever their boarding school was. They were shipped home. That meant they were shipped home with their disease. So the Cherokawas, as a case in point, dozens and dozens of family members died of tuberculosis, for example, in Alabama, where the Cherokawas were then held captive because their children came home and that disease was then passed on to them.

What are some of the lingering effects of this program?

The lack of self-worth that was often a result of the boarding school experience devastated people. A lot of people became alcoholics because of boarding school. And then the next generation was affected by it as well.

You see, within an American Indian tradition, children are regarded as the greatest wealth, not just to the family but of the entire nation. You never shout at a child, you never strike a child. You always give a good example when a child does something wrong. The best thing you could do is talk to them or tell them a story.

So imagine the contrast between the child who was raised at home and understands that love and caring and respect are the way children are to be treated, and the child who was raised in a boarding school where physical punishment, where callousness, where continual reminders of their own lack of self-worth is the day’s menu. Think of the contrast between those people.

And the reason that we today throughout North America — in Canada, in the United States, for example — have many of the problems we have within our Native communities, very often you can trace this back in the family to the boarding school legacy.

We are still recovering from the boarding schools. To me, the amazing thing is that people survived them as well as they did; that so many came out of them as whole human beings. People who were still able to care, still able to give, still able to speak their languages and remember their customs. That to me is for — for me in many ways, that to me is a mark of the power of our culture, of the greatness of our languages, and of the real heart that exists at the center of American Indian tribal cultures. Even the boarding schools could damage that heart but not completely break it.

Talk about traditional education in American Indian communities.

I think it’s important to recognize that there’re differences between traditional education, not just in American Indian communities but in many parts of the world, and what we call “Western” education.

Traditional education tends to rely on experiences — [it’s] experiential. If you want to know how to make a basket, you do all the process of basket making, including knowing the cycles of the seasons when the trees are ready, when the materials are ready. And then the basket is made. And there may even be songs and rituals connected to it. So it’s a holistic experience.

In the Western tradition, you have didactic learning: basically, your teachers tell you what you have to know and then you repeat back to them what you have learned, which is what they have told you. So that involvement of all the senses and all parts of the person as a being sometimes — not always, but sometimes — is lacking in the Western system.

Now the paradigm of the boarding schools ties into this in a very interesting way. Because that Western system, which assumes superiority and leaves out multicultural aspects of learning, can affect not just American Indians. When I lived in West Africa, I observed a postcolonial period where the education system was still recovering from that time when Africans were told they were not really full-fledged human beings. The best they could do would be to be imitations of Europeans: to dress and talk like them, but to never quite reach their level; to aspire, perhaps, to the job of a servant or a driver of a car but not the owner of the car or the person who runs the country. In fact, many parts of the world suffer from this postcolonial legacy of education where they were never taught the proper way to nurture an entire community and personal gain was the first thought. I think we see this in many places in the world.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

One of the interesting stories about boarding schools for me is the story of the Navajo people: the Navajo boarding schools and what happened as a result of their going to boarding school and then the coming of World War II. You see, the boarding school experience lasted from the late 1800s past the middle of the twentieth century. So people of my age and even younger than me actually went to boarding schools. Although I never went to one, I’ve many friends who attended them.

The irony of the Navajo experience is this: when World War II came, many of those Navajo men who were graduates of those boarding schools were recruited by the United States Marines for a program called The Code Talkers. They would use their Native language to create an unbreakable code. The Japanese were never able to break that code through the entirety of World War II. Because they spoke fluent English and they were fluent in their Native language, they were able to do this. And it was that same language that they had been told was the enemy of progress — was to be lost, forgotten forever.

By the way, that Navajo code was used in Korea and Vietnam. It was not until the late 1960s that it became declassified. Because it was a government secret, those men who were Navajo Code Talkers were never given medals, never given a grade raise, never given a description on their discharge that could have been useful for them in finding a job — never given any recognition until the 1970s. It’s very ironic in more ways than one.

I’ve written a book, for example, about the Navajo Code Talkers called Code Talker. And in writing that book, I interviewed and spoke with a number of Code Talkers, men who survived the boarding school experience and men who then went on after World War II to be very important in their communities. And sometimes what they contributed was their simple survival, their understanding of what we can go through as people and still come out the other side. They had seen war, and they’d also seen a cultural war at the same time. They had survived both of those things.

And the idea that you can be a human being in the face of great difficulty, that you can survive and be whole after having been in this pressure cooker that the boarding schools really were, is to me one of the great inspirations. And I think it will be for other people as well.

Jerome Harste

Indiana University

What impresses you about Sally Brownfield’s use of resources with her students?

There are multiple kinds of resources that she’s using and building curriculum from. She is using the personal experiences of the kids; she is using the social issues in the community; she is also using a book that raises those kinds of social issues; she’s using authors as experts who have a lot of knowledge and who have done a lot of thinking about this topic. She’s using the oral text of elders; she’s using the popular culture and the media that’s being used. And, I think, the desires and hopes of the community.

I think what is really crucial is that there’s an inquiry component to all of those. By using multiple texts, by using the people from the community, the author, they’re juxtaposing different kinds of texts so that kids have to start questioning the authority of text. They begin to have their own inquiry questions, which is crucial.

What are the benefits of using journals?

Journals are a wonderful way to make sure that all of the voices are being heard. I really like Sally’s use of journals in this unit — she is using journals to invite kids into conversation as well as to keep them in the conversation.

There are many ways to use journals. One of the ways that you see Sally using them is, after the kids have had a discussion, to have them reflect on that discussion and record comments they might want to add. But you could also ask the kids to take on the role of the character and write from that particular perspective. You could have them draw a sketch of what they think a section of the story meant. Or have them take notes while they’re reading in their journal and bring in those notes to start the conversation in literature discussion. I oftentimes will say to kids, “I want you to make four comments in your journal — one an observation, one a question, one a surprise, one a connection that you make — and bring those and let’s start the conversation going, using that particular kind of format.”

Journals are a great opportunity for language study because we want students to be producers of language as well as consumers. It’s very important to demonstrate the writing process in front of kids, and demonstrate the challenges: How is it that you spin a good phrase? How is it that you get your ideas? How many false starts do you need to make? Teachers need to be inquirers themselves. “Let’s go here. Let’s look at this document. Let’s look at this language.” And that sort of “demonstration by doing” I think is extremely crucial.

What does technology add to the language arts classroom?

At that computer lab, the students are looking at real artifacts. One of the great things about the Internet is that students can access the kind of treaties and the kinds of laws that were put in place, the original kinds of documents. In this computer activity, Sally is giving the kids access to original documents, but she’s also doing language studies. She’s inviting the kids to look at how things are worded and how to use language and what difference that makes. And then she’s asking them to be reflective.

What is the value of creating artwork for presentations?

What’s really important about inviting kids to take what they learned and then put it into some other form than just language is that they have to transmediate — that is, take something in language and put it into another sign system. While they’re doing that, they have to go through all of the different knowledge domains, and there’s not a one-to-one match between a concept in language and a concept in art.

Discuss how multicultural education makes learning meaningful for students.

So often, we think about education in sort of abstracted ideas. But education has to be up close and personal. In Sally’s unit, students are examining real documents and looking at what life in reservation school was like and why it was like that. Those kinds of social practices need to be examined; they need to be reflected upon if we’re to change the kind of society we live in. See, this is why we have to be using multicultural literature in all of our classrooms. These stories are too important not to be heard.

I think all of us have to be about the business of developing diversity and difference in our model of education: one that serves the kind of multicultural, multilingual society that we have. Not only do we need to hear those voices, but we want a group of students — of citizens — who not only can question authority, but know how to create information and inquire into topics and use language in colorful ways themselves.