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Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades

Social Justice and Action: Alma Flor Ada, Pam Muñoz Ryan, and Paul Yee

Laura Alvarez and her bilingual fourth- and fifth-grade students in Oakland, California examine different perspectives and experiences of immigrants, and then formulate and defend positions on issues with which they connect personally. They examine My Name Is María Isabel by Alma Flor Ada, Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan, and Tales from Gold Mountain by Paul Yee, and compare characters’ hopes, expectations, and actual experiences upon arriving in the United States. The students conduct research, which includes interviews with family members and nonfiction readings. Alma Flor Ada visits the classroom, answers questions about her novel, and facilitates discussion about social justice and taking action for change. As a culminating project, the students write and revise persuasive letters to raise public awareness about the issues they’ve examined.

Alvarez helps students see that they can be agents of change. Teacher educator Sonia Nieto comments, “Multicultural education is not about holidays and heroes and diversity dinners; it’s much more about people’s lives and what’s fair and unfair. Critical pedagogy is about kids learning to question. These children are writing letters and learning how to make their voices heard while developing and refining basic and critical literacy skills. This is a core value of a democratic society… And if we encourage children to speak up, to ask critical questions, then they’re going to develop a much greater sense of agency and of knowing that they can make a difference in the world.”

Video Summary

The following is a summary of the activities featured in Workshop video 7. The activities were part of a larger study of immigration. In adapting them to your own classroom, students, and overall curriculum, you may choose to vary the sequence or timing presented here.


Laura Alvarez begins with a read-aloud of the novel My Name Is María Isabel. (See Teaching Strategies: Read-Aloud.) In a brief whole-class discussion, the students focus on the scene in which a teacher changes Maria Isabel’s name because there is already another Maria in the room.

    • In pairs, the students talk about the story, the notion of naming in general, and their own experiences with names. Alvarez then asks them to think about what Maria Isabel and her family expected when they first came to the United States, and what realities they found instead.
    • The student pairs turn to their independent reading books, which include Esperanza Rising and Tales From Gold Mountain, to identify some of the expectations the characters had before coming to the United States, as well as the realities they experienced when they arrived. The students begin to discuss the various barriers there may be for immigrants in this country.
    • Alvarez asks each student to think back to the interviews they have done previously with immigrants in their own families or from their community. With partners, they identify these immigrants’ expectations and realities. One student shares her interview with the whole class. The students are then asked to note any similarities between the experiences of their interviewees and the experiences of the characters in their books. The students share this work in groups.
    • As a whole class, the students brainstorm the various issues or problems immigrants face. After they have created a list of issues, Alvarez asks the students to think of possible sources for information about them.

The students use a graphic organizer to classify the issues they’ve identified into the categories of safety, education, work, health, rights, and other. Alvarez comments that this step will help them craft thesis statements later in the unit. Each group of students chooses an issue to research.

  • The students begin to research their issues, using the Internet. Alvarez helps each small group by doing a read-aloud of the information they found on the Internet and asking them to say “Stop” when they hear something specific about the issue or about its possible resolution. She then helps them rephrase what they’ve heard and put it in their notes in their own words.
  • For homework, the students generate questions for a visit by author Alma Flor Ada. When Ada meets with the class, she talks to them about her book and the issues and problems they are investigating, and she encourages them to work for social justice.
  • The students prepare to write letters to members of their community, policy makers, media outlets, and other people who might address the problems they have identified. To scaffold the process for them, Alvarez shows the whole class how to identify an appropriate audience and create a thesis statement. Next, she helps the students learn how to examine the various sides of an argument and build a case for each side.


Small groups of students develop the arguments and counterarguments for their positions, using a graphic organizer for support. They work in pairs to practice debating issues from two sides. Then the student pairs debate their issues before the class. (See Teaching Strategies: Debate.)

  • Choosing two or three of their best arguments from the debate to develop into paragraphs, the students craft their letters. They write a rough draft, check it against a list of features letters should include, and conference with Alvarez before producing a final draft for mailing. (See Teaching Strategies: Writing Letters for Social Action.)


Video Materials & Standards


  • My Name Is María Isabel, by Alma Flor Ada
  • Esperanza Rising, by Pam Muñoz Ryan
  • Tales From Gold Mountain, by Paul Yee
  • “Problems” graphic organizer (PDF)
  • “Arguments/Counterarguments” graphic organizer (PDF)
  • Internet access for research

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

Chao, Lien. Beyond Silence: Chinese Canadian Literature in English. Toronto: Tsar Publications, 1997.
Chao’s book provides a historical and cultural context for Chinese Canadian literature, while also specifically and thoroughly examining different authors and their works.
Delgado, Richard, and Jean Stefancic, eds. The Latino/a Condition: A Critical Reader. New York: New York University Press, 1998.
This book addresses stereotypes about Latino immigrants; their social, political, and economic positions; and how bilingualism in education has come under attack in American history.
Steiner, Stan. Fusang: The Chinese Who Built America. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.
Steiner’s book discusses the key role that Chinese immigrants played in the development of the Americas, especially by building railroads in harsh and dangerous conditions.
“History of Bilingual Education.” Rethinking Schools (Spring 1998). (see archives)
This article traces bilingual education in the United States from the early 19th century to the present.
Web Sites
National Association for Bilingual Education
This is the site of a nonprofit organization that advocates policies that ensure educational equity for students who are learning English.
United Farm Workers
This official site for the United Farm Workers includes a history of the organization as well as information about César Chávez and other important leaders.
The Fight in the Fields. PBS, 1997.
This site offers information about The Fight in the Fields, a documentary about Chávez and the struggle of farm workers.