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.”
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
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.