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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 Commentary

Laura Alvarez

Melrose Elementary School
Oakland, CA

Talk about your school’s bilingual program.

My school has a transitional bilingual program. In the primary grades, the kids focus on Spanish language arts: learning how to read and write and also do math and other academic subjects in their native language, and building those academic language and literacy skills in Spanish first. At the same time, they also work on oral English. Then as kids move up in the grades, they transition into doing more and more of their work in English. The goal is that in the primary grades, the kids will have built a strong language and literacy foundation in Spanish and be able to build on that as they transition into English.

I think teaching in a bilingual program is really important for a lot of different reasons. One reason is just the social aspect of being in a school, being in a classroom where people speak your language. I think that was something the kids really picked up in the literature, what it felt like for immigrants to come to a school where their native language was not seen as appropriate to use in class, where the teacher did not speak that language, where they felt really kind of isolated and couldn’t communicate. This bilingual program enables students to be able to really feel present and comfortable in the school and the classroom community.

Academically, I think they gain a lot from being able to do harder reading and writing and cognitive activities in their native language, activities which some of them just don’t have the language skills yet to do in English. At other times of the day we’re working on those English-language abilities, but this is a place where they can really do the kinds of work that 10- and 11-year-olds do in their native language. I think it’s really valuable for them to have that strong foundation in Spanish, because so many of those academic skills and academic language and literacy abilities are transferable between the two languages.

Even though in fourth and fifth grade most of my kids have transitioned into English language arts, I still think it’s really important for them to build those language and literacy skills in Spanish because if they stop doing Spanish literacy in third grade, it’s really not such a developed state of literacy. So that’s why I continue to do some literature work with them in Spanish and some writing and social studies work with them in Spanish.

Why did you choose to teach immigration stories?

All of my students either are immigrants or their parents are immigrants, and using this literature enables them to do pretty high-level discussion and thinking because it’s about something really relevant and accessible to them. They can draw on their own experience and their family’s experience instead of reading about something that is disconnected from their own reality, and it helps them understand literature that otherwise would be more challenging for them. It’s also a way for them to bring what their families know into the classroom and to feel like that’s valuable information.

I also wanted to choose literature that pushed them beyond their own experience. As immigrants, almost all of my students come from Mexico, so I also wanted to choose some pieces that include people from other Latin American countries, people from Asia, people from Eastern Europe. Part of my job as a teacher is not only to build on what my students bring to the classroom and teach them in a way that’s relevant to their own experience, but also to expose them to things outside of their reality, outside of their community. So I try to use literature to show them other experiences that they may not have access to in this classroom or in the community.

Talk about having parents involved in the lesson.

This lesson is one of the times I’ve connected my work in the classroom to families and really been able to bring what families know into the work in the classroom. So much of the work that the kids did required them to go home and interview family members at a couple of different stages. So their parents always knew what we were studying, and in conferences the parents could talk about the work the kids were doing, about the kinds of conversations they’ve had at home. One mom told me she was really impressed with the kinds of higher-level thinking that her son was doing, and she was really surprised that her kid was able to do that kind of thinking.

I think it’s really valuable for the kids to talk with their parents about what they’re studying in school. I think that the parents have a lot of opinions about these ideas, about immigration, because they’ve experienced a lot of problems that we are researching. And so by sharing these experiences, the parents can add to the children’s thinking and push the children’s thinking a little bit about the issue. This is really a place where the parents are resources and have a lot of information that they can give their kids.

How does this unit fulfill language arts standards?

This unit has gotten into a lot of strategies of reading comprehension. We’ve practiced using strategies like context clues or word knowledge to figure out the meaning of unknown words in the texts. We’ve also been working on making connections to texts from our own lives and also making connections between texts, comparing and contrasting.

We’ve worked on other strategies, like visualizing when we read and asking questions about texts and then inferencing: to be able to read beyond the literal that’s happening in the book and use imagination and background knowledge to infer about characters’ intentions, their feelings, why they do certain things, and what will happen in the story.

In terms of writing, we’ve been doing multi-paragraph report writing. The students interviewed a family member who is an immigrant, or wrote about themselves, and wrote a five-paragraph report about it, with an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion. We’re doing persuasive writing, and to get ready for their persuasive writing, the students have been doing research on the problem they’re studying and possible solutions.

In terms of English-language development standards, before writing their persuasive letters, the students worked together to articulate their ideas orally. The debate was a way for kids to rehearse for the writing, to practice making an argument. This stage in the writing process is important because my students are all English-language learners.

I think one thing I’ve learned teaching the past few years is how important content is for kids engaging in any kind of learning. One thing that was really valuable about this lesson was that I was able to combine the skills and the academic abilities that kids need to be able to learn in fourth and fifth grade with real, meaningful content that was important to them and important to their families. With that combination, the kids were really able to do much better because they cared about what they were doing. It was something which drew on their knowledge and their families’ knowledge. I think because of that connection, the piece of work that they were able to do was so much stronger than it would have been otherwise.

Talk about the role of activism in this lesson.

This whole project is a way for kids to see writing as a form of social activism. Sometimes writing isn’t meaningful to kids because there’s no audience besides the teacher or they don’t care about what they’re writing about. This lesson was one way for them to see that by writing, they can communicate their experiences and opinions for real purposes. If they’re doing it around something that is really meaningful to them and relevant to their experience, they’ll create better writing than if they were writing persuasive pieces about something disconnected from them.

It’s also more motivating for kids to write when they see that there’s a real audience for their writing, and I think it will be valuable for the kids to feel like their voices are heard if they can get responses from the people that they wrote to. It’ll be a really affirming process for them.

Beyond writing the letters, the whole process really got the kids outside of the classroom, because they went home at a couple of different times in the unit and talked to their family members about these issues. I think that conversation between children and their families is really a form of activism and developing an awareness of their role in the world, of the problems that they face in the world, and of their successes and achievements and struggles.

All of that is developing students’ activism and developing their ability to articulate an opinion. When you have that kind of adult conversation with your mom or your dad, you’re hearing how an adult articulates their opinion and you’re learning how to do that yourself. That’s an important part of your personal development and an important way of learning how to be an activist.

Would you teach this lesson to students in a different community?

I think this lesson would be really useful and really different in a different kind of community. If I did not have immigrant students, I would probably highlight the literature even more because the literature is a way for kids this age to connect with those experiences and to really empathize and get into the mindset, get into the experiences of the character. I think that would be really valuable for students who are not immigrants because I think that that kind of work is really important for all of us to do in this country, for everybody to consider other people’s experiences and push their thinking and their political views further.

How did you prepare your students for this unit?

I do a lot of modeling of the kinds of strategies I hope students will engage in when they read. I explicitly teach a reading strategy by modeling and engaging in it with the class during a read-aloud. Then, in small reading groups, we also practice these strategies collaboratively with text at the students’ instructional level. Similarly, when I teach writing I model each step of the way, writing an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion, and then revising and editing my writing.

A really important piece to this unit was activating kids’ preexisting knowledge about immigration so they could use it to engage in the reading, speaking, and writing activities. We spent one whole lesson just brainstorming with partners and then sharing what we already knew about immigration and asking any questions we had. Then we took our knowledge and questions and grouped them into different topics related to immigration.

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

Students engaged in activities with their groups after or while reading the literature, activities to clarify unknown words, story maps, etc. I used those to assess their comprehension, as well as my observations of them working together to do those activities.

I have students assess and revise their own writing with checklists to hold them accountable for using aspects of the genre we are writing (i.e., a thesis statement) or language forms (i.e., dependent clauses) that I have taught. Then I read their writing and conference with students based on my assessment of their needs.

Patricia Enciso

Associate Professor
Ohio State University

Talk about Laura’s lesson.

Laura’s curriculum really helped kids analyze the barriers to participating fully in the community: She looked at health, she looked at education opportunities. In using these categories, she was really able to help kids see the complexity of being a participant in a large society that depends on the labor of immigrants. The other thing that Laura did was really situate her questions with the children in a historical setting, which is perhaps easier to understand than the current picture of globalization, by looking at specific stories and experiences of María Isabel’s family and also the stories of Gold Mountain. The children began to recognize that this is not an easy transition and that there are huge costs and sacrifices to moving one’s self, one’s family, and one’s culture into a new environment.

Children will tend to see themselves as relatively powerless in the society at large, but Laura helps them see that they have something to offer. Through the literature, through the curriculum, and with the visit by Alma Flor Ada, they begin to see that they have something to say and they have an issue that’s of great importance to them. So in identifying one problem, focusing energies and focusing ideas and inquiry about that problem, children can begin to see that they can formulate a point of view that could be influential. In this case, they wrote letters. It’s not a kind of action that’s going to create any kind of danger for the children or put them in any kind of harm, but it shows them certainly that they can participate in this democracy.

So the children had the opportunity to formulate their ideas, talk together about what would be a good argument in support of their views, and to write that out and send it to someone associated with the government, to a newspaper, to a family member — to let people know that they had a stake in what was happening and that they had a particular point of view that could make a difference.

Laura has clearly established the importance of children being engaged in reading, but beyond that, she’s not just looking at their personal responses to the literature or how they feel about it. She’s showing them how to look at what happens when opportunities are not equitable and how people have managed to struggle through that. She’s showing them that way of analyzing the structures of society while also encouraging them to look at their own communities, look at some of the issues that matter to them and to understand how that connects with other people’s lives and other stories, and then to use that knowledge to take action in the world, to write a letter, to formulate an argument, to take a stand.

How does Laura’s use of multiple texts enhance students’ understandings of literature?

One of the things that is really remarkable and commendable about Laura’s curriculum is that she doesn’t focus exclusively on the experience of Mexican American children. She’s looking at African American and Chinese American immigration experiences, and in doing that she broadens the landscape for the meaning of immigration and the experience of immigration. This is a lesson and a structure for a lesson that would work very well in any classroom, whether it’s a classroom that’s heterogeneous with a dominant white population of children or a dominant population of African American children.

One of the important things about teaching with multicultural literature is to not rely on one book. There are so many issues and so many concerns that any one book could bring up. What Laura does that I would hope all teachers do is to bring in multiple stories so that children can see how they connect with a particular story line, a particular character. With these different connections, new stories develop from the children. They begin to be able to tell their own stories.

Why is bilingual education important?

Among Mexican families, Spanish is a primary way of connecting with family, connecting with other Latinos, whether they’re of Mexican descent or Central American. So Spanish is a very important identity marker, while it is also — from a reading and writing standpoint — an important resource for developing a broader understanding of language. Rather than seeing it as a barrier to recognizing the way English functions, it is in fact a framework and complex resource for understanding all languages.

What reading and writing skills did this unit help students to develop?

Laura engaged the children in multiple writing opportunities around this literature. These included writing their families’ personal stories, but even prior to that, writing the questions that they would ask their family and friends. She helped them use structures she had created to do careful readings of the literature and to look at obstacles that the characters encountered. These structures became the springboard for further writing about issues connected to their own communities. And then, more specifically, she helped them write questions and answer questions in more elaborative writing for their responses to the books that they read.

What’s clear in Laura’s classroom is that she’s able to help children develop very sophisticated reading and writing skills, while the curriculum content is addressing the inequities in our society and the very real experiences of children and their families who will face obstacles within American society. The children need to learn not only how to write and how to read, but why they should be reading and writing, why they should be participating in the world, so that they’re not silenced.

Sonia Nieto

Sonia Nieto
University of Massachusetts Amherst

What can multicultural literature offer to young students?

Literature — whether it’s children’s literature or adult literature — is not only a window to the world, it’s also a window inside oneself. Children are riveted by the conversations literature can create. So I would really encourage teachers to allow these conversations to take place. They are difficult, but it’s worthwhile because kids are living these realities all the time. Even kids who are not living these realities need to know about them. So whether we’re talking about Mexican American children, African American children, white children, or kids of any socioeconomic background, they all need to know what our reality is.

Immigration is an issue that isn’t talked about enough. I think it’s really important to include it in curriculum through children’s literature. There are more foreign-born, first-generation Americans and residents of the United States than ever before. This is a reality. We’re living through a historic time. One fifth of all U.S. residents are foreign born or first or second generation. Now that’s really an amazing fact. If we neglect to deal with that, we are avoiding a very important part of our reality right now.

My attitude as an educator has always been that you take any problem, any question and when you put it in the curriculum instead of sliding it under the rug, you’re better able to deal with it and make it transparent. This is really what education should be about: to look at things critically, to teach kids to engage with the subject matter. The subject matter in this particular case, in this particular classroom, happens to be their lives.

In my own experience, I did not read a book or see a book about Puerto Ricans until I was 16 years old. I was working at the Brooklyn Public Library, and one day I found a book that was about Puerto Ricans and it just stopped me in my tracks, because I had never seen anything in writing about Puerto Ricans. It was a book on mental health. I was just so excited to find anything that was about Puerto Ricans that I rushed home with it.

I think kids deserve more than that. I think kids deserve to read about their backgrounds and their experiences. All children need to see themselves reflected in literature and need to see a wide variety of people represented in literature. It’s unfair to children to just present them with one reality, as if that were the way things are. That’s not the way things are. That is why infusing the language arts program with a multicultural perspective is really important … because it gives a sense that the students have a place in school and in our society.

Why is it important to teach kids about social justice?

I don’t think we do a very good job, in our society or in our schools, of teaching children how important it is for them to develop their voice and their sense of agency in the world. I think we need to do a much better job of that. We have to start encouraging children very early on to speak up, to ask critical questions, to think of knowledge not as something that’s set in place but as something that is changing all the time, and to see their role as connecting with and challenging what they learn. It’s also important to teach children to really question and to be critical thinkers. It’s important to use that critical pedagogy in the classroom as Laura did — to have children question the way things are, to think about the way things could be, and what their role is in that. If we do this, then I think students will develop a voice and a greater sense of agency. They will know that they can make a difference in the world and they can’t just be bystanders.

Talk about Alma Flor Ada’s visit to Laura’s classroom.

Alma Flor Ada is an incredible educator, and those children were really lucky to have her in the classroom. She definitely showed a tremendous respect for them and at the same time she gave them important questions to think about. She’s done a lot, not only in terms of that classroom but also in terms of the children’s literature that she’s written over the years. She’s been a pioneer in this kind of literature written in English and in Spanish. The books that she’s written in English allow a whole generation of kids who are not Latinos to read about the Latino experience.

My Name Is María Isabel emphasizes the importance of names and how children are either affirmed or dismissed based on how teachers name them. Alma’s book can make and has made a big impact in that sense. And of course, so many of her other books, such as the folktales that she’s written, include the broad expanse of the Latino community. You know, she’s Cuban American and she writes about kids from various Latino backgrounds, which I think is really an important thing to do. So she’s done a great service to our community.

I think that it’s important for teachers and the general public to really know the diversity within the Latino community, because otherwise people see us as, “you know one, you know them all.” We’re so different, not only because of our ethnic backgrounds but individually as well. You can get a group of Puerto Ricans together and each one of us will be very different because of gender, because of how long the family has been here, what language or languages we speak, different socioeconomic issues, and so on. So if that’s true within one group, imagine within the larger Latino group. I think it is important to represent that diversity and not assume that everybody is the same, not assume that everybody eats tacos, not assume that everybody celebrates the same holidays or even speaks the same language, because we don’t.

Why is bilingual education important?

I was a bilingual teacher in the first bilingual school in the Northeast, P.S. 25 in the Bronx, which opened its doors as a bilingual school in 1968. I was one of the first teachers in this school, and it was such an incredible experience for me because I went in there not really convinced that this was a good way to go. I was born and raised in this country, but I spoke only Spanish until I went to school. When I started school at six years old I spoke only Spanish, and we didn’t have bilingual education. Within two months I was absolutely sure that this was a great idea, because I saw how the students blossomed with this approach. The entire school was bilingual — not all the children were equally fluent in both languages, but everybody, from the principal to the custodian, was bilingual. So all the children knew that they could stop anybody in the hall and speak to them in either language. There was a climate in that school of acceptance and affirmation and belonging that I hadn’t seen in too many other schools.

Language is an important part of identity, and so I think we need to do whatever we can to let students know their language is welcome, whether or not we have a bilingual program. When languages are affirmed in that way, it provides a way of telling children and their families that you can identify academically here because your language is part of our discourse. I think that bilingual education can be a really important way to let children know that they are an important part of the community. Teachers can encourage families to come in and tell stories, using some of the language and then translating. There are ways that teachers and administrators can make sure that they let families know that they respect the language that is spoken at home. Even when you don’t have bilingual education, affirming the languages that children speak is a very important thing to do in the classroom. The teacher can give messages to the kids and to families that their way of expressing themselves is important. Teachers can say to families, “Please keep reading to your children in Spanish or telling them stories in Spanish or in Vietnamese or in Polish or in whatever language they happen to speak at home.” I think that we’re losing a great national resource when we neglect that. Too many people are losing their first language and then trying to acquire another language when they get to high school.