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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 Teaching Strategies



Debate can be used in any classroom. It can be as detailed and formal as the Lincoln-Douglass structure used by debate teams, or as simple and informal as pairing students to research and discuss the pros and cons of an issue. As students identify, research, and argue about complex ideas, they hone their skills in critical thinking, organization, persuasion, public speaking, research, and teamwork. If the issue they debate is something that is important to their families, their communities, or themselves — as it is in Laura Alvarez’s classroom — debate can also be a powerful way for students to effect change.

Debate in Laura Alvarez’s Classroom

In Laura Alvarez’s class, debates, like persuasive letters, help the students to academically engage the social issues that affect their lives. The oral debates help students verbalize and flesh out their thoughts. Alvarez scaffolds student debates on issues with great care; at each step, she explains, models, provides graphic organizers, and supports small groups. She begins by having the students identify common issues in their books and in their interviews. The students look at the expectations immigrants have about the United States and the realities they find. Alvarez provides them with a graphic organizer that helps them classify the problems they see under several large headings: safety, education, work, health, rights, language, pollution, and other. This helps the students craft problem statements — a step many find difficult.

As the students research, Alvarez helps them interpret what they find in books and on the Web. She reads aloud to the small groups, asking them to stop her when they hear something relevant to their problem statement. She shows them how to take notes on these sources. She reminds her students regularly that there will be a real audience for this work: after the students conduct their oral debates, they will write letters to their intended audience.

After the students have researched their issue, Alvarez guides them to detail various arguments about it by handing out a list of and demonstrating the following steps:

    1. Identify the problem.
    2. Identify someone who could address this problem.
    3. Write a thesis statement that states your opinion about the problem and its solution.
    4. Brainstorm arguments to support your opinion.
    5. Brainstorm counterarguments.

The class first works together as a group, focused on one issue. Alvarez shows the students how to compile notes by brainstorming and reviewing their research. In small groups, the students follow Alvarez’s steps. Then they practice debating in pairs. Finally, Alvarez invites pairs of students to the front of the class to debate.

Tips and Variations for Debate

Laura Alvarez uses a style of debate that suits her students: as transitional-bilingual fourth- and fifth-graders from immigrant families, they have a strong stake in the issues but need support in reading, writing, speaking, and listening in English. Other styles may apply to other students.

      • The students can identify debate topics themselves, or the teacher can list ideas for them. However the topics are chosen, they should be phrased as questions (e.g., “Should English be the only language of instruction in our schools?”). Remind the students that the test of a good topic is that arguments can be made on both sides of the issue.
      • The teacher can help the students identify resources, including fiction and nonfiction print resources, interviews, surveys, Web sites, statistics, etc. They can ascertain the sources’ reliability by asking: Is the source an authority? Is the source up to date? Does the source have a “hidden agenda” or bias? Does the source offer logical evidence for its information?
      • The students can list pros and cons with a simple T chart, working individually, in pairs, in small groups, or as a class.
      • The teacher might halve the class and assign each side a position, or allow the students to choose. If they work in teams, they might elect a “captain” who will facilitate and delegate responsibilities. The teachers might also assign specific roles or subtopics.
      • The students can organize their research into major and minor arguments. At the same time, they should consider how to rebut counterarguments.
      • The students should rehearse the debate. Depending on the debate’s format, the teacher may impose time limits. The students can participate as individuals or in teams. If they debate in teams, members should decide who presents the argument and counterargument.
      • The students may stage debates for the class, larger school audiences, and/or community members.

The most common formal debate structure is the Lincoln-Douglass style. The following variations are particularly appropriate for middle school.

      • Think-pair-share debate strategy: Each student researches a common topic and spends 10 minutes making notes on possible arguments. Next, the students form pairs in which they share ideas, compare notes, and further their thinking for another 10 minutes. Each pair then joins another pair to share ideas and compare notes for another 10 minutes. If there is time, two groups of four can join for another 10 minutes of sharing. Eventually the whole class regroups to share as the teacher facilitates and takes notes.
      • Tag-team debate strategy: A team of five members represents each side of a debatable question. Each team has three to six minutes: each speaker from the team can speak for one minute, then tag another team member to continue. (Any team member can volunteer to go.) No member of the team can be tagged twice until all the members have been tagged once.
      • Participation countdown strategy: This strategy ensures that no student dominates a discussion. When the students are presenting, ask that every time audience members raise their hands to pose counterarguments, they indicate how often they have participated. The students should raise their hands the first time with one finger pointing up, the second time with two fingers, etc. After three times, they are no longer allowed to participate. This helps individuals ration their involvement.

Teacher, Peer, and Self-Assessment of the Debate

Many teachers use rubrics that the students have helped create. In addition, teachers should ask the students to write or discuss debating. Sample questions include:

Objective questions about the debates:

      • How logical were the arguments? How persuasive? What examples, facts, or other evidence were especially persuasive? How strong were the counterarguments?
      • How well was the debate presented? Did the student(s) speak clearly and forcefully with good eye contact? Was the style persuasive?

To self-assess the debate strategy as a whole:

      • How did your research process and debate help you better understand the literature and the social issue?
      • What aspects of the debate did you do especially well? Why?
      • What aspects of the debate might you do differently next time? Why? How?
      • What have you learned about public speaking?
      • How did your own ideas and views develop through this process?
      • What did you learn about the “other side”?
      • What do you hope will happen as a result of this debate? What are your next steps on this issue?

Benefits of Debate

By posing debatable questions, teachers help students think critically about important social issues.

  • By helping students research their arguments, teachers engage them as critical readers. With guidance, the students learn to evaluate sources, take notes, determine the relative importance of arguments, and value counterarguments.
  • By having a real purpose and audience, the students have more ownership of and pride in their arguments.
  • The students see that their views and voices make a difference.
  • The students learn to speak persuasively and to listen respectfully.
  • The students connect language arts with their worlds.
  • Debates challenge the students to understand multiple points of view. They must be able to support their own opinions and others’. Teachers can use the rigor and formality of a debate to make sure every voice is heard and respected. As teacher educator Sonia Nieto notes: “When you put [real problems and issues] in the curriculum, instead of sliding them under the rug, you’re better able to deal with them and make them transparent. This is really what education should be about: to look at things critically, to teach kids to engage with the subject matter. And the subject matter in this particular case happens to be their lives.”




Teachers have always read aloud to young children, but recent research has shown that reading aloud can benefit middle and secondary students as well. Reading aloud to teenagers stimulates their imaginations and emotions; models good reading behavior; exposes them to a range of literature; enriches their vocabularies and understanding of sophisticated language patterns; makes difficult text understandable; models the fact that different genres are read differently; supports independent reading; and can encourage a lifelong enjoyment of reading.

Read-Alouds in Laura Alvarez’s Classroom

Though this strategy may seem as basic as simply choosing a book and reading it aloud to the class, Laura Alvarez uses the technique strategically: she chooses books that address the reading level of her students; considers how to make points about the reading process; and fits the chosen reading into the overall curriculum. For example, Alvarez begins her class with a read-aloud of My Name Is María Isabel, by Alma Flor Ada, a book that her transitional bilingual students have already read in Spanish. Because some them are not yet able to read the book in English, Alvarez makes it accessible to the whole group by stopping to comment, ask questions, and help students make personal connections to the story. Teacher educator Sonia Nieto points out that this is also an excellent choice of read-aloud for Alvarez’s classroom because second-language learners experience identity struggles, and using Ada’s book encourages connection to their own stories. The story, in which injustices are immediately clear, also sets the stage for an entire unit on the problems immigrants face. Alvarez also uses the read-aloud strategy in another way: after her students have done their research, she reads aloud difficult materials they have found. This time, she asks her listeners to say “stop” if they hear something about the problem they are researching or its solution. Because their listening skills exceed their reading skills, this helps the students comprehend the material.

Tips and Variations for Read-Alouds

  • There are many ways to read aloud. Generally, teachers read and students listen without following along in the text. Some teachers simply read an ongoing fictional or nonfiction text at a set time each day, without explicitly connecting it to the curriculum or asking the students to answer questions about it. This kind of read-aloud underscores the pure pleasure of literary experience. But teachers can also read aloud to catalyze class discussions or small-group activities. In addition, read-alouds can stimulate writing, art, or drama activities.
  • In an “interactive” read-aloud, the teacher reads aloud but stops periodically to ask a question or give a prompt; the students can jot down a response, turn and talk to a partner or small group, or share thoughts with the whole class. Alvarez demonstrates this when she asks the students to stop her when she reads Internet information. The teacher can also prompt the students with traditional language arts questions (“What do you predict will happen next?”) or more whimsical questions (“If you were the illustrator, what illustration might you draw for this part of the text?” or “What do you think María Isabel’s mother is feeling right now? Write her internal monologue.”)
  • The teacher should consider how a read-aloud selection will support a particular unit or enhance the students’ independent reading. For example, if the class is studying character, the teacher might choose a book in which strong characters change significantly over the course of the book. The teacher might also choose texts that are generally more difficult than those the students could read on their own.
  • Teachers should also choose texts that reflect the culture and/or language of students or that facilitate a cross-cultural experience. When Alma Flor Ada, the author of My Name Is María Isabel, visits the class, she speaks in both Spanish and English, translating from one language to the other. Teachers might invite family or community members to read literature from their cultures.
  • Teachers should read aloud from various genres: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, informational text, and children’s books. This shows the students how different genres sound. The class might also enjoy fiction and nonfiction texts on the same topic.
  • Teachers can let the students choose read-aloud selections.
  • Read-aloud sessions should be kept to 20 minutes or less.
  • The listening environment should be as comfortable as possible.
  • Many teachers mark their texts to remind themselves where they will pause and think aloud, or where they will prompt students to interact with the text.
  • When reading texts that contain unfamiliar names or words, readers should research and note their pronunciation.

Benefits of Read-Alouds

Read-alouds enable teachers to offer texts with more challenging concepts and/or language than students can read independently.

  • The read-aloud strategy helps English-language learners develop new vocabulary and syntactic awareness.
  • Reading aloud builds good reading habits. It stimulates imaginations and emotions; models good reading processes; exposes students to a range of literature; enriches vocabularies and rhetorical sensitivity; elucidates difficult texts; helps to distinguish different genres; supports independent reading; and encourages a lifelong enjoyment of reading.
  • Read-alouds show students how to question, visualize, and make predictions while they read.


Writing Letters for Social Action


Students craft persuasive letters to real audiences, outlining problems and proposing solutions. In Laura Alvarez’s bilingual class, the students research and write letters about problems that immigrants face: issues that directly affect them, their families, and their communities. As the students research and write these letters, they move from analysis to action and learn basic rhetorical strategies for incorporating evidence into a written argument. They also begin to understand the power of their own voices and their roles as active citizens by sending these letters to people in their community, policy makers, the media, or any person or organization they wish to address.

Writing Letters for Social Action in Laura Alvarez’s Classroom

Laura Alvarez begins the class by having her students make an emotional and personal connection to Alma Flor Ada’s book My Name Is María Isabel. She asks them to consider the many challenges immigrants face. The students then compare the characters’ experiences across several texts. Alvarez also asks the students to connect what they have read with the real world.

First, Alvarez asks the students to interview family members who immigrated to the United States about their expectations for and experiences of immigration. Students can also interview people from their community or school (this might include a classmate’s relative). In the course of the unit, Alvarez also introduces her students to author Alma Flor Ada, who explains: “Our need to organize, to write letters, to work for better conditions is never going to end. You have a voice; you can make the world a better place.” The students choose, research, and debate issues related to immigration. At the end of the unit, they write letters to policy makers and the media about these issues. Alvarez asks the students to write a rough draft, edit the letter against a checklist, and meet with her for a personal writer’s conference.

In Alvarez’s classroom, interviewing, researching, debating, questioning author Alma Flor Ada, and, ultimately, writing letters are all part of a seamless whole. These activities transcend the classroom by addressing a real audience for a real reason; they also show the students that their concerns are important and that their voices can effect change. (See Student Work.)

Tips and Variations for Writing Letters for Social Action

  • Teachers might also consider having the students write petitions, stage a protest, hold a town hall meeting, create posters, or design an advertising campaign.

Assessment of Writing Letters for Social Action

After writing letters for social action, a class should consider their effectiveness. The teacher might ask:

  • How did our letter-writing connect to what we’re reading and studying?
  • What have you learned about reading, writing, and community action?
  • How did your own ideas and views on the issue develop through the letter-writing process?
  • What do you hope will happen as a result of our letters?
  • What are the next steps?
  • What would you do differently next time? Why?

Benefits of Writing Letters for Social Action

When writing for a real purpose and audience, students look more carefully at their language choices and develop ownership and pride in their work.

  • Students develop a sense of empowerment because their views and voices make a difference in their communities.
  • Taking social action helps students connect what they are studying in school with their world.


Teaching Strategies Resources


Bigelow, Bill, et al., eds. Rethinking Our Classrooms: Teaching for Equity and Justice, Volume Two. Milwaukee: Rethinking Schools Publications, 2001.
This volume includes articles, curriculum ideas, lesson plans, poetry, and resources related to teaching social justice in the classroom. For more resources from Rethinking Schools, visit

Busching, Beverly, and Betty Ann Slesinger. It’s Our World Too: Socially Responsive Learners in Middle School Language Arts. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2002.
This resource for teachers discusses the use of significant social issues to enhance the teaching of literacy and communication skills through inquiry and collaborative learning.

Cho, Eunice Hyunhye, Francisco Arguelles Paz y Puente, Miriam Ching Yoon Louie, and Sasha Khokha. Building a Race and Immigration Dialogue in the Global Economy (BRIDGE): A Popular Education Resource for Immigrant and Refugee Community Organizers. Oakland: National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, 2004.
This collection of exercises and tools for teaching about immigration, race, and migrant workers’ rights includes a variety of activities, discussion questions, and fact sheets.

Cummins, Jim. Negotiating Identities: Educating for Empowerment in a Diverse Society. Ontario: California Association of Bilingual Education, 1996.
This book offers an overview of issues of language, bilingualism, and diversity within the context of our schools and our society.

Freire, Ana Maria Araújo, and Donaldo Macedo, eds. The Paulo Freire Reader. New York: Continuum, 1998.
This collection includes excerpts from Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Education for Critical Consciousness, Pedagogy in Process, Learning to Question,and other works.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 1993.
Freire’s manifesto details the political significance of critical pedagogy.

Freire, Paulo, and Donaldo Macedo. Literacy: Reading the Word and the World.South Hadley, M.A.: Bergin & Garvey, 1987.
This practical and inspirational guide treats literacy in its broadest sense, examining its relationship to politics, culture, and social relationships.

Olson, Laurie, and Ann Jaramillo. Turning the Tides of Exclusion: A Guide for Educators and Advocates for Immigrant Students. Oakland: California Tomorrow, 1999.
This guide, based on California Tomorrow’s 15 years of research and work, seeks to provide schools with strategies and tools to better serve language minority and immigrant students, as well as other young people who may be marginalized in schools.

Ramírez, J. David, Sandra D. Yuen, and Dena R. Ramey. Final Report: Longitudinal Study of Structured Immersion Strategy, Early-Exit, and Late-Exit Transitional Bilingual Education Programs for Language-Minority Children. San Mateo, CA: Aguirre International, 1991.
This study examines three different methods of teaching students with limited English proficiency.

Rigg, Pat, and Virginia G. Allen, eds. When They Don’t All Speak English: Integrating the ESL Student Into the Regular Classroom. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1989.
This collection of essays describes techniques for working with English as a second language (ESL) students in the classroom.


Lindeman, Betsy. “Speaking Their Language: Successfully Reaching out to Immigrant Parents Just Requires a Few Simple Steps — Pathways to Reach Every Learner.” Instructor (September 2002):34-35.
In this article, Lindeman lists ways teachers can successfully involve parents of bilingual children in their children’s education.

Moll, L. C., C. Armanti, D. Neff, and N. Gonzalez. “Funds of Knowledge for Teaching: Using a Qualitative Approach to Connect Homes and Classrooms.” Theory Into Practice (Spring 1992): 132-41.
Dr. Luis Moll and colleagues at the University of Arizona developed the concept of “Funds of Knowledge,” a method of culturally responsive teaching that engages students by drawing upon their home and community resources.

Web Sites

Center for Multilingual, Multicultural Research
The University of Southern California’s site for multilingual and multicultural education offers many articles and resources about educational policies as well as about methods for teaching and assessing bilingual education.