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Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades

Social Justice and Action: Joseph Bruchac and Francisco Jiménez

This program begins with profiles of the featured authors, then moves on to Chicago, Illinois, where Lisa Espinosa’s seventh-grade students explore themes of representation through literature, documentary film, and photography. The students look critically at past and current media depictions of African Americans, Latino/as, and Native Americans, and examine ways in which artists and writers from within those cultural groups, including Joseph Bruchac and Francisco Jiménez, represent themselves. The students analyze the individual works, make comparisons across texts, and make connections to their own lives. In a culminating project, they represent their own experience through black-and-white photography and personal essays. Teachers, family, and community members gather at a local coffeehouse for an exhibit of the students’ work.

One of Espinosa’s goals is to help students recognize the pervasiveness of stereotypes and understand the danger of allowing “one dominant myth to tell the whole story of a group of people.” As teacher educator Patricia Enciso observes, “Lisa is developing a curriculum around the contrast between misrepresentation and self-representation. Through this curriculum she’s drawing upon what could be called ‘counterstories,’ or stories that challenge myths and stereotypes. She is using literary texts, but she is also using photography as a parallel art form to help children understand what happens when someone else is representing you through a limited lens.”

Video Summary

The following is a summary of the activities featured in Workshop video 8. The activities were part of a larger unit on representation. In adapting them to your own classroom, students, and overall curriculum, you may choose to vary the sequence or timing presented here.

Lisa Espinosa introduces her students to a unit in which they will compare and contrast the ways Native Americans, Latinos, and African Americans are represented in the media and the ways they represent themselves. The students begin by examining a list of essential questions that will guide their study. Espinosa also introduces the three main texts they will read (The Circuit, The Heart of a Chief, and Our America), as well as two films (Ethnic Notions and Voices From the Fields).

  • She gives each student a binder to organize their materials and explains that the unit will culminate with a photography project through which the students will represent themselves and their community. Throughout the course of the unit, Espinosa provides background information on the African American civil rights movement, the Native American civil rights movement, and Chicano movements. These materials are added to the binder, when appropriate.
  • Espinosa brings to class several different books of photographs depicting the three groups the class will study. Each student chooses two images he or she considers interesting. Guided by a handout, the students evaluate their photographs for composition, lighting, angle, use of color, and the message conveyed.
  • The students screen the documentary Voices From the Fields, keeping in mind focus questions such as, “According to the film, what are the common stereotypes of Mexican migrant workers?” and “What were César Chávez’s goals for migrant workers?” The students take notes as they watch, and Espinosa periodically stops the tape and asks the class questions about what they’ve observed.


The class reads “Learning the Game,” a chapter in The Circuit. Espinosa asks them to keep double-entry journals for their responses, modeling her own alongside them. (See Teaching Strategies: Double-Entry Journal.) The students write and share their personal connections with the book and the connections they see between the book and the documentary.

  • The students practice taking photographs with disposable cameras in the classroom. Espinosa reminds them to consider the message they want their images to send. She also provides a handout to guide them in thinking about aesthetics. The students critique one another’s work. (See Teaching Strategies: Photography Project.)
  • To help themselves choose an aspect of their lives to document, the students create a “sensory web” that lists the common sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures in their neighborhood. Espinosa asks each student to choose one theme to depict. She pairs students based on these choices, and each pair shares a camera.
  • Guided by a handout, the class does an activity called “Two Rounds” in which they analyze and compare two sets of images. The first set includes historical images of Native Americans that have become stereotypes. The second includes contemporary photographs taken by Native Americans of their communities. (See Teaching Strategy: Two Rounds.)


The students read “The Report,” a chapter in The Heart of a Chief. Each student chooses a quotation from the novel. He or she writes the quotation on one side of an index card and their responses to it on the other side. They share these in small groups.

  • Espinosa’s students bring together all that they have learned by creating a three-part Venn diagram. They work with their binders to review their notes and find similarities and differences across the three groups they’ve studied. After they have created the diagrams, they illustrate them.
  • Each student chooses a favorite from the photos he or she has taken of the community. They discuss their photographs with Espinosa and their small groups. Next, they write about the image they have chosen and the message they believe it sends. Finally, the students exhibit their images in a local coffeehouse gallery, and host an “opening” for parents, teachers, and community members.
  • Though it is not shown on the video, Espinosa asks each student to choose one essential question from the beginning of the unit and write an extended essay about it.


Video Materials & Standards


  • The Circuit, by Francisco Jiménez
  • The Heart of a Chief, by Joseph Bruchac
  • Our America, by LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman
  • Ethnic Notions, film by Marlon Riggs
  • Voices From the Fields, film by Ulla Nilsen and Selene Jaramillo
  • Photography books, which may include:
    • One More River to Cross: An African American Photograph Album, by Walter Dean Myers
    • Bearing Witness: Selections From African American Autobiography in the Twentieth Century, by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
    • Shooting Back From the Reservation: A Photographic View of Life by Native Americans, by Jim Hubbard
    • 500 Years of Chicano History, by Elizabeth Martinez
    • Americanos: Latino Life in the United States by Carlos Fuentes, Edward James Olmos, and Lea Ybarra
  • Essential questions about representation (PDF)
  • Binder for materials throughout unit
  • “Photography Sheet” handout to guide study of photos (PDF)
  • Double-entry journal
  • Disposable cameras with black-and-white film
  • “Practice Shots” evaluation handout (PDF)
  • “Two Rounds” handout (PDF)

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


Anaya, Rudolfo A. My Land Sings: Stories from the Rio Grande. New York: Morrow Junior Books, 1999.
Anaya combines Latino and Native American folklore to re-create beautiful, imaginative, and vivid traditional tales for young adults.

Atkin, Beth. Voices from the Fields: Children Migrant Workers Tell Their Stories.New York: Little Brown, 2000.
A collection of interviews, poems, and photographs for young adults focuses on migrant Mexican American children.

Deloria, Vine. Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties: An Indian Declaration of Independence. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985.
Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties presents a historical and analytical view at the past and present political status of Native American nations in the United States.

Erdoes, Richard, and Ortiz, Alfonso. American Indian Myths and Legends(Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library). New York: Pantheon, 1985.
Erdoes and Ortiz compiled 160 tales from 80 tribal groups to create a rich collection of Native American folklore for both adults and young adults.

Fuentes, Carlos, Edward James Olmos, and Lea Ybarra. Americanos: Latino Life in the United States. New York: Little, Brown, 1999.
This book offers photographs, illustrations, and text that show Latinos as an integral part of American society and history.

Gates, Henry Louis. Bearing Witness: Selections from African American Autobiography in the Twentieth Century. New York: Pantheon, 1991.
Gates recounts the experience of being black in America, from the days of slavery to the present, through selected works of influential African American authors.

Hubbard, Jim. Shooting Back from the Reservation: A Photographic View of Life by Native American Youth. New York: New Press, 1994.
Native American youths use photojournalism, poetry, and prose to create a visual rendering of their daily lives.

Jiménez, Francisco. Identification and Analysis of Chicano Literature. New York: Bilingual Press, 1979.
This comprehensive book covers thematic and stylistic aspects of Chicano literature while also putting it in a cultural and historical context.

McCunn, Ruthanne Lum. Chinese American Portraits: Personal Histories 1828-1988. Seattle: First University of Washington Press, 1998.
McCunn gathers and examines a collection of photographs that attest to the struggles, survival, and advancement of Chinese Americans.

Myers, Walter Dean. One More River to Cross: An African American Photograph Album. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 1995.
Through photographs, One More River depicts African Americans in history and everyday life.

Parks, Gordon. Choice of Weapons. New York: Harper & Row, 1966.
In this autobiography, Parks writes about the struggles he faced as an African American in Chicago, and how he overcame hardships to become a successful photographer, writer, composer, and filmmaker.

Seale, Dorris, and Beverly Slapin, eds. A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2005.
This book provides essays and reviews of children’s books about Native Americans.

— . Through Indian Eyes: The Native Experience in Books for Children. Berkeley, CA: Oyate Publications, 1998.
This collection of essays aims to show librarians, parents, and teachers the subtle stereotypes about Native Americans that exist in children’s literature.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. Storyteller. New York: Arcade, 1989.
Leslie Silko uses poetry and prose to create and tell stories about her own family and other traditional Native American tales that are accessible to both adult and young adult readers.

Esetpa, Andrea, and Philip Kay, eds. Starting With I: Personal Essays by Teenagers. New York: Persea Books, 1997.
Young adults write about the effects of their surroundings, culture, race, and identity.

Web Sites

National Museum of the American Indian
This Smithsonian Museum site has information about its various branches, museum collections, online collections, and some available educational resources for students.

Ndakinna Educational Center
This site provides educational training and information on regional Native American and Adirondack culture, as well as the natural world.

Oyate is an organization that offers evaluations of works by and about Native American people, as well as workshops that teach educators how to evaluate children’s books and resources for biases and incorrect information. Oyate also publishes materials that act as guides for choosing and evaluating literature and educational resources about Native Americans.


The Border. PBS and Espinosa Productions, 1999.
The Border is a film that documents six diverse stories about different regions of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Chicano! A History of the Mexican Civil Rights Movement. NLCC Educational Media, 1996.
In a series of four documentaries, this film presents the history of Mexican Americans and their struggles for basic rights, justice, and education.