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Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades

Social Justice and Action: Joseph Bruchac and Francisco Jiménez Commentary

Lisa Espinosa

Irma Ruiz School
Chicago, IL

What do you hope your students will take away from this unit?

I really felt, going into teaching, that part of my responsibility with my students was to teach for change, or teach for social justice — to help my students see the big picture and see different perspectives. And also, hopefully, to move on to be active in the community and make it a better place, and the world at large as well.

I think through language arts you can really look at a lot of social issues. You have an opportunity to open up the world for students. There is excellent literature out there that really talks about race or oppression in different ways. And it opens up these conversations for students. I love reading, and one thing I want for my students is to love reading as well. But I really want them to read books that are going to push them to think critically, to look at the world differently, or to ask different questions.

I also want to introduce them to literature that tells their story — that has their voice in it. Also, what’s very important to me is for them to begin to see commonalities between different groups. In this particular unit we’re focusing on Native Americans, Latinos, and African Americans, but we’re not stopping there. The conversation’s going to keep going. Unfortunately, I think a lot of times the students aren’t aware of those common struggles, and I think that if they do see how many similar experiences they have, then maybe they will be able to be more active as far as fighting against injustices that happen not only to their particular group but also to other groups.

I want them to look at the different forms of the media: news, movies, or music. That’s a big influence in their lives. I want them thinking critically about what they’re watching and to be active participants — to be looking at how different groups are represented in the media and what story is being told about those groups, and what’s the power of having that story being told.

How do you build community among your students?

One of the most important things is to create a safe place for the students. So much of what we do is engage in discussions of difficult and complex topics. It’s very important to set the tone that their opinions are going to be respected. I tell my students over and over that we can disagree, but it needs to be done in a respectful way and that we need to express ourselves in a respectful way. One of my strategies is to bring in my own experiences. And that makes my students feel comfortable sharing some of their experiences.

How did you prepare students for the photography project?

Throughout the unit they have to look at a lot of images, a lot of photography books. This is to help them see different images and representations of Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans, and other groups as well. They’re looking at different photography books to get an idea of the power of images, how important they are, and what political commentary they can have.

Also, it’s very important to talk about technique — composition, framing, lighting, angles. It’s important because when they take their pictures, I want them to be thoughtful and reflective.

As they’re looking at the photography books, I ask them to choose two pictures from each book and I give them a guide of things that I want them to look for: for example, the title of the photography book, the name of the photographer. If there is a title, I want them to write it down. If there isn’t, I’d like them to come up with a title. Then I ask them to describe the photograph in detail — tell me what the angle is like, what the lighting is like. And then, a very important part is what they think the message is: why did the photographer take the picture?

One reason to ask them about the message is because when they take their pictures, they’re going to be saying something. They’re going to be conveying some statement about their community. But also, it really ties into some of the ways they will be assessed later on in the year with standardized tests. They’re not going to have pictures, but they’re going to look at poetry and other forms of literature, and they’re going to be asked about the message of what they’re reading or what they’re looking at. They really need to be critical thinkers.

Why do the students use Venn diagrams?

I think it’s really important for my students to be able to synthesize all of the information we’ve read, all of the literature, all of the films, all of the music. It can get very overwhelming, and it’s important for them to see the connections and the common themes.

The Venn diagrams really help them visualize that better. Eventually, I want them to be able to write something with these connections. So this really is not the final step, but it helps them organize these ideas.

After we’ve done the Venn diagrams, one of the last steps is to look at the essential questions that we began with, then choose one of those questions and write an extended response. I think it really helps them get the main ideas of this unit.

Talk about the essays that accompany the photos.

I thought it was important, once they chose their final shot, to write a narrative, an essay. They really need to focus on the picture. “What is this picture about? Why did I take it? What’s my message with the picture?” I think it’s important because they really need to be critical thinkers and be able to either look at an image or read a piece of literature, and write a form of narrative about the picture or the literature.

This is something that’s difficult for kids at first, but it really ties into our whole unit of representation. They’re representing their community, representing themselves. It takes some time, and they have to do several drafts until we get to a place where they feel comfortable with the essay and they feel it really expresses what they want to say.

What do you see as the value of the community exhibit?

One of the students’ biggest complaints is, “Nobody listens to us. Adults don’t hear us.” So this is a strong way to make a statement.

When they see the pictures hanging, it’s so validating. I think that’s one of the most inspiring parts of the unit — walking into the coffeehouse, seeing these pictures, and having the community see them and celebrate with them. They see that people really are listening and they really are looking — and that they have something to say and something to add to this conversation.

Throughout the unit we’ve really been looking at how different groups have been represented and how different groups have decided to represent themselves — and the power that there is in that. With this photography exhibit, my students are representing themselves. They are making a statement about who they are.

Patricia Enciso

Associate Professor
Ohio State University

What impresses you about Lisa’s choice of literary works for this unit?

Lisa has selected literature that engages children in an analysis of common struggles — three books, The Circuit, The Heart of a Chief, and Our America, all coming from very different experiences but sharing in common struggles. These books help children examine how the world sees people who are typically marginalized or represented only in the most stereotypic ways. Through her curriculum, Lisa helps children clarify not only the content — what happens, what does it look like when people are viewed through stereotypic lenses — but also ways in which these stereotypes arise. So the literature becomes a metaphor for how people are located in society. These stories [also] challenge myths and stereotypes: she uses literary texts that are the counterstories.

These stories, particularly The Circuit and The Heart of a Chief, are coming-of-age stories, which are especially interesting to middle level children. They want to know how to become an adult, how to make the move from childhood to adulthood. For children who are making that move and also trying to recognize themselves within an American landscape, they need stories that help them name what’s happening around them. They need opportunities to create broader lenses and broader tools, like photography and writing, for claiming who they are and using their own words and their own images.

How does Lisa build students’ background knowledge for The Circuit?

In using film and photography, Lisa creates a larger context for these stories. Sometimes with multicultural literature, there is an assumption that children can make sense of the context out of which the stories are written. But in Lisa’s class, it is clear that the children, in reading The Circuit, for example, didn’t understand who César Chávez was. And without that knowledge of the whole history of Mexican American struggles for labor rights and for civil rights, it makes Panchito’s story somewhat singular and solitary, when in fact his world was shaped by a larger context of struggle … and there’s a lot more hope for Panchito than the story might express on its own.

This particular chapter that they’re reading in The Circuit is called “Learning the Game.” It’s one of the most important chapters in the book, and one that would probably be very difficult for children to interpret without the film Chicanos, without the book Americanos, without a whole analysis of the ways Chicanos and Mexican immigrants have experienced being laborers in the United States.

So there’s a larger context there, but then this context allows Lisa and the children to look at that chapter from a literary standpoint as well. What they recognize, and what I think other teachers working with this book need to recognize, is that the chapter presents a metaphor for economic exploitation that is situated in Panchito’s initial experience of feeling injustice — which is what a lot of kids will experience initially too. They feel the injustice of someone being excluded from participation in a playful game. But then Panchito understands that this exclusion process happens as well in labor processes, and that it creates a very vulnerable group of laborers. This is a complex construction to grasp, but the combination of the films, the readings, the discussion, and the beautiful writing that Jiménez offers the children I think enables them to see a much broader picture.

Talk about this literature in the context of social justice and action.

Across the stories and the images that Lisa selected, she’s offering children what could be called critical fictions: that is, stories that are testimonial, that are telling a story from a point of view that’s typically marginalized and given a whole frame of reference around which it’s seen to be negative. A frame of reference is a way of looking at the world, whether that’s seeing things only in good and bad or immigrant and nonimmigrant terms or it’s a matter of thinking that the world operates around meritocracy — that people earn and then deserve their place in life. The books that Lisa is sharing with the children are ones that question these frames of reference. They don’t allow for simple views of a person or a community of people. For example, The Circuit really questions what it means to be a laborer — and that even when someone is working very hard under grueling circumstances, it’s not possible to do that day in, day out under very exploitative conditions and earn your way in the world. Meritocracy as a frame of reference doesn’t hold up, and these books really challenge that kind of assumption. In that sense they could be called critical fictions.

In creating a testimony, Francisco Jiménez and other authors of multicultural literature are asking more of the reader — that they not only participate in the story and be engaged with the characters, but they be prepared to be witnesses. That means to understand the circumstances of the story, to follow the character’s emotional journey and contextual journey, the way that he has to struggle with these circumstances of his life, and then finally, not only to take on that story but to take action as well. If you’re a witness to any event, it becomes part of you and you then have the opportunity to make something different happen in the world.

What Lisa understands with these books is that you don’t only give kids stories and ask them to be witnesses, to see the world through a particular point of view — you expect them to do something with that viewpoint, that new knowledge. What she built into her curriculum from the very beginning was the expectation that they would learn how to represent themselves within their own community.

They did this through recognizing how images are constructed in both a literary form and a filmic or a photographic form. And with that knowledge they created their own photographs that are very situated in the worlds that matter to them. They have a lot of specificity about them. And she worked really hard to encourage them to use their senses to identify the world that they live in, to name it, and to make it appear to other people in a way that was going to help them see how valuable the world around them really is.

What did you notice about Lisa’s use of graphic organizers?

When Lisa introduces the children to the double-entry pedagogy, she’s giving them the tool that helps them organize their thinking. It’s a standard reading pedagogy where they identify a quotation and then consider it in terms of their lives and their feelings about that section — but it’s clearly at the service of a more critical curriculum, one that asks kids to inquire about social justice and [in]equities in their worlds.

The Venn diagrams give the children an opportunity to synthesize their knowledge around all that they’ve studied about misrepresentation and self-representation, but more importantly, I think they give them an opportunity to see the convergence of experiences for African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans, all of whom had experienced misrepresentation. In creating these Venn diagrams, the children can see that self-representation for all groups creates a kind of sense of unity and collective experience.

What types of skills did this unit help develop?

When we think about authorship, we usually connect that with writing, but in Lisa’s classroom they not only wrote, they authored their worlds. They looked around them, they were asked to think about what they saw and what mattered to them and why. They needed to name their worlds in particular ways, and that naming process is an authoring process that facilitates writing, which of course is something we want to develop in children in schools. At the same time, it’s helping them develop a sense of themselves: people who name the world around them and can shape the world around them.

Lisa recognizes that her students are going to encounter myths about who they are in the world. She supports her students by giving them the tools they need to examine the representations that are made about them and the tools they need to represent themselves. She knows that they will be more capable of participating in the worlds that they must live in if they have a way of naming what they’re seeing and producing images that they care about, that they think really speak to who they are in the world. So Lisa is giving the children tools for producing images about themselves, writing about themselves, and reading about themselves in a way that counters myths.

Lisa knows that her children need tools for interpreting literary texts that have metaphors and complex characters and settings and context. At the same time, she understands that the children are going to need to recognize who they are in the world and recognize ways of participating in the world. She sees them bringing a great deal to their communities and is able to support them in both reading and in constructing a world where they can be active and thoughtful participants. So the reading doesn’t just end with having adequately comprehended the text. It’s about comprehending who you are in the world and how you want to be in the world. They’re connecting their reading to their families’ lives, to their friends’ lives, and seeing themselves as part of a larger picture, seeing literature as part of a larger picture of participation in the world.

Lisa is supporting the children’s writing by helping them to look closely at the world. She’s telling them, “Go back to your community. Go back and look closely at what’s around you, and use that very close observation for your writing.” It makes writing easier for kids and it makes it possible to be a clearer writer.

We sometimes fool ourselves into thinking that school is the place where children do most of their learning. In fact, children are gathering information, images, and ideas about who they are in the world from many, many sources. The curriculum that Lisa created for her students is one that accounts for many other sources of knowledge outside of the ones that might have been offered to her through a regular curriculum. She’s clearly taking up the standard curriculum in that she’s advancing children’s literacy skills and literacy knowledge, but she’s doing it in a way that acknowledges that the children are living in a complex world and that they need to be able to define themselves in a way that’s positive, critical, and active.