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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School

Critical Pedagogy: Abiodun Oyewole and Lawson Fusao Inada Teaching Strategies

  • Political Poems
  • Performance and Publishing
  • Roundtable Discussion
  • Found Poems

Political Poems

Political poems are polemical works of art: arguments that use poetic rhythms, rhymes, and images to persuade readers.

Teachers may begin this exercise by asking students what images best evoke their communities at the present time. The teacher and students may then analyze these images, reflecting on how they point to specific community problems that call for change. For example, in teacher Cathie Wright-Lewis’ class, students reflected on the way baggy clothing can indicate defiance for some. Students should be encouraged to think broadly about what their communities look like. They may consider fashion, advertisements, the way the sidewalks or streets look, what kinds of conversations occur in public, or how people greet each other or avoid contact. Students should then write down all the sensory impressions they can summon about the images they’ve chosen.

Next, teachers may ask students to analyze a political poem from another time period. Students can pick apart these poems, noting how the author’s poetic strategies — rhyme, line breaks, etc — encourage readers to see the world in the way the author does. One way to help students recognize the effect of poetic strategies is to have them take turns reading the poem aloud; teachers may then ask students why they read the lines in a certain way, or how the poem’s structure influenced their interpretation. Once the class has discussed how several poetic strategies can draw readers into a certain political perspective, students can begin to write their own persuasive poems. Teachers may want to divide the class into smaller groups for this portion of the project. In each group, students should compile the images they have discussed with the class and structure them according to the poetic techniques they think will best persuade readers of their political views. Students may choose to compose individual poems, or they may choose to write collectively. Next, the groups can read the poems out loud for the class.

As each student or student group reads a poem aloud, the teacher and the other students in the class should make notes about what aspects of the poem particularly impresses them. They can then share these notes with the student presenting his or her work. It’s often valuable for teachers to ask students to respond to others’ work with questions or “echoing” statements. For example, teachers may ask the students listening to tell the poet what they think he or she did well, or to tell the poet what he or she seemed to say. In this way, listening to poetry can be as active as writing it.

By asking students to analyze poems as arguments, students learn to recognize the ideological underpinnings of the poems they read. They also learn creative strategies — such as rhyme, rhythm, and line breaks — that help to express their ideas. Most importantly perhaps, this exercise gives students a means of articulating some of the issues that trouble them in their daily lives. Once students become comfortable discussing these issues in the classroom, they can begin to debate these issues in their own communities.

Performance and Publishing

Spoken word performance is a powerful way for students to publish their work and build a variety of language arts skills. As a strategy connected to critical pedagogy, it provides students with a creative way to address a political issue important to them and advocate for change. Dale Allender, Associate Executive Director of NCTE, suggests, “To engage students in spoken word instruction, teachers can explore the West African griot tradition, participate in language study and language play, read widely in the political arena, and work on dramatic readings and analysis.” Teachers should ask students to read books, articles, or short stories in which the griot is invoked or present in the text. For example, students might read the introduction of the Malian epic Sundiata and note the humorous, sometimes grandiose expressions from the griot as he begins to tell the tale of Sundiata, the legendary Malian king.

The experience of listening to, creating, and performing spoken word pieces involves an appreciation of dialect and semantics. Teachers should encourage students to analyze the different ways in which people use language on a regular basis. As an assignment, teachers can divide students into groups and send them to a variety of settings — for example, a mall, an auction house, a barbershop or salon, and a courthouse. Students should record how people use language in these settings. They can note levels of formality, turn-taking, pitch, speed, figurative language, bilingualism, multilingualism, and code-switching. When they return to class, students then can compare notes. Students can also try out the expressions they heard through role play. Contrastive analysis is another, more formal and focused language study activity, through which students contrast various dialects of English in a given verbal expression.

To help students take on roles and perform effectively, teachers can engage students in language play activities such as reading Doctor Seuss stories aloud. Students should read in character, varying speeds and/or emphasis. They can do the same with nursery rhymes, jump-rope chants, or proverbs.

The spoken word tradition requires the performer to inform, enlighten,
or entertain an audience with a political message. In order to do this, students should read a variety of perspectives on contemporary and historic issues. For example, students should read a story in mainstream media outlet such as The New York Times. Then they should then look for information on the topic in alternative or ethnic publications such as The Nation, Exxtra, or Africana ( This kind of wide, comparative reading should be ongoing, but it can be focused for a specific assignment.

Spoken word in performance is a creative way for students to extend their work beyond the classroom and express their ideas to their community. Teachers can organize poetry slams or spoken word performances in their classroom, school, community centers, libraries, or bookstores. They can also videotape or audio-record student performances and stream them on a Web site or send them to another class, their school’s Parent Teacher Organization, or the school board.

Roundtable Discussion

A roundtable discussion is a debate in which students take on the roles of people involved in a political crisis. Students imaginatively project themselves into political or historical situations they’ve studied, and debate each other about the correct action to take.

One key element of the roundtable discussion is that the students control the flow of the conversation; instead of having the teacher guide discussion or pose questions, students control the decision-making process. In order to help students guide themselves in this way, teachers can ask the group to choose one student to act as a recorder (writing down the arguments that have been made) and one student to act as a facilitator (making sure participants speak one at a time). By assuming these roles, students are further trained in taking responsibility for their own decision-making processes. It’s important for teachers to explain to students that they will have to guide the conversation themselves, and will be responsible for keeping the debate grounded and civilized. Every student should have a chance to speak at least once.

Roundtable discussions are best used after students have been thoroughly introduced to a political situation. Once students understand the issues at stake, teachers may ask them to imagine themselves in the position of the people affected by a situation. Students need to be reminded of the social, political, and cultural context of the activity before any substantive discussion can take place. Then, students should sit down together to decide how best to resolve the situation. This process works well when students are asked to come to conclusions about a fairly specific problem. For example, teacher Sandra Childs sets her students the task of deciding whether or not they would voluntarily move to internment camps if they were Japanese Americans during WWII. Before concluding the debate, students should vote on the issue to see whether or not they convinced others with their arguments.

Following the debate, it is crucial that teachers process the experience with the students and provide time to reflect on the discussion. Sandra Childs uses this time with her class to highlight important historical events, cultural differences, and political positions within the Japanese American community. Teachers should also provide opportunities for students to examine the personal experiences of those who were actually involved in the situation debated. For example, students could learn more about those interned during WWII through resources such as films, historical documents, or interaction with Japanese American citizens.

By debating each other in a roundtable format, students learn a number of important skills. First, they learn to empathize — to imagine the situations of people in unfamiliar circumstances. Second, they learn to make cogent arguments based on the materials, both historical and literary, available to them. And finally, they learn to compromise and work together to solve problems. Each of these skills motivates students to act more responsibly, both in the classroom and in the community.

Found Poems

When a poet creates a “found poem,” he or she adds poetic structure to a text that was previously non-rhythmical or purely informational. By doing so, the poet creates new cadences, emphases, and meanings, demonstrating that what words evoke varies depending on the context in which they are presented.

To use found poems in your lesson, show students how authors like Lawson Inada have taken plain or non-narrative texts and have used poetic tools — line breaks, rhythms, etc. — to draw new meaning from the language.

Teachers should begin by asking students to consider how the poetic structure of a found poem rearranges the text’s meaning. Students should consider an assortment of documents that are traditionally used for instructional purposes. These may be historical or contemporary documents, but it’s best to choose an assortment that contains simple, informative language: manuals, advertisements, catalogues, and the like. For example, teacher Sandra Childs asks her students to construct poems from historical documents or the exhibit catalogue provided by the Nikkei Legacy Center. In rearranging these texts into poetic form, students should attempt to distill new meaning from the words they find and to explain the ways in which the poetic structures they’ve applied change the language’s implications.

By asking students to create found poems, teachers encourage students’ creativity and sharpen their analytical skills. In order to find texts that can be adapted in this way, students must learn to think carefully about texts they would ordinarily overlook; they must consider what can really be evoked by texts that seek simply to inform or direct us.

Students also learn to think more carefully about prosody. In creating a found poem, students must figure out for themselves how rhythms, line breaks, and word sounds (e.g., rhymes and alliterations) help to focus the reader on a poet’s intended meaning.


Appleman, Deborah. Critical Encounters in High School English:Teaching Literary Theory to Adolescents. New York: Teachers College Press, 2000.
Appleman’s book provides strategies for teaching critical pedagogy, reader response, feminism, Marxism, and deconstruction in literature classes.
Christensen, Linda. Reading, Writing, and Rising Up:Teaching About Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools, 2000.
These lesson plans and essays offer teachers strategies on how to control the political implications of their writing classes.
Edelsky, Carole (ed). Making Justice Our Project:Teachers Working Toward Critical Whole Language Practice. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1999.
Whole-language teachers consider the political implications of their work.
Graham, Maryemma, Sharon Pineault-Burke and Marianna W. Davis (eds). Teaching African American Literature: Theory and Practice. New York: Routledge, 1998.
Teachers discuss their reasons and methods for teaching African American literature in middle school, high school, and college English classes.
Menkart, Deborah. Beyond Heroes and Holidays:A Practical Guide to K-12 Anti-Racist, Multicultural Education and Staff Development. Washington, DC: Teaching for Change, 2002.
These strategies and resources are aimed at advancing the teaching of multicultural materials in pre-college classrooms.
Olson, Carol B. Reading, Thinking, & Writing About Multicultural Literature. Glenview, IL: ScottForesman, 1996.
These lesson plans for multicultural literature classes includes studies of authors like Chief Seattle, Amy Tan, Tecumseh, Jade Snow Wong, and Laura Esquivel.
Thomas, Lorenzo. Sing the Sun Up: Creative Writing Ideas from African American Literature. New York: Teachers and Writers Collaborative, 1998.
This collection introduces teaching strategies that employ creative writing as a way of understanding African American literature.

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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School