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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School

Cultural Studies: Ishmael Reed and Graciela Limón Teaching Strategies

  • Choral Reading
  • Literature Circles
  • Coding
  • Questioning
  • Bilingual and Intertextual Reading

Choral Reading

“Choral reading,” also referred to as “unison reading,” simply means reading aloud as a group. Together, students speak or chant the words of a common text.

This method is particularly effective for teaching poetry, because reading aloud helps students understand the rhythm, meter, patterns, rhymes, and vocal characterizations of a poem. In addition, choral reading helps introduce students to the concept of oral tradition: They learn how poetry can be shaped by communities and passed on from generation to generation without being written down. (By listening to other students add their own inflections to a text, for instance, students are better able to understand how texts can be shaped cumulatively by continued retelling.)

To use choral reading most effectively, teachers should choose readings that are relatively short – a poem of two to 10 pages is plenty. Also, teachers should look for a text that will put imaginations to work. “Railroad Bill, A Conjure Man,” for example, is a dramatic multi-character poem with lots of repetition; it’s almost like a song. Reading a poem like this aloud encourages students to think about the poem’s structure and rhythm – and it also encourages students to consider who is supposed to be speaking the lines and why. Teachers may also want to select narrative poems featuring a story with a good plot line and dynamic characters so that students have room to experiment with voices and sound effects. In that vein, teachers should look for texts with unusual sounds, contrasts, a strong mood, or snappy dialogue; all this makes for lively group reading.

In the classroom, teachers should ask students to read the entire selection silently before reading it aloud. This will give them time to become familiar with the content so that when they give their choral reading, they can focus solely on vocal interpretation.

Choral readings offer students a creative way to explore issues of voice, characterization, rhythm, and rhyme, along with the dialects and cadences of the texts. Choral reading can also help students to recognize how poetic structures, such as line breaks and internal rhymes, shape the poem’s meaning. Finally, choral reading allows students to actually “feel” the work’s aesthetic, putting them in touch with their creative selves and allowing them to interpret the work with their own aesthetic sensibilities.

Literature Circles

Literature circles are small discussion groups that focus on reading selected texts. Circle members read their texts together and then plan a way to share the highlights of their reading with the rest of the class.

When introducing students to literature circles, it’s important for teachers to ask students to take turns playing assigned roles in the group. One student, for example, should act as the discussion director, developing a list of questions for the group and helping group members discuss the main ideas in the reading. Another student should act as the connector, finding analogies between what the group is reading and what is going on in students’ own lives; connectors may also draw analogies between the group’s reading and other texts, or ask students to list and share the ways in which they relate to the characters and situations in the reading. Finally, one student should act as a summarizer, preparing a brief synopsis of the text and bringing together the main points of the group’s discussion. It is important that students take turns playing each of these roles because each encourages a different cognitive perspective on the text; in trying them all, students experience a variety of ways of analyzing and organizing their reading.

In the classroom, teachers should meet with each small discussion group once a week. That way, while each group has its meeting with the teacher, the other groups can work on their own, reading independently and preparing for their meetings. It is often useful to schedule these meetings over the course of three weeks. During the first week, each group can be introduced to their reading material, and during the following two weeks, each group will read and discuss their materials separately.

Literature circles work well because they are student-centered. They afford students an opportunity to guide their own discussions and to focus on those issues that matter most to them. Also, since literature circles involve cooperative learning, they encourage students to practice communication skills through discussion in their groups and in the final presentation. Moreover, the experience of reading literature in a group can subtly show students how communities are drawn together and changed by cultural texts.


Coding is a response-based strategy that requires students to mark down their reactions to reading. This can be done very simply. For example, a check mark might denote important information, while a question mark might call attention to confusing or difficult passages. When these codes are used to organize multiple, lengthy, or difficult texts, they help students to organize the full range of their reactions, and to focus on the key issues and questions in their reading.

To use coding effectively, teachers should request that students read through the text several times. As they read, ask them to put a check mark next to information that interests them, a plus sign next to information that is new to them, and a question mark next to information that is confusing or unclear for them. Then, ask students to go back and look for all of their code notes, so that they can organize the text through these codes. By doing this, students can draw together all the aspects of a text that are most interesting to them, as well as those that are new and those that they do not yet.

Since coding is a response-based strategy, it helps students to organize and reflect on their reactions to texts. Instead of becoming overwhelmed by the new information, for example, students are able to label and lay aside the more confusing pieces for later consideration. Once students have finished reading, the codes left in their texts provide an invaluable map to their own interests and concerns; students will begin to see what questions regularly engage them, and what issues often confuse them.


Questioning is a method of noting one’s reactions to a text while reading. Questioning encourages students to articulate specific issues while they read.

One way to teach questioning is to model it for students. As the teacher reads aloud with the class, he or she may stop, look up, and ask an obvious question. Then, the teacher can write his or her question on a sticky note and place it at the spot in the text where the question arose. It’s important for teachers to show the students how to leave their notes sticking out a little, like bookmarks, to be found later. When the text later answers the questions, readers should write an “A” for “answered” on the note, and place it next to answer. Most importantly, teachers should explain that the text will not answer some of the most vital questions, which will be left open to explore in discussions.

This method is particularly valuable for students who need to organize their questions. They can mark texts with sticky notes, sort them according to importance, and then address those questions left unanswered by the author.

By noting different kinds of questions – for example, questions about outcomes, characters, new information, and concepts – students begin to recognize the underlying structure of a text. Students are then able to trace issues through a book, exploring the ways that books make complex arguments about related issues. When students begin tracking the questions that emerge during their reading, they learn to articulate the inner conversation they have with the text. Ultimately, questioning helps students to guide their own explorations of texts, because they learn to generate their own questions rather than looking to a teacher or parent.

Bilingual and Intertextual Reading

Intertextual reading uses a wide range of corollary materials to help students build a deeper understanding of a particular text. These materials can include primary historical documents such as newspapers, magazines, advertisements, and diaries; or they may include novels, poems, films, plays, or other works of art that relate thematically, culturally, or historically to the primary text. By tracking the common words, images, characters, and ideas across these different works, students begin to experience the primary text in a deeper cultural context.

When choosing a primary text to study, teachers should look at the time and place in which it was written, and determine what other sources may correspond in some way to those settings. They should select a source and a primary text that will “resonate” with one another; that is, the source material will increase the students’ understanding of the primary text, and study of the primary text will in turn influence how students view the source.

Intertextual reading is used in both classrooms featured in Workshop Session 5. Teacher Betty Tillman Samb uses Zora Neale Hurston’s “High John de Conquer,” an adaptation of a traditional African American folktale, to introduce the primary text, Ishmael Reed’s poem “Railroad Bill, A Conjure Man.” Both texts reference the folkloric trickster figure. She also offers additional source texts to each literature circle in her class. Similarly, teacher Bobbi Ciriza Houtchens uses Subcomandante Marcos’ bilingual picture book The Story of Colors (La Historia de los Colores), based on an indigenous Mexican folktale, to introduce Graciela Limón’s novel Erased Faces; both works deal with the Zapatista uprising in southern Mexico.

To get the most out of intertextual reading, students should watch for repetitions and similarities in the texts. With “High John de Conquer” and “Railroad Bill, A Conjure Man,” for example, students look for all references — obvious or subtle — to the trickster figure. Students should also examine the actions and speech of characters: If a certain word or phrase occurs again and again in the texts, students can observe how its meaning changes — or remains the same — each time it is used. In this way, they begin to see how cultural ideas are formed, preserved, altered, and passed down through time. Students should discuss what they have found in small groups or with the whole class, sharing their ideas and interpretations and listening to those of others.

There are many types of sources that can be used in conjunction with a primary text. As stated, Bobbi Ciriza Houtchens’ class uses a bilingual children’s picture book. Because picture books can often be read at multiple levels, they can be engaging for high school students as well as younger readers. Children’s stories often make political statements, explore mythology, and examine cultural mores; thus, they can stimulate rich discussion in the classroom.

There is an added benefit: By introducing The Story of Colors (La Historia de los Colores), a children’s book written in Spanish, the teacher opens up another level of intertextual exchange — language. The teacher can engage students in a powerful cross-cultural exchange by asking bilingual students to read the Spanish text and other students to read the English translation. Teachers should encourage the Spanish speakers to comment on the English translation. As Houtchens explains: “A lot of my students speak another language at home, and the other language they speak at home is Spanish. They don’t get much chance in the mainstream classroom to hear their own language and their own stories, and hear their own voices validated.”

Intertextual reading helps students make connections across a broad spectrum of works. Because students can compare different kinds of texts, they are better able to understand how literary works are produced in a cultural, social, and historical context.


Carey-Webb, Allen. Literature and Lives: A Response-Based, Cultural Studies Approach to Teaching English. Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English, 2001.
This book uses classroom anecdotes to illustrate reader response and cultural studies methods. The author makes 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.

Lee, Carol D. Signifying As a Scaffold for Literary Interpretation: The Pedagogical Implications of an African American Discourse Genre. Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English, 1993.
Lee explores African American discourse patterns as they are enacted in conversation and African American literature, and discusses ways of facilitating African American students’ literacy development through this discourse.

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, DC: Network of Educators on the Americas, 1998.
This discussion of the ways in which school curricula promote racism includes practical ideas for transforming classroom instruction and school culture.

Olson, Carol B. Reading, Thinking, & Writing about Multicultural Literature. Glenview, Ill.: Scott Foresman, 1996. The California Writing Project put together this collection of 29 writing exercises, each one based on a text. Texts studied include The Bluest Eye, The House on Mango Street, Like Water for Chocolate, and The Joy Luck Club.

American Pictures
This multimedia presentation on racism and oppression is ideal for teaching reading through storytelling, and using pictures to address social and cultural issues.

Multicultural Education and Children’s Picture Books
This resource explores multicultural education and children’s picture books.

Series Directory

The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School


Produced by Thirteen/WNET. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-676-6