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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School

Inquiry: Rudolfo Anaya and James Baldwin Teaching Strategies

  • Asking: Finding Inquiry Topics and Questions
  • Investigating: Collecting and Working with Information
  • Creating: Making Presentations
  • Reflecting and Transforming: Writing, Thinking, and Acting on the Inquiry Process
  • Resources

Asking: Finding Inquiry Topics and Questions

There are many ways to approach questioning – the starting point for any inquiry lesson. Depending on the scope of the inquiry and how skilled the students are, formulating initial questions might last anywhere from one day to a week, or even longer. Some teachers have students begin listing questions right away, from the initial introduction of the topic. Others first immerse their students in a brief study of the topic and allow questions to “percolate” before being formally asked.

Educator Jerome Harste recommends spending an extended period of time having students “wander and wonder” before coming up with definitive topics or questions to explore:

I want them to gather questions they might have, itches they find bothering them, things they keep thinking about, and to jot those down. I think so often we give kids five minutes to come up with an inquiry question and they have to live with that inquiry question. And in reality, research doesn’t really work like that. It takes us often quite awhile to find an inquiry question, the right kind of inquiry question, and to frame it in an appropriate sort of way.

Harste recommends that teachers start a broad inquiry by asking students, “What’s on your mind?” as they read, study, or research.

The teachers in this series provide several different models for this first step. Jorge Arredondo has his students spend two days considering the issues in Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima before formulating a question. He has them first find quotes in the literature that they might “want answers from.” Next, he has them look at a mural painted in the same era by Mexican American artists to generate still more questions. They take notes, talk, and generally immerse themselves in the topic. “I wanted my students to go, see, experience, go into this inquiry where they’re constantly questioning constantly predicting,” says Arredondo. He uses this initial questioning to move them to higher levels of questioning before they choose an inquiry topic.

In their study of James Baldwin, teacher Bo Wu’s students immediately begin questioning. Before beginning Baldwin’s books or knowing anything about the author, Wu asks them what they might want to know. “Raising questions is a way of starting inquiry,” Wu says. “More sophisticated questions come to mind after researching.” After beginning the text, she draws students out further by asking them to give her a question they’d like to research and their reasons for choosing that particular question. By requiring a rationale, the teacher encourages students to think deeply about the issues their questions involve. They will then refine the questions as their research progresses. As they work, students should keep in mind the final goal of their research (in this case, the creation of a Web site on Baldwin).

Harste cautions teachers against giving their students questions or leading them too much. He also urges teachers not to be too judgmental about where students start an inquiry since it’s of great importance that their questions are inherently interesting to them. Because the entire process works to help students refine their original questions, there will be many opportunities to make a poor question richer.

A good inquiry starts with a good question, a question the learner is genuinely interested in pursuing. Without this first step, nothing can follow. If this first stage of the inquiry process is done successfully, the momentum of student interest will drive the rest of the process. Though inquiry can be messy, the process formalizes in the classroom the steps by which people think and solve problems in the “real world.” Just making students aware that their own questions are always the best starting point for learning sets the tone for the whole venture. As Jorge Arredondo puts it: “The best situation a teacher can be in is when the students are asking you, rather than you trying to tell them, ‘Look, look, pay attention to this this is really cool.’ Because [learning] is never going to happen passively. The student has to be actively participating.”

Investigating: Collecting and Working with Information

Once students have a genuine, rich, researchable question, investigating is the logical next step. As with each phase of the inquiry process, the way in which the teacher structures the investigation will depend on the scope of the inquiry and the needs of the students. Regardless of the structure, however, teachers should focus on two important processes during this phase: researching information, and discussing and refining that information.

Research: Many teachers begin the research phase of an inquiry by taking their students to a library or Internet computer lab. Here, students immerse themselves in the topics they have chosen, gathering information to sift through later. At first, the research may be rather unfocused. Soon, however, students begin excitedly pulling up information of all kinds that is pertinent to their topic. The more they learn, the more deeply they engage with the topic. At this point, a great deal of refining of the original questions should take place. As students learn about their topics, they see that their questions are perhaps too broad, too narrow, too simple, or too complex.

During this phase, students learn concrete research skills. For both library and Internet searches, teachers might choose to take time out for mini-lessons on such issues as determining the reliability of a source, citing the use of information from a source, and using research tools more effectively.

While students are investigating, the teacher should inform them that research does not have to be limited to libraries, written texts, and the Internet. As mentioned above, Jorge Arredondo’s students begin their inquiry into a book by looking at a mural and making observations and predictions. Teachers can also introduce students to the idea of “multiple literacies,” the use of many kinds of texts to make meaning of a culture or topic. For example, Bo Wu shows her students how important music was to James Baldwin, who was born during the Harlem Renaissance, and suggests they search for similar affinities among the actual artists of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Jacob Lawrence. As Harste comments: “One of the big breakthroughs in literacy education is our understanding that there’s not just one literacy, there are multiple literacies. Different cultures have different ways of knowing, and while we might all use art, music, dance, drama, [and] language [to convey meaning], that configuration is different in different cultures.” Students might find connections to their topic in newspapers, artwork, music, video games, movies, advertising, the Internet, television shows, sports, dance, or almost any other form of expression.

Similarly, in their book Inquiry-Based English Instruction, educators Richard Beach and Jamie Myers describe a type of inquiry wherein students look at different “social worlds.” The authors, lamenting the fact that so much classroom instruction focuses only on written material, make the point that social worlds are “constructed through a range of multiple literacies, including signs, images, icons, music, and oral discourse.” When the curriculum is broadened in this inquiry, “the variety of texts and symbolic activity experienced in the classroom broadens as students and teachers inquire into how worlds are constructed through the whole range of different literacies.”

Discussing and Refining Information: Once students have gathered a great deal of information, the teacher can do a number of things to further the inquiry. Educator Jerome Harste recommends the “schema dump”: Students come back from their research and give as many facts as they can about a topic while the teacher lists them on the board. The students then ask themselves as a class where else they can go with this information. This is to disabuse students of the common notion that an inquiry is “just about collecting a whole bunch of facts and putting them together in some sort of innovative way,” as Harste puts it. Facts are just the starting point.

Throughout the inquiry, but especially during this phase, students need to be given time for sharing what they have found. They need to reflect with one another on what they’ve learned, and share ideas and approaches. This is a community-building experience, and it helps the investigation take on greater relevance because everyone becomes involved, comparing notes, discussing conclusions, and refining questions together. When students are doing an inquiry using a common text (as they are in all of the videos), the teacher must encourage students to “linger” with the text longer than they might on their own. This can be done by giving structured response exercises to peer discussion groups in order to encourage them to explore more deeply the patterns, questions, and ideas they see in the text.

The investigation stage is where an inquiry begins to cohere. It can also, however, be the messiest phase, as students go in multiple directions and use various tools and texts at once. But because the process is grounded in the practices good readers, writers, and researchers use to gather information and make sense of it, it helps students hone their abilities and teaches them to use these tools in the “real world” outside of school, and in future school settings. It is a challenging phase for teachers because students pursuing individual questions might be at very different points in their work. One solution for managing this phase is to establish daily structures, similar to the way a reading or writing workshop might operate. For example, teachers might hold daily mini-lessons on the use of research tools, or they might institute a daily roundtable discussion with the class about how the work is progressing. Another solution is to have students keep a daily log or journal on their progress to which the teacher can respond. Teachers must also, of course, circulate around the room, checking in with students and small groups each day as the work proceeds.

Creating: Making Presentations

In Bo Wu’s class on James Baldwin, students know that the end result of their inquiry will be a group Web site on the author. Wu asks them to collectively answer the question: How can we present our understanding of Baldwin and his works? She encourages them to identify possible audiences for the Web site (teachers, students, general readers, etc.) and to think about the needs those audiences might have. They ask themselves how the site will capture the attention of one or more of these groups so that a viewer will want to stay and read more. The students brainstorm ideas that include pictures of Baldwin and of Harlem, quotes from Baldwin’s works, summaries of the essays and stories they have studied, illustrations, a glossary, and their own analytical essays.

This is one of many possibilities for presentation. As educators Richard Beach and Jamie Myers assert, the type of media chosen for presentation can reflect something important about the topic. For example, in representing responses to literature, they recommend that students might use a dramatic presentation to bring to life the themes, problems, and concerns portrayed in texts. “By adopting the roles of persons or characters coping with an issue or dilemma,” write Beach and Myers, “students consider the moral effects of their actions on others who may not share their own beliefs.” With other inquiry methods, such as the I-Search, each student writes a paper that not only presents the information he or she uncovered, but tells the “story” of the search itself.

The presentation might be something of use to the larger community. For example, teachers might have students use their information to write children’s books and read them to kids at a nearby elementary school. Beach and Myers present the example of a town in which some parents objected to the teaching of a controversial novel. Students there addressed the complaint by holding a mock school board meeting on censorship, with each student adopting the role of a figure in the controversy. The board then heard each character’s attitudes about the book and censorship, and made a final decision based on the information.

Presentation brings together all the preceding work of inquiry and forces students to take a stance, and possibly shape the opinions of others, on the topic they are studying. Though teachers might be evaluating the work of the inquiry all along, it is at this point that they may make a more formal assessment. It is also at this point that students begin to concretely see the “fruit” of their labors.

Reflecting and Transforming: Writing, Thinking, and Acting on the Inquiry Process

Educator Jerome Harste cautions teachers that a final presentation isn’t where inquiry should truly end. Instead, he says, “Where inquiry ought to end is on reflection and thinking about what kinds of social action we might take — that is, now that we have this understanding, what does that mean for how we position ourselves in the world? I don’t want inquiry to just be sort of an academic study. I want it to actually interact and affect the world, and I want students who can do that too.” Educators Richard Beach and Jamie Myers also see an inquiry’s natural end as “transformation,” or “revising meanings, changing action, constructing more desirable identities, relationships, and values.”

Reflection on the inquiry, which should take place throughout the process as well as at the end, is an essential step in making an inquiry more than just an academic exercise. When students are taught to reflect frequently as a matter of course on the learning they are engaged in, they begin to have more control over their own learning processes. They begin to develop sophisticated thought patterns and are better able to apply what they have learned in new situations. Reflecting helps them see what they did in a particular inquiry not as an isolated event, but as a way of thinking that is helpful in any problem-solving or information-gathering situation.

One way to ensure that reflection happens regularly is to have students keep journals throughout the process. In these journals, they can reflect, perhaps at the end of each day, on what they have done, why they did it, what worked and what didn’t, and what the experience was like for them in general. Harste calls this kind of journal an “auditor of how your thinking has evolved.” It is a metacognitive step that is essential if students are to apply what they have learned elsewhere. Students should also be encouraged to share this kind of reflection with one another.

The hope is that reflection will help transform and empower students, and spur them to further action. Some students may decide to take an active stance for change in the outside world, initiating social action against or in favor of some proposed change in their community or school. For other students, the transformation may be more internal, perhaps resulting in a formerly quiet or passive student becoming an active, vital member of the class.

The act of reflection can lead to great self-discovery for students, but it is an aspect of the learning process that is often given short shrift by teachers pressed for time or pressured by standardized tests. While an inquiry can take weeks to complete, student engagement is often so deep and intense that although the teacher might not be able to cover a vast range of material, students are sill transformed by the experience. Many students, when doing inquiry learning for the first time, have enthusiastically reflected that “school has never been like this before.” Many see, for the first time, how school might be relevant to their real lives.

Teachers considering embarking on an inquiry often wonder how the work of such a project addresses the demands of the ELA standards and standardized testing. One answer to this is that an inquiry can be so rich, and demand so much of students, that they naturally address every standard as they go through the process. They must read a great number and variety of texts; write in a variety of forms, often for a variety of audiences; practice speaking and listening in the context of peer- and large-group discussions that take place daily; and address standards of research and media literacy through Internet and other types of research. A glance at the standards included at the end of this section should reassure teachers how thoroughly a well-structured inquiry can address them.


Barton, David and Mary Hamilton (eds.) Situated Literacies: Reading and Writing in Context New York: Routledge, 1999.
In this collection, key scholars remark on literacies in specific contexts and broad practices.

Boran, Sibel and Barbara Comber (eds.). Critiquing Whole Language and Classroom Inquiry.Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2001.
This collection of essays – featuring the work of Jerome Harste, Carolyn Burke and Patrick Shannon – offers advice and theoretical reasoning for teachers seeking to empower their students in the classroom.

Cope, Bill and Mary Kalantzis (eds.). Multiliteracies: Literacy Learning and the Design of Social Futures New York: Routledge, 1999.
This book compiles essays about the future of literacy teaching, including articles by Elsa Auerbach, Courtney Cazden, Norman Fairclough, James Paul Gee, Gunther Kress, Joseph Le Bianco, Carmen and Allen Luke, and Sarah Michaels.

Edelsky, Carole (ed). Making Justice Our Project. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 1999.
This book considers the political implications of whole language classrooms, with particular attention to inquiry teaching.

Unsworth, Len. Teaching Multiliteracies Across the Curriculum: Changing contexts of text and image in classroom practice. Berkshire, UK: Open University Press, 2002.
This book outlines visual and verbal language necessary for students in technology-rich classrooms.

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