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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School

Inquiry: Tomás Rivera and Esmeralda Santiago 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

Questioning is the starting point for any inquiry lesson. Several techniques were detailed in the video program 3, in which the students of Jorge Arredondo and Bo Wu explored the work of Rudolfo Anaya and James Baldwin. When these same teachers present the work of Tomás Rivera and Esmeralda Santiago, however, they employ different methods. Bo Wu’s students, for example, engage in a number of reader-response activities to begin an inquiry into Santiago’s memoir When I Was Puerto Rican. They start with strategies like reader’s theater, journal writing, and peer-group discussions of their writing, and they choose topics for inquiry only after they have immersed themselves in the issues.

In his class on Rivera and Mexican migrant labor, Jorge Arredondo spends less time in the immersion phase than he did with Anaya. He reminds students that they should not come up with inquiry topics to please him; rather, they should find topics that are interesting to them. His students ask a range of questions: What is the history of child labor laws? How did the Mexican government feel about people leaving to go to the United States? How did the U.S. government feel about the immigrants? What jobs were available to Mexican laborers? How have the laws changed?

For teachers accustomed to strict lesson plans, this approach — simply having students begin questioning without much background — can be daunting. But Arredondo has built structure into what might seem a completely open-ended process by outlining specific steps for the class to go through together. First, the novel’s translator, Evangelina Vigil-Piñón, visits the class, and the students ask her questions about the book. Considering the translator’s responses, the students brainstorm more questions together. They then research their questions in a computer lab and begin to interview the laborers in their own community (e.g., the school custodial workers). Arredondo sets aside time for the class to collectively discuss its progress through each of these steps.

Bo Wu says she consciously “structures the lesson in a way that allows students to ask more questions.” Ultimately, they will write their own memoir based on the topic they choose. Her students ask provocative questions like “What does it mean to be an American?” that can sustain a rich, multifaceted inquiry.

In a sense, teachers who choose to use this approach may need to be more organized than teachers following a daily lesson plan. In an inquiry, the teacher sets the daily structure within which students will question and explore, and acts as facilitator by having resources at the ready for questions students are likely to ask.

Educators Richard Beach and Jamie Myers, in their book Inquiry-Based English Instruction, speak of the need for teachers to “build problem-solving activities around students’ perceptions of their own concerns, issues, or dilemmas.” They write: “If teachers assign concerns, issues, or dilemmas, students may simply perceive them as ‘school’ or ‘teacher’ issues. Having both teachers and students mutually identify their own concerns, issues, or dilemmas engages them in a ‘problem-finding’ process of discovering or unearthing matters they perceive as important to their own lives in social worlds.” This is perhaps the most important goal of having students begin with their own questions.

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: In their book Inquiry-Based English Instruction, educators Richard Beach and Jamie Myers detail an inquiry into “social worlds” — an inquiry which draws on students’ real lives as family members, dwellers in a community, students in school, etc. Beach and Myers recommend that students choose one social world to investigate, whether a “lived” one that they can actually visit, or one represented by literature or the media; students might choose anything from a medieval world described in a novel to the real world of snowboarding culture. They learn about the context of such worlds by exploring their history, culture, purposes, and beliefs, and the roles and rules within each one. They then look at the “tools” — such as language, clothes, and possessions — that those within each world use to construct their social identity. To do this, they observe, take notes, draw maps, interview residents of that particular world, and analyze their own reactions to what they have found.

Teacher Bo Wu’s students engage in a version of this activity when they start making connections between the book they have read and their own lives. Part of their research on a question raised by Esmeralda Santiago’s memoir, When I Was Puerto Rican, involves making timelines of their own lives. From these connections come deeper, more refined questions.

Teacher Jorge Arredondo’s students conduct research in a variety of ways. He begins by having them use the Internet. At first, the research is unfocused; students might need to be taught, as Wu’s are when they study James Baldwin, how to use a basic search engine; but soon, as they gather around each other’s computers and begin to share what they have found, the work becomes much more focused, and the conversations lively. Arredondo also introduces his students to the idea that research does not always have to be done in the library or computer lab. His students also meet translator Evangelina Vigil-Piñón and hear her perspective on rendering Tomás Rivera’s novel into English. They also interview custodial workers in the community as part of their inquiry into the lives of Mexican laborers. Jerome Harste expresses the importance of making “first hand” experiences available in an inquiry classroom: “I really think there are two kinds of experts that an inquiry teacher needs to think about incorporating in their classroom. One is an academic expert, and we see that with the translator of the work … And then I think local experts, that is, people who have actually lived that experience.”

Inquiry and the Literary Text, edited by educators James Holden and John S. Schmit, shows how to construct discussions in the classroom. Focusing in particular on the seminar method of literary discussion, the contributors suggest ways to have students explore texts constructively together, with the balance tipping neither toward “oppressive” teacher-dominated discussions, nor toward “chaotic” student free-for-alls. Many of the book’s essays focus on student questioning: How can every student have a genuine voice in the conversation and also bring a thoughtful question to the table? Some suggestions include having students write questions and give reasons for their questions’ importance. Students might also rank their questions in terms of importance. Others suggest giving students a form for questioning. One form might outline a set of literary elements around which to create questions (plot, character, theme, etc.). Another form might require students to consider the three types of responses that some educators believe all literary response takes: responses about the text itself, responses about the reader’s experience with/reaction to the text, and responses about the text’s connection to the world at large.

Bo Wu introduces a common version of this last technique in her class on Santiago. The students use graphic organizers – based on chronological or schematic timelines — to help them structure their thinking and organize events in their memoirs. Wu demonstrates this when she begins to create a simple “web” with Santiago’s words “American Invasion” at the center. As students propose ideas and information relevant to this topic, she lists their ideas around the words in the center, creating a web.

As Bo Wu comments, most standardized tests ask students to read and respond to information by synthesizing it. That, she says, is exactly what inquiry asks students to do. Students in this phase of the inquiry process are very much engaged in making meaning from real-world texts and other sources.

Creating: Making Presentations

The inquiry process culminates with presentations in which students show what they have learned. During a presentation, students should convey the meaning they have constructed from their information and demonstrate how the inquiry process led them there. These presentations can take many forms: They may be multimedia events or simple written essays; they may be done as a group or individually; they may be presented to the class or to a larger community. The nature of the presentation will depend on the scope of the inquiry, and on the imagination of the students and the teacher.

In Bo Wu’s class on Esmeralda Santiago, students work toward a particular kind of presentation, knowing they will ultimately write a memoir inspired by Santiago’s memoir. Wu asks them to pursue their questions about Santiago’s writing and find connections with their own lives. She has them draw up timelines of similar themes in their own lives, and then has them connect these personal events with events in history. As she walks around the classroom, we see, for example, a young girl with a graphic organizer which poses this question: “Is change good or bad?” This is the question she is investigating both in Santiago’s memoir and in her own life. Later, she will write a memoir using that question as a theme.

In the “social worlds” model that educators Richard Beach and Jamie Myers write about in Inquiry-Based English Instruction, each student must study and ultimately present his or her research about a certain social world. They may use tools ranging from oral and written narratives to music/audio, cameras, computers, art and sculpture, and video. Students should be able to say how their choice of media fits in with their particular social world. A number of students in a ninth-grade class reading coming-of-age stories, for example, created collages that showed links between the lives of the characters and their own lives.

The presentation phase draws all the previous work together into a coherent whole. This is the students’ chance to be creative and to use their own talents to take raw information to another level. By having to think about an audience to whom they will present the information, students begin to impose structure on the mass of information, interpretation, and thought that has led to this stage.

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

Educators Richard Beach and Jamie Myers hope that an inquiry will “challenge or interrogate the common-sense, taken-for-granted assumptions underlying the construction or representation of a social world.” This should hold true for all inquiries, regardless of the topic. Students should go beyond the mere collection of facts; they should make connections, develop interpretations, analyze points of view, and draw conclusions about how all these “facts” work together. But without reflection on the process as a whole, students may not see how they were able to cultivate such sophisticated thinking habits. Reflection, in essence, teaches students how they learn.

Inquiry should also lead to some kind of action that extends what is learned beyond the classroom. Beach and Myers give an example of middle school girls who, after reading about the life of a medieval girl in Catherine, Called Birdy, each investigated a topic or issue related to girls or women in present-day society (e.g., eating disorders, the “glass ceiling,” single-sex classrooms). They then made presentations on these topics to a group of sixth-grade girls, seeking to transform some of these girls’ beliefs about women in society. To do this, they used games, discussions, PowerPoint presentations, opinion polls, video clips, and skits.

Beach and Myers reflect on the benefits of their “social worlds” project: “Learning to use these strategies helps students develop greater understanding of how language serves as a tool for constructing these systems, an understanding essential for interrogating their own social worlds.” In other words, taking the understanding gained from an inquiry out of the classroom and into the “real world” is essential. Otherwise, as interesting as the inquiry may have been as a classroom exercise, it remains only that. Students must be encouraged to see that what they have learned can lead to a change of opinion and, however subtle, a change of behavior toward the topic studied.


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.

Busching, Beverly and Betty Ann Slesinger. “It’s Our World Too”: Socially Responsive Learners in Middle School Language Arts. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2002.
This book covers both theory and practice issues for teachers seeking to deal with issues of race, class and poverty 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, IL: 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 Multilitieracies 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.

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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School


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