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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School

Reader Response: Keith Gilyard and Mourning Dove

Emphasizes the reader's role in interpreting texts. Each interpretation is subjective and unique.

About the Video

In Part I, Alfredo Lujan’s students discuss poems in Keith Gilyard’s Poemographies. Gilyard reads his poem, “The Hatmaker” to the students and leads them in a response-based writing activity. In Part II, Greg Hirst’s students learn about and enact the oral tradition through the Salish coyote stories as written by Mourning Dove.

About the Workshop

Welcome to Session 2: Reader Response, featuring selected works by Keith Gilyard and Mourning Dove.

To enhance your teaching of multicultural literature in high school we have provided:

  • Lesson plans corresponding to each video program
  • A guide (downloadable PDF) to the workshop session activities
  • Reader-response teaching strategies
  • Biographies of featured authors along with synopses of their work and further resources
  • A bibliography of additional resources

Theory Overview: Reader Response

An overview of reader-response theory was presented in Session 1. Refresh your memory by reading the overview again:


Reader response stresses the importance of the reader’s role in interpreting texts. Rejecting the idea that there is a single, fixed meaning inherent in every literary work, this theory holds that the individual creates his or her own meaning through a “transaction” with the text based on personal associations. Because all readers bring their own emotions, concerns, life experiences, and knowledge to their reading, each interpretation is subjective and unique.

Many trace the beginning of reader-response theory to scholar Louise Rosenblatt’s influential 1938 work Literature As Exploration. Rosenblatt’s ideas were a reaction to the formalist theories of the New Critics, who promoted “close readings” of literature, a practice which advocated rigid scholarly detachment in the study of texts and rejected all forms of personal interpretation by the reader. According to Rosenblatt, the New Critics treated the text as “an autonomous entity that could be objectively analyzed” using clear-cut technical criteria. Rosenblatt believed instead that “the reading of any work of literature is, of necessity, an individual and unique occurrence involving the mind and emotions of some particular reader and a particular text at a particular time under particular circumstances.”


Over the last several decades, reader-response techniques have become firmly established in American classrooms. Language arts teachers at all levels now widely accept central tenets of the theory, particularly the notion that learning is a constructive and dynamic process in which students extract meaning from texts through experiencing, hypothesizing, exploring, and synthesizing. Most importantly, teaching reader response encourages students to be aware of what they bring to texts as readers; it helps them to recognize the specificity of their own cultural backgrounds and to work to understand the cultural background of others.

Using reader response in the classroom can have a profound impact on how students view texts and how they see their role as readers. Rather than relying on a teacher or critic to give them a single, standard interpretation of a text, students learn to construct their own meaning by connecting the textual material to issues in their lives and describing what they experience as they read. Because there is no one “right” answer or “correct” interpretation, the diverse responses of individual readers are key to discovering the variety of possible meanings a poem, story, essay, or other text can evoke.

Students in reader-response classrooms become active learners. Because their personal responses are valued, they begin to see themselves as having both the authority and the responsibility to make judgments about what they read. (This process is evident in the video programs, when students are asked to choose a line of poetry and explain why it is important to them.) The responses of fellow students also play a pivotal role: Through interaction with their peers, students move beyond their initial individual reaction to take into account a multiplicity of ideas and interpretations, thus broadening their perspective.


As increasing numbers of elementary, middle, and secondary school language arts teachers have come to accept reader-response theory over the last 25 years, the instructional techniques that support it have become more common in classrooms: Literature circles, journal writing, and peer writing groups all grew out of the reader-response movement. These teaching strategies value student-initiated analysis over teacher-led instruction, promote open-ended discussion, and encourage students to explore their own thinking and trust their own responses.


Research has shown that students in reader-response-based classrooms read more and make richer personal connections with texts than students using more traditional methods. They tend to be more tolerant of multiple interpretations, and because they learn techniques that help them recognize the ways in which their own arguments are formed, they are better equipped to examine the arguments of others. In short, reader response helps students to become better critical readers.

While these techniques encourage a broad range of textual interpretations and reactions, students must learn, however, that not every response is equally valid or appropriate. The meaning of a text is not an entirely subjective matter, of course, and it is crucial that responses be grounded in the text itself and in the context in which the text is read. One way of guarding against students “running wild” is to make sure that there’s a community restraint on interpretation. That is, if the teacher structures reader-response exercises carefully, each individual student is challenged by the discussion to go beyond his or her first response. Even though an individual reader’s reactions are based on his or her own “schema” (the expectations that arise from personal experiences), he or she will realize in class discussion that not everyone shares that same perspective.

Theory Resources

Beach, Richard. A Teacher’s Introduction to Reader-Response Theories. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1993.
This book provides useful explanations of reader-response theories and strategies.

Pace, Barbara G. “Resistance and Response: Deconstructing Community Standards in a Literature Class.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 46:5 (February 2003): 408-412.
This article describes the reflections of students who practice reader response.

Probst, Robert E. “Reader-Response Theory and the English Curriculum.” English Journal(March 1994): 37-44.
This article describes ways to integrate reader-response strategies into a language arts curriculum.

Rosenblatt, Louise, Literature as Exploration (3rd ed). New York: Noble & Noble, 1968.
This book offers useful strategies and reflections on the benefits of reader response.

Rosenblatt, Louise, The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of Literary Work. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978.
This book provides a theoretical backdrop to reader-response methodology.

Additional Resources

Charles, Jim. “Contemporary American Indian Life in The Owl’s Song and Smoke Signals,” English Journal, 2002.
This article on teaching cultural studies looks at works with young-adult Native American protaganists.

Cooper, Karen Coody. “Brave Warrior.” Multicultural Perspectives, 5(1), 2003, 38-40.
This brief exploration looks at some of the words applied to Native Americans and examines how the interpretation of the words affect our understanding of Native Americans as fellow humans.

Erdoes, R. and Ortiz, A (eds). American Indian Trickster Tales. New York: Viking, 1988.
Erdoes and Ortiz offer a wide variety of Native American trickster folktales from the United States and Canada.

—-. (eds). American Indian Myths and Legends. New York: Pantheon, 1984.
This anthology is a contemporary classic of Native American myth and folklore. Each tale includes a short annotation by the editors.

Francis, Lee. Native Time: A Historical Time Line of Native America. New York: St Martin’s Griffin, 1996.
This cross-referenced timeline deals with the history, literature, religion, and politics of Native Americans.

Grobman, Laurie. Teaching at the Crossroads: Cultures and Critical Perspectives in Literature by Women of Color. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 2001.
This book offers strategies for teaching literature by women of color.

Hendry, Judith. “Mining the Sacred Mountain: The Clash Between the Western Dualistic Framework and Native American Religions.” Multicultural Perspectives, 5(1), 2003, 3-10.
The article explores some of the central themes in Native American religions and practices and discusses ways in which these beliefs and practices come into conflict with the underlying assumptions of the dominant culture.

Hubbard, Jim (ed). Shooting Back From the Reservation: A Photographic View of Life by Native American Youth. New York: New Press, 1994.
This collection of photographs evolved out of a project that gave Native American adolescents cameras to take interpretive photos of their environment.

Lopez, Barry. Giving Birth to Thunder, Sleeping with his Daughter: Coyote Builds North America. New York: Avon, 1977.
Lopez’s collection offers Coyote stories from 42 different Native American tribes.

Masden, Deborah L (ed). Post-Colonial Literatures: Expanding the Canon. London: Pluto Press, 1999.
This collection of essays explores multicultural American literature from a post-colonial lens.

Oliver, Eileen. Crossing the Mainstream: Multicultural Perspectives in Teaching Literature. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1994.
This book focuses on curriculum development, teaching strategies, and literary questions for multicultural texts.

Willis, Arlette Ingram. Teaching and Using Multicultural Literature in Grades 9-12. Norwood, NJ: Christopher Gordon Publishers, 1998.
This guide to teaching multicultural literature focuses on instruction in high school classrooms.

Vizenor, Gerald. The Trickster of Liberty: Tribal Heirs to a Wild Baronage. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.
Vizenor’s book is a literary analysis of the trickster figure.

African American World
This comprehensive site offers information about African American literature, culture and history.

The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow
This site offers an excellent historical overview of race relations in the United States.

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