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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School

Reader Response: Keith Gilyard and Mourning Dove Teaching Strategies

  • Annotating Text
  • Small Peer Group Discussions
  • Using Visual Imagery to Respond to Texts
  • Finding Evidence in Texts
  • Lodge Activity
  • Resources

Annotating Text

In order for a reader to truly engage with a text and begin to connect with it intellectually and emotionally, that text must be treated as a partner in the learning process. One way of making this engagement “hands-on” is for students to annotate, or “mark up,” the texts they read. Marking can include underlining, writing comments in the margins, drawing symbols next to different sections, or any other form students find helpful and natural. This is a powerful way to bring home the idea that a text is not sacrosanct, but can be written on, reacted to, and “argued with,” and that doing so is the natural habit of all proficient readers. Having students annotate as they read encourages them to be aware of what is going on in their minds as they process the information. Annotation can be a springboard to many other activities that use the reactions of the reader, from class discussion to essay writing.

To demonstrate the technique, the teacher can give students a photocopied text to read during class, with time left over for writing and discussing. This text should be copied in such a way that there is a lot of blank space left around the edges for taking notes. The teacher should read the first few paragraphs aloud to the students, then stop and ask them to take out their pens and “mark up” the text in some way that shows what they thought as they heard the lines. They might underline those lines that seemed most important, put question marks in the margin next to sections they didn’t understand, circle words they didn’t know, write reactions next to sections that caused an emotional response, or “talk back” to the writer in places where they feel moved to do so.

After giving students some time to try this, the teacher should ask them to share what they have done, with partners or with the class as a whole. It is best to hear from a range of people and collect a variety of responses. Teachers should refrain from judging the responses by deeming particular ones “good” or “bad”; students need to see that there is not a “right” answer. Some teachers might even want to share their own annotations with the class. It is important that teachers note the range of responses in the classroom and use them to make the point that every reader brings something different to the text.

This is a natural starting point for a range of reader-response activities. It reinforces habits that are second nature to proficient readers and shows students that their thoughts and reactions as they read are valuable. The technique can also be used to encourage students who are ordinarily reluctant to speak in whole-group settings; teachers can use it as a “scaffolding” step, preparing students before initiating large-group discussions. This will ensure that everyone has something to contribute. To add an additional step, the teacher can have students pair up before the whole-group discussion to share their annotations with a classmate. These students, by seeing that everyone has something different to say about the text, will be much more likely to venture their thoughts in a whole-class discussion.

Small Peer Group Discussions

Teachers often use small peer group discussions in response-based literature study. Sometimes these groups take the form of literature circles, but they can also be less formally structured and more spontaneously implemented. To use this technique, teachers should divide students into small groups (from three to six students) and give them a common task or text to tackle. Teacher Alfredo Lujan demonstrates this in his classroom when he has his students interview one another about the poems they have read. The task might involve a similar interviewing process, or it might revolve around solving a problem together or determining something about a text.

As students work, the teacher should circulate around the room, helping individual groups, redirecting them where necessary, and generally ensuring that they are on task. At the end of the work time, teachers should schedule a few minutes for a report from each small group. Reporting is often limited to something as simple as: “Tell the class which lines you decided to pick from the text.” This might be done orally or, if there is a great deal of information that needs to be recorded, on large sheets of paper that can be posted where the rest of the class can read them.

A variation on small peer group discussions, one in which students also write together, is known as “inkshedding.” To inkshed, the teacher should give the whole class a short, common writing assignment, whether a response to literature or a piece of personal writing. Students then bring their writing to the group and pass it to the person next to them in a clockwise direction. Each student then reads the writing and writes comments on it. The group continues to pass the writing around the circle, reading and commenting — or commenting on the comments — until each piece has gone full-circle, at which point the original writer reads the comments. The small group might then discuss the pieces they wrote.

As Lujan observes, small peer group discussions often “bounce,” meaning the interview process transitions into lively dialogue. In an intimate group, students are more apt to open up and take risks than in a whole-class setting. They are also more likely to use their own language to begin solving a problem or tackling a text. Having a peer “explain” a text is often more helpful to a struggling student than an adult’s explanation.

Using Visual Imagery to Respond to Texts

For many students, drawing pictures in response to literature feels “fun” and unthreatening compared to writing a response. Yet asking students to draw what they see as they read is essentially the same thing as requesting a written response: Both demand that they identify and restate an important concept in the text in a way that is personally meaningful. A visual representation of a text or portion of a text can be done at any point in a reading — as a first response, to sum up, or as a final assessment. Teacher Alfredo Lujan says this about his use of the technique: “After [the students] had discussed the poems [in Keith Gilyard’s book Poemographies] and then the title, in my mind, they were making a link, and I thought, ‘What better way to represent that than visually?’ So instead of giving them a standard assignment like ‘write an essay explaining what you meant’ … I thought in this case … it would be best represented visually.” Some of his students made posters, some maps, and some drew their responses.

A visual representation can take any form. Students can simply describe orally, to a partner or to the whole class, the images they “see” in their minds as they read. They can also do simple sketches in response to what they read, then share those sketches. Or they can create more elaborate responses by making posters, maps, portraits, masks, photo essays, sculptures, or other visual art forms. Visual responses can be done with the text as a whole, with a portion of the text, or with some theme or idea that runs through it.

Students can also capture the meaning of one word through drawing. Some teachers have students draw the meaning of a vocabulary word they are studying. Other teachers ask for a visual response as a culmination of a study of one concept or theme. For example, students might attempt to draw a concept like “hero” after a study of mythology, or visually represent themes like “identity” or “racism” that may arise in their reading.

Many teachers already use “mapping” in the classroom. Mapping is the practice of having students show their thinking about an idea, book, or theme by graphically representing the relationships between pieces of information. Markers, construction paper, and other supplies that encourage a visual response can help to make these maps more visually engaging.

A teacher introducing students to the concept of representing visual images might begin by modeling the images he or she “sees” while reading a text. The teacher can explain how describing and reflecting on these images helps develop comprehension of the text. Students might then begin by describing their images orally to a partner or by writing in a journal. Small peer groups might meet to discuss these images and discover what they have in common. Image-making is an ongoing process. Just as written and oral responses to literature will grow in sophistication with practice, so will the making of visual representations. Teachers should model how these responses, like written and oral responses, will be different for different genres of texts.

Good writing evokes images in our minds as we read. Good readers are constantly making and revising these mental images as they progress through a text. As educators Ellin Oliver Keene and Susan Zimmerman, authors of Mosaic of Thought, put it: “Proficient readers spontaneously and purposefully create mental images while and after they read. The images emerge from all five senses, as well as the emotions, and are anchored in a reader’s prior knowledge … [They] use images to draw conclusions, to create distinct and unique interpretations of the text, to recall details significant to the text, and to recall a text after it has been read.” Talking about this with students and having them describe or draw the images they “see” as they read helps them strengthen their ability to use these mental pictures for comprehension and interpretation.

Finding Evidence in Texts

Students in any language arts class must learn to ground their responses to a text in the words of the text itself. But in reader-response-oriented classrooms, this might be even more important.

Unsophisticated readers often read something quickly and rely on their first impressions for all future discussion and writing; they seldom see the point of going back and rereading, or of looking back to note a writer’s exact words when paraphrasing. Many a classroom literature discussion has gone awry when students have attempted to talk about a text without having it open for reference in front of them. Though asking students to find evidence for their point of view in a text is an age-old demand, new methods of doing this can work especially well in a reader-response classroom.

To get students in the habit of finding evidence, many teachers use learning logs or double-entry journals that ask students to copy out quotes that interest them from a text and then write down why. This prevents students from making the kind of response to their reading that is so global as to be meaningless, such as “It was good” or “It was kind of boring.” It also helps them to slow down and take note of the author’s voice, tone, and style.

During class discussions, whether with the whole class or in literature circles, the teacher might demand that each opinion or assertion is backed up by the words of the text. Because this can keep a discussion from flowing naturally, it need not be done every time; doing it once or twice will serve to remind students of how important the practice is. Particularly significant lines from a text chosen by the teacher or students might be blown up on large paper or written on the board for a deeper response. Students can be asked to draw (see above, “Using Visual Imagery to Respond to Texts” ), write, or talk about these quotes.

A fun way to have students find evidence in a text is to make it a game or “scavenger hunt.” Asking students in pairs or small groups to “find a line that demonstrates x” can make it interesting for them, and can spur the kind of text-grounded discussions for which a literature teacher constantly hopes. For instance, a teacher might give small groups of students a list of such “find a line” challenges: “Find a line that shows the main character is secretly angry at his father;” “Find a line that shows the dullness of the town portrayed in the story,” etc. These challenges can begin with the literal, where students can find nearly the exact words of the challenge in the text, and move on to the interpretive, where they need to infer meaning from the text.

By instructing students to find evidence in the actual words of a text, teachers train them to be careful readers, and help them develop an awareness and appreciation of different writing styles.

Because students can interpret the reader-response philosophy to mean that anything they say is right, methods that help them connect their responses to the actual words of a text are helpful in keeping the response focused.

Lodge Activity

The “Lodge Activity” is a powerful blend of group storytelling, literary discussion and role play. It bears some resemblance to reader’s theater (a simple enactment of texts), but the Lodge activity specifically draws on Native American traditions in order to encourage students to engage in storytelling that is part of tribal culture. It is a complex teaching strategy, however, and must be handled sensitively. (To provide students with a cultural context for the activity, teachers may consider screening video program 2 – Part II, with them.) Students should be encouraged to use this classroom experience to reflect on how stories arise in clans or communities. As Native American scholar, Kathryn W. Shanley, remarks: “To set up a lodge… in a classroom, and have students serve in particular clans, enables them to see how these units would function….Using that as a teaching tool is a fine thing to do if you make it clear to the students that it’s something that they should respect.”

Teachers should begin by describing the totemic identities of the clans featured in the literature and discuss their places in the larger tribe. Greg Hirst, for example, does this by drawing a circle on the board in which clans’ totemic animals – Salmon, Grizzly and Eagle (featured in Mourning Dove’s Coyote Stories) – are linked. In this context, the teacher and students can explore together the defining characteristics of each clan’s totem. (Teachers should note, however, that these are just these are just simulations of real clans. As Shanley comments: “using [clans and totems] to organize a classroom can be valuable, but you have to watch out for the pitfalls of having people over-literalize what that means.”) Once students understand each clan’s totem, teachers should then ask each student join a clan. Here, students should be able to choose their own clans as much as possible, but it may be necessary for teachers to guide this process so that the class is evenly divided. Teachers may also ask students to explain why they chose their particular clans; this activity helps to extend the process of reader response.

Once the class is divided into clans, teachers should ask students to assume particular roles within the clan. For example, one or two students in each group should agree to be the storytellers and one should agree to be the chief. When students have assumed these roles within their clans, teachers should ask each of the clans to tell a story about the origin of their totem’s identity. (For example: How did Eagle become Eagle? How did Salmon become Salmon?) As Greg Hirst demonstrates, teachers should remind the students of the storyteller (in this case Mourning Dove), and of the main tenets of storytelling: the “how” and the “why” – how will they tell it/what are the main points of the story? Why is it important for others to hear this story? The stories should be generated piece by piece: Students may first choose a title, then a basic story outline, then a full-fledged telling of the story, then a retelling. At each stage, the clans should present their work to the class as a whole in order to get feedback.

While using this strategy, teachers should always look for ways to build drama. Greg Hirst does this by asking students to vote for the strongest or most appealing story title. By creating tension in this way, teachers can set the stage for a “trickster” student to emerge from the clans. Sometimes, teachers can tease out this “trickster” figure by presenting situations that might compel students to leave their clan. Teachers can also ask any student if he or she wants to leave the clan. If one or two students choose to break from their clans, teachers may ask these students to form a clan of their own: the clan of Coyote and his twin brother, Fox. Coyote and Fox will then be responsible for presenting their own story about their clan’s totem.

The collaborative process of listening and responding spurs students to create stronger stories. Teachers should be careful, however, to make sure that students provide criticism that is constructive. One way to insure that students make appropriate comments is to make the chiefs responsible for their clan’s behavior. Teachers can also encourage all students to remark on what works about the story, to summarize what it says, and to point out particular parts that are confusing. Students should revise their stories, incorporating feedback, and then present them again to the class.

The Lodge activity gives students an opportunity to experience the process of creating and telling a story in the Native American tradition. By comparing their own stories at each stage of development, students are able to gain insights about plot, character, and narrative style that can be applied to all language arts classes. Students also build interpersonal skills through their clan’s structured alliances and rivalries, and build oral presentation skills through their storytelling. As teacher-educator Beverly Ann Chin suggests, storytelling through the Lodge activity “encourages students to apply all of the language arts. They are readers and writers. They are speakers and listeners. They are performers and audience. Through the storytelling experience, students respond deeply and authentically, critically and creatively to literature.”


Atwell, Nancie. In the Middle: Writing, Reading, and Learning With Adolescents. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1987.
This book offers strategies for running middle-school writing workshops.

Daniels, Harvey and Marilyn Bizar. “Representing to Learn.” In Methods That Matter: Six Structures for Best Practice Classrooms. York, ME: Stenhouse, 1998.
This essay provides tips and strategies for teachers in reader-response classrooms.

Harvey, Karen, Lisa D. Harjo, and Lynda Welborn. How to Teach About American Indians: A Guide for the School Library Media Specialist. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1995.
This book offers a Native American perspective on teaching Native American issues across the curriculum.

Keene, Ellin Oliver and Susan Zimmermann. Mosaic of Thought: Teaching Comprehension in a Reader’s Workshop. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1997.
This book offers strategies and tips for discussing readers’ issues in class.

Livdahl, Barbara Smith, et al. Stories From Response-Centered Classrooms: Speaking, Questioning, and Theorizing From the Center of the Action. New York: Teachers College Press, 1995.
This book presents reflections on teaching with reader-response strategies

Witalec, Janet. Native North American Literary Companion. Detroit:
Visible Ink Press, 1995.
This book offers background information for readers of Native American texts.

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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School


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