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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School

Reader Response: Pat Mora and James Welch Teaching Strategies

  • Sustained Silent Reading
  • Identifying Compelling Lines from the Text
  • Publishing Student Writing
  • Resources

Sustained Silent Reading

Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) gives students a chance to spend time reading independently. Different schools approach SSR in different ways. While some may require language arts students to read quietly for a brief interval once a week, others have instituted programs like DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) in which everyone in the entire school reads for a set period every day. In some classrooms, all students read the same text; in others, individuals choose from a class library or bring outside reading.

When followed up with small literature-circle discussions, journal writing, or a whole-class discussion, SSR can help build a foundation for reader-response methods. It gives students private time to reflect and interact with the text, and to make meaning of what they’re reading, without having to do so at someone else’s pace. Students can then discuss what they’ve read with others in the class, sharing their reactions and ideas. Teachers might find it helpful to pose general questions about students’ readings (e.g., What are the qualities of a hero or heroine? How does the author let you know when something happens?) in order to prompt further discussion and enhance understanding. With continued use, SSR builds the kind of self-motivated reading habits that are necessary for reader response.

Teachers interested in instituting SSR programs should provide a few tools:

  • a class library or access to a choice of books
  • a set amount of uninterrupted time (20-30 minutes)
  • space in the classroom, if possible, where students can read comfortably
  • a structured way for students to respond to what they’ve read after SSR (e.g., journal writing, sharing responses with a partner or small peer group, or a whole-class discussion on some topic common to all the books)

It has been shown that students who engage in SSR regularly read more, enjoy reading more, and read a greater variety of texts, both in and out of school. Allowing time for reading as part of the daily lesson highlights the importance of silent engagement with texts, and it encourages students to see this as a natural and even pleasurable process. In general, SSR attempts to build the habits of a lifelong learner by modeling reading behavior.It has been shown that students who engage in SSR regularly read more, enjoy reading more, and read a greater variety of texts, both in and out of school. Allowing time for reading as part of the daily lesson highlights the importance of silent engagement with texts, and it encourages students to see this as a natural and even pleasurable process. In general, SSR attempts to build the habits of a lifelong learner by modeling reading behavior.

Identifying Compelling Lines from the Text

Having students choose lines from literature that interest them gives every reader, regardless of ability, a “way in” to a text, and is an excellent starting point for reader-response activities. As teacher Alfredo Lujan demonstrates in his classroom, students might be asked to find a line that “jumps out” or “tickles” them, and to give a brief explanation why. This exercise helps readers connect what they are reading with their own lives. Like most of the reader-response strategies, this one can be adapted by the teacher to suit the class and the purpose of the lesson. Once students identify the lines they find most interesting or important, they can share them in pairs or small groups, or record them in a journal along with comments about why they chose the lines. The lines can then become a starting point for a whole-class discussion.

Teachers who want to go further with this technique — when reading, for instance, a particularly dense or difficult text — can have students use the chosen lines to make connections to other things they are reading or learning about. For example, a line like “wrap their babies in the American flag / feed them mashed hot dogs and apple pie / name them Bill and Daisy,” from Pat Mora’s poem “Immigrants,” could link to photos and news stories about immigrants or to other works of literature that describe the immigrant experience. Students might create collages to illustrate the lines, or write essays in which they trace how the meaning of a powerful line such as this resonates in several different works.

Still another use of the technique is demonstrated by teacher Greg Hirst, who models it with his students by reading James Welch’s poem “Christmas Comes to Moccasin Flat.” He has them choose five or six important words in each stanza; he then has his students narrow the important words down to “one absolutely critical word” per stanza. By making these choices, he says, his students are drawn deeper and deeper into the poem.

An extension of Hirst’s idea is the technique of having students create a poem with lines from a text. To do this, teachers should have students identify a theme, character, idea, motif, or pattern of some kind in a text. Next, students should choose lines from that text that illustrate that theme or pattern. Finally, the students rearrange their lines into some new form — poetry or prose — that illustrates this theme powerfully. They can then read their new poems aloud, post them in the classroom, illustrate them, or present them as a theater piece.

Note: Teachers using this technique should generally refrain from publicly praising or censoring students for their choice of quotes from the text. If students are led to believe that there is, in fact, one “right” answer, the freedom and spirit of exploration necessary for true reader response will be jeopardized.

This exercise is a non-threatening way to open up discussion of a text. Readers of almost any ability will be able to choose at least one line, and once students see that there is no “right” or “wrong” reason for choosing a line, they will feel free to give honest and emotional responses to what they read. The exercise also ensures that each student contributes and that the more vocal students are not allowed to dominate. It is an easy way to have students focus on the words of the text itself so that any discussion that follows is grounded in that text.

Publishing Student Writing

Reader-response classrooms encourage a great deal of writing. Students often experiment with writing on a daily basis, honing their skills in multiple genres, from journal writing to personal essays to formal literature essays. The advice offered in small peer-response groups can help students revise, reformulate, and rewrite what they have composed.

Publication is a natural culmination for a curriculum that honors writing. Students in reader-response classrooms, encouraged as they are by daily practice, often have a strong sense of ownership of their work. They are often comfortable with an audience and have developed a facility for oral delivery through their regular work in peer-response groups. Many teachers see publication — which can range from staging a reading to binding an actual book — as a celebration of their students’ diverse voices and hard work.

The goal of publication is to give students a wider audience, and there are many ways to “publish” beyond simply reprinting student work in book form. For example, a teacher might stage a simple in-class reading, or “read-around,” in which each student reads a piece of his or her original writing. A reading could also be held in a more public place, as author Pat Mora and teacher Alfredo Lujan did when they took the class to a local coffee house. Students can take charge of advertising such a reading to the public, putting up fliers at a local elementary school, a bookstore, or the class library. Another option is to put up a “gallery walk” of work in which each student posts some of his or her writing on the walls of the classroom; members of the class can use sticky notes to write responses to the authors and post them (with their names) next to the pieces. Or a class might create a book that includes one self-chosen piece from each student; students can create a simple illustration or introduction to accompany their chosen piece, and the class can collaborate on a cover page, a table of contents, and a dedication page. The result can be as simple as a stapled “magazine” or as elaborate as a bound book that will go to each member of the class, the school library, the principal’s office, and the local community center.

Treating students as “real” writers encourages them to take writing seriously and see it as a real-world tool rather than an isolated school activity. Publishing can also improve writing: When a student writes for a purpose, with a real audience beyond just the teacher, he or she is often motivated to make the piece as professional as possible.


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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