Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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Teaching Multicultural Literature : A Workshop for the Middle Grades
Workshop 1 Workshop 2 Workshop 3 Workshop 4 Workshop 5 Workshop 6 Workshop 7 Workshop 8
Workshop 1: Engagement and Dialogue
Overview
Authors and Literary Works
Video Summary
Teaching Strategies
Commentary
Carol O'Donnell
Valerie Kinloch
Sonia Nieto
Student Work
Resources
Interactive Workbook -- Explore two poems using strategies from these workshops. Go.
Channel-Talk -- Share your views on the discussion board. Go.


Commentary
Carol O'Donnell
Manhattan Country School
New York, N.Y.

How do you build a safe environment for learning in your classroom?

A teacher constructs a respectful, generous, safe, expressive classroom over time where inquiry, diverse skills, creativity, and the power of different voices are valued. Using diverse texts and materials ensures inclusion and critical thinking challenges. But every great learning environment evolves and experiences highs and lows. Teachers have to remember that there will be moments of conflict and problems -- and see them not as failures but as vehicles for growth. If anything, those are the moments that really help solidify the trust and work of the classroom, sometimes more than the novel, the story, or the writing exercise.

It helps when teachers model taking risks themselves. I think teachers ultimately are facilitators, but there are moments when they need to share parts of their lives or they also need to be able to share something that's difficult or that has been a struggle.

And I think it really helps students also to see the process in developing curriculum, to discuss choices and have them be part of some of those choices. Valuing a student's voice and having students truly believe you honor their voices is a first building block.


How do you plan your curriculum?

Truthfully, I have a complex pedagogy that incorporates a combination of philosophies and practices that I feel creates the "best learning" for children. At the same time I try to have an open framework for, one, critiquing my curriculum for its effectiveness, relevance, and inspiration, and, two, listening to what children think and say in the course of our work. I bring in the creative, the critical, the skill-based, and the multicultural, all in efforts to develop students' mastery, achievement, self-confidence, and engagement as citizens. Lastly, I want them to be able to succeed in all kinds of educational settings, of high school and beyond.

Sometimes it helps to not have your agenda entirely planned as a teacher, and really open with questions. It can be very helpful also to ask students, "What do you think is missing from the curriculum?" I asked that one year and they spoke about how they had had so much experience with American novels and American history, and that they really wanted to think more about young people in other countries and other cultures. It was just a moment where I turned it over to them and I got this feedback that helped me a lot as a teacher.

You often refer to yourself as a "multicultural teacher." Talk about what this means to you.

When I talk about "multicultural teaching" I mean many things. On one hand, I mean a kind of education that is cognizant about creating equal opportunities for children in educational settings by reflecting the diversity of who we are in our worlds, who we are in our classrooms, who we are in our schools.

I also see it as a kind of examination of society. As educators such as James Banks or Peggy McIntosh write, multicultural education beautifully explores the idea that identity is constructed, knowledge is constructed -- a goal that many educators advocate. When students begin to "decode" and digest those processes, they also can more easily feel part of the process of constructing who they are, and hopefully can feel that choices exist as they are growing up. The best of multicultural education encourages students to see themselves as scholars, academics, and creators of knowledge.

Furthermore, multicultural education provides a toolkit of skills that are going to help students in the world, so that they can navigate society and be successful in many contexts. Some of that is inquiry, some of that is critical thinking, some of it is vocabulary.

Why is multicultural education important to you?

Multicultural education is a pedagogy with inclusion, diversity, democracy, skill acquisition, and examination of self and society at its core. In addition to the focus on equality, people's lives, and the history of thought and culture, multicultural pedagogy builds competencies of reading, writing, and dialogue. So when people ask, "Why teach multicultural education?" to me, that would be a little bit like asking, "Why teach math? Why teach science? Why teach history?"

Multicultural education also becomes a valuable asset for students in terms of college and work life. People who somehow either have more experiences or multicultural understanding are also more successful in handling different kinds of situations. Yes, we want to teach our students skills that will create a better society. We also want to teach skills that will help our students be successful in their futures and whatever they choose.

Why include multicultural literature in the curriculum?

Multicultural literature provides a basis for thinking of the diversity of our society, for creating a more democratic country, for presenting mirrors and windows for students of their own lives and experiences. I also believe that all of my literature is multicultural. I think it's important that school literature is diverse, but I also think that all literature can be deconstructed to look at politics and identity and power and good writing and everything else.

I think in every classroom, you want children to discover themselves as well as learn about others. When you start to look at the fabric of our American society, you want the histories and experiences of all its peoples, with examples of oppression, achievement, and specifics, reflected in your classroom. You desire such inclusion because hopefully you think such multiple truth-tellings and diversity of perspectives are right and equitable, and because you think it's what democracy should be about.

How do you approach multicultural literature when you may not have background in the culture or ethnicity presented in the literature?

You take risks, you read a lot, and you act as a facilitator to your students. Truthfully, how many texts do we teach that represent our identities? Discomfort is natural in teaching where one wants the best for students and their learning. But discomfort shouldn't be an excuse for not challenging oneself. I don't feel that as a teacher you have to be some historical or cultural expert to introduce multicultural literature. The more we can model in our classrooms that we are learners and we're in a process of inquiry as we teach over many years, the better it is for our students, and that's really the kind of modeling we want. For example, I chose Color of Water for my curriculum because, first of all, I felt that it was a beautiful book, and second, because I felt that it presented a biracial man's story in this very engaging way. When I started teaching the book, I found many other resources, started looking on the Web. I found the anthology Half and Half. I started to look for things that would help me learn more and that could also be material that I could present to my classroom.

I also think it helps to look at who is in your school and who is in your community, and how those people can be speakers or just a presence and an ally in the work that you're doing.


What does multicultural education have to offer this age group?

Junior high school students are really travelers between worlds. On one hand, they're very young children who need a lot of nurturing and support and encouragement. On the other hand, they're young adults who really need an incredible amount of challenge and independence and pushing.

Cognitively, they're really moving between concrete, literal thinking and abstract thinking. Socially, they're really asking a lot of questions about their own identity, about the world. They're both looking for role models and questioning those role models at the same time. I think it's a time when self-esteem and the development of academic competencies are really critical and that schools and educators must facilitate that kind of development.

Multicultural education, I think, speaks to that development in many ways... Cognitively, it's an education of perspectives and approaches, and really encouraging that kind of critical thought and examination of self in society. And I think it really helps kids develop a lot of tools of reading and writing, dialoguing and debate, and being able to express themselves and deal with conflict. Then secondarily, I think multicultural education helps support kids emotionally in bringing events and concerns that are a part of their lives into a classroom, into a curriculum, allowing a teacher to really see that dance between intellectual and social/emotional growth.

How did you assess your students' work over the course of the unit?

I gave my students grades of different sorts reflecting their mastery of critical thinking, reading comprehension, participation, brainstorming, writing assignments, etc. Tests and quizzes also occurred on both the literary content and the actual vocabulary of The Color of Water. Lastly, much assessment in writing comes in the form of my editorial comments, highlighting the strengths and creativity of their efforts as well as indicating areas in need of development and clarity. Rewriting is actively utilized to improve and perfect writing assignments.



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