Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources 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 4: Research and Discovery - An Na, Edwidge Danticat, Laurence Yep, and more
Overview
Authors and Literary Works
Video Summary
Teaching Strategies
Commentary
Kathryn Mitchell Pierce
Jerome Harste
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
Jerome Harste
Professor
Indiana University

Talk about the use of text sets in Kathryn Mitchell Pierce's classroom.

Kathryn essentially is allowing time for the kids to sort of wonder and wander their way into this topic and find their own inquiry questions -- their own slant on things. And that's absolutely marvelous, because then when she gets about the business of introducing novels, kids already can begin to have reasons for selecting the particular novel that they wish to read and discuss in their literature circles.

Truth is relative to our experience, and while that can be disconcerting to children initially, it's very important if we want to create active decision makers and thinkers that we give opportunities for kids to bump into interesting ideas. You really don't recognize an interesting idea until you've had the opportunity to actually encounter one and find one for yourself that intrigues you. That's why in putting together text sets, you want books that really rub against each other. In a text set, those books really rub against other books and can start wonderful conversations.

Also, you know, authors are fallible and have distinct points of view, and that's why it's important to use multiple texts because then an author becomes a real person and that author can then be questioned. And then we're getting the kind of questioning, the kind of active decision making that we need from the students. Alfie Kohn said, "When we lose sight of the person behind the words, we forget that those words can be challenged."

I see the role of multicultural books in multicultural literacy as providing multiple voices on the table. When you've got different stories being told around the common theme, kids have to begin to see that there're different authors, there are different truths. Those different truths can be unsettling to kids, but they get a whole lot closer to the author in that process and they begin to see what it is that authors do. I also think that by having texts butt up against each other, what you do is make clear the systems of meaning that were operating during the period of the book being written and that are still in place in society today. Multicultural literacy, besides giving multiple voices and exposing systems of meaning, really causes you to be reflective.

Where do you see social justice fitting into the curriculum?

Sometimes I think when I'm talking to teachers and I'm saying to them that curriculum has to deal with issues of social justice, they may feel, "Oh, good grief! Now here's another expert coming in telling me what curriculum has to cover." But if you think about curriculum as a metaphor for the lives you want to live and the people you want to be, then you have to create in your classroom a space so you can be different from what you've learned. So often curriculum stays sort of at an intellectual level, but not at a social practice level. And what we need to do, it seems to me, is open up space in our classrooms so that kids can position themselves differently, take on a different way of talking, a different way of being in the world. And so that phase of social justice is crucial in terms of making a difference; that really makes a difference.

Why is it important to challenge students to see more than one point of view?

I think that teachers and kids should explore themes critically. To me this means that you've got to disrupt the commonplace; you've got to interrogate multiple viewpoints, always asking yourself, "Whose story is this, and what stories aren't we hearing?" All texts are political. And we have to look at how privilege and language and power are impacting all of us. And then I think we have to think about taking action to promote social justice. How do we want to talk about this differently than we have in the past? How are we going to position ourselves differently, now that we know what we know? What kind of new social action should we be taking? How do we want to position ourselves outside of the classroom?

I think curriculum should never just perpetuate sort of the dominant thought; it should always put dominant thought in tension -- that is, dominant ways of thinking about a topic have to be juxtaposed against nondominant ways of thinking about a topic. That doesn't mean that dominant thought is necessarily wrong, but it's only in tension that you can bring ... the dominant systems of meaning that are operating into conscious awareness. Once you have conscious awareness, then you can begin to examine such things as: How is language positioning people and giving that dominant position power? What other kinds of language and what other kinds of positioning are available? By putting it in tension, you are in fact raising a conscious awareness that allows for ... bigger conversations to take place. We can explore alternate ways of talking and actively take agency in creating a different kind of world.

As an activity, one of the things I often do with literature discussions is give students a big sheet of paper, and I'll just have them draw a learning cycle on their sheet of paper. I'll ask them to identify six turning points in the story and at each turning point, to say what was the character fighting against at that point in time. What was the system of meaning that was operating or that was in place that the character wanted to change, and what changes were desired?

What do you say to teachers new to the inquiry approach to teaching and learning?

In an inquiry-based curriculum it's important for kids to pursue their own inquiry questions. As you can see, in Kathryn's classroom that doesn't mean it's a free-for-all. And you can see the kind of potential and direction that the kids' topics can go to. But you do have to be able to have surprises; you've got to be able to tolerate surprises. And in actual fact, you learn in this process, because oftentimes the student will take a question in a direction and you may say, "Geez! Where's that going to go?" and all of a sudden you find out, well, you've learned something new yourself.

For me, education as inquiry is a philosophical position about what an education should be. It's not the transmission of knowledge; it's giving kids agency to explore their own issues. But it also means for me that the teacher needs to be an inquirer. The teacher has to demonstrate what it means to be constantly learning, constantly using the kids in their classrooms and others around them to outgrow themselves.

So for me the whole of education is about inquiry. It's about learning. So often our schools get anchored on discipline or on standards or on benchmarks, but schools have to reflect what we know about the learning process. Curriculum has to be anchored on our knowledge of the learning process.

That's why we need opportunities to have conversations with others. We have to have opportunities to wonder and wander and find our inquiry questions. We have to be able to take time to be reflective and to think about how we now think about things: What's changed because I've learned these kinds of things? We have to think about how we're going to talk in the world differently, how we're going to position ourselves differently. But our models of how we set up the classroom have to be based on what and how we conceptualize learning to be.

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