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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 5: Historical and Cultural Context
Overview
Authors and Literary Works
Video Summary
Teaching Strategies
Commentary
Laina Jones
Tonya Perry
Peggy McIntosh
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
Tonya Perry
Instructor
University of Alabama at Birmingham

Why is the historical context of The Watsons Go to Birmingham -- 1963 significant?

It's very important that the readers understand the historical context of this story, or else they won't understand the obstacles the family faces; for example, why the family can't simply stop at any hotel or restaurant as they drive south. So when you teach multicultural literature, it's very important for you to first research and develop an understanding of the culture and what was happening during the time period of the literature, just as Laina Jones has done. And then Laina uses a variety of activities to scaffold the learning for her students, giving them the opportunity to contextualize the story and internalize the characters' struggles. For example, the frozen tableaux and the radio play help the students feel as though they're actually in the South during the civil rights movement, taking part in events that happened then. Even though they're not acting out scenes from The Watsons, they're gaining an understanding of the setting and the struggles that people like the Watsons had.

What are some of the ways that social justice issues are infused throughout the novel?

The Watsons Go to Birmingham -- 1963 has several lessons to teach middle school students, and one lesson is to accept yourself as you are. Within the text, there is a scene in which 13-year-old Byron gets a conk, straightens his hair. His mother is very disappointed because she wants Byron to be proud of who he is and wants him to keep his hair as he was born with it. Byron, on the other hand, wants to have what the world sees as "better" hair.

A teacher might want to ask students: "What does it mean to be yourself and be proud of who you are? What is it that you bring to the table that's so unique that it makes you who you are? How do we react to people who look different from us, and how should we react?" We can talk about diversity and multiculturalism by having the students reflect on what they bring to the table as well as how they respond to differences that others bring to the table.

This text is so rich with examples of the children learning to accept themselves and be proud of who they are. I think, as a teacher, it's important to scaffold the learning for the students and take the time to investigate the passages that deal with diversity. Byron's hair is one example, and another is when the youngest child, Joetta, chooses a white baby doll over a black baby doll. I remember in my own classroom stopping and having the students talk about Joetta's choice of dolls. At first, they didn't see anything wrong with her choosing the white doll over the black doll. And in our world, there probably isn't anything wrong with it, because it's just a matter of choice -- that's the way the students were looking at it. Then I asked them, "Why did she choose the white doll over the black doll?" And the students stopped and thought, "Maybe the white doll was prettier." And then I asked, "What would make her prettier than the black doll?" and "Why would Joetta think that feature was better?" As I continued to question them and they thought more deeply, they began to understand a little bit about the choices Joetta was making and how she was influenced by society.


How does Laina encourage open, respectful discussions?

When we're teaching multicultural literature, it's very important to bring in every student's understanding of the text. If you only have whole-class discussions, then inevitably you're going to lose some of the richness; you might not recognize some of the issues that kids will think are pertinent. If students have the support of literature circles, they can identify and explain those issues in their groups, and later they can share them with the whole class. I think that the literature circle strategy is an excellent way to address issues that come out of multicultural literature because it's guided by the students -- the students lead the discussion, they come up with questions that are relevant to them, they find vocabulary words that are of interest to them, they illustrate the text in a way that's relevant to what they see in it. That's the difference -- whole-class instruction typically comes from the teacher's point of view, and literature circle discussions come from the students.

In the frozen tableau activity, we see a good example of how Laina helps the students build from looking at literature on the literal level ("Who is in this photograph, and what is going on in this photograph?") to the interpretive level ("What do you think the people in the photograph are feeling?") and to the analytic level ("How do you feel when you look at this photograph?"). Rather than telling them what is going on in the pictures, which would have been easier for her, she allows the students to take chances. The English language arts class that discusses multicultural literature is a place where students can take chances, learn about other cultures, and expand on their thoughts. When we talk about multicultural literature, sometimes students have things to say that may be false or offensive, but this is the place for them to explore these ideas and have these discussions so they can learn from the experience. Where else in society will they be able to do this? Where else will they be able to challenge their own thoughts or bring their own stereotypes to the table and confront them? Laina shows her students that the classroom is a safe place to do that when she allows them to take chances as they discuss what they think is happening in the photographs, and at the same time, why it's happening.

How might a teacher handle comments that may be inaccurate or offensive?

If you've decided that teaching multicultural literature is something that's important in your classroom, setting up the learning environment is extremely important. A multicultural classroom has to have the support of a teacher and students who understand that everyone is going to be taking chances, including the teacher. All of us come to the table with stereotypes or biases that we don't always know are stereotypes or biases. It's important that you establish guidelines, prior to going into a piece of literature, for how the class will deal with differences of opinion, and particularly, what people should say if they feel offended. One way to handle this is to give each student a note card and say, "If you're offended by something, I want you to write it on your note card so I can see it when I walk around, and you and I can talk about it before we have a discussion with the rest of the class." Or, if your classroom environment is conducive to having a whole-class discussion right away, you can have the student raise his or her hand and say, "I'm offended, and let me tell you why." And then the person responding would say, "I'm still not sure why you're offended," or "I understand why you're offended now that you've explained this to me." In the English language arts classroom, we're teaching kids not only how to read and analyze literature but also how to communicate. It's very important for them to learn how to handle situations in which something has been said that offends them or goes against what they believe.

In Laina's classroom, you can see that she has set up a community of learners who trust each other. Laina's students understand that this literature takes place during a time period when people were struggling for equal rights. Laina crafts the frozen tableaux and radio play activities very carefully, allowing people to play different roles. For example, she has African American students playing the roles of victims and the roles of people who are accosting others. She makes sure all the students play different roles so they get an opportunity to feel the way other people felt. This helps establish a safe environment in which students feel free to take chances in their conversations.

Talk about Christopher Paul Curtis's visit to the classroom.

All of us would love to have Christopher Paul Curtis visit our classrooms in person, but there are several things that we can do to have him come to our classrooms in other ways. One way we can do this is by using Web sites and videos that have interviews with him about his life and how he's used what he knows to write his texts. Another way is to talk with other teachers who have had the opportunity to meet Christopher Paul Curtis and interact with him personally, and they can share what he had to say that would illuminate the text, or enlighten your students about the writing process.

I think access to the author can be illuminating for the teacher and the students in two ways. From a cultural standpoint, it provides background that is important to understanding literature: information about the author, what he or she is bringing to the text, and how he or she came up with the idea for the story. It's also important because it helps the students understand what writers do. Sometimes people, and middle school students in particular, believe that writing somehow comes from your head and appears on a sheet of paper. And when you ask middle school students to write, they think, "I could never write like Christopher Paul Curtis." Well, it will help them to hear what he has to say about writing, because every writer I've ever heard has talked about the struggles involved with writing, the regimen it takes to write, and how many drafts have to be written before a writer is satisfied with the text. It's an example for the students, and it may help them see themselves as writers and see that it's possible for them to share their stories with other people; that their stories are just as important as anyone else's stories.


What is significant about the writing activities in Laina's classroom?

The writing process allows students to think and to grow as thinkers. Making choices about what you write about, and making decisions about how to present it, are part of the thinking process. In the video program, we see Laina encouraging students to make decisions throughout the process of writing and revising their books. When she conferences with a student, instead of telling her what to change, she asks questions about the decisions the student has made. The student then has to think critically about how she's going to proceed, and that's one way that students learn to be thinkers.

We teachers sometimes think that by correcting our students, by showing them exactly what's wrong with their work, we're helping them improve. As Laina has shown us through this video, we actually get the most thought and growth out of students when we question them and let them come to terms with their own thinking about their writing and decide what they need to do to improve it. Here's a strategy that teachers might want to try in order to help their students through the writing process. Let's say you're reviewing a student's writing after you've taught a lesson on commas. You might say, "Remember what we did earlier today in class? I want you to revisit your notes on that, and see if you can apply it to this paragraph." Sometimes they'll be able to do it, and sometimes they'll have questions for you, but that's how they'll learn.

There's a saying that "He who works the hardest learns the most." Most teachers are very smart people because they work very hard, but what we want is for our students to think and learn, and Laina shows us how to do that through questioning. The result is that the students come to depend on themselves, not on the teacher, for their thinking and learning.

What can students learn from writing the children's books and sharing them with younger students?

There are several stages to the writing process, including brainstorming, drafting, and editing, and the final stage is publication. Usually, the teacher is the final audience for the published piece, but middle school students like having a different audience occasionally. Some of them will feel more invested in the project if they know that it will be read by someone other than the teacher. Laina has done two things here. In addition to giving her students a new audience, she's enabling them to contribute something to their community. They are enriching the education of other children in their community by passing on their knowledge to a younger generation. That's what we want for middle school students, who are self-absorbed by nature. She's making them stretch: getting them to see the larger world and the fact that they can affect the larger world. It's very important that we produce students who are not only interested in who they are, but in sharing who they are with other people. That's what multicultural literature is about. It's not about keeping your knowledge about your culture to yourself, it's about sharing it with other people and helping others learn more about you and learn to accept you for what you bring to the table.



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