Teaching Against the Tide: How to Teach Critical Literacy with Multicultural Texts

Sometimes surfing the internet, in this case the research archives of the International Reading Association, can yield the most interesting finds. Recently, I stumbled upon Janice Hartwick Dressel’s article “Personal response and social responsibility: Responses of middle school students to multicultural literature.” In this article, Dressel describes research into how a group of 8th graders responded to multicultural literature, in particular, how readers respond to reading books about cultures that are nondominant and different than their own.

This article fascinated me. To narrow it down a general summary of the topic:

  • Students are very much a product of their environment and readers’ experiences, prior teaching, social situations, and circumstances all impact what they take away from a text.
  • It’s difficult for students to understand other cultures through reading partly because students apply information to the text that normalize it towards their own experience.
  • In particular, students who are from the dominant-culture tend to be unaware of the advantages they have, and can be resistant to understanding how their reality and ideology shapes how they read.

And when Dressel worked with a group of middle school students, she found:

  • Students’ starting knowledge about a culture impacted their understanding and interpretation of new information in the novels they read. They tended to “hold tightly to attitudes reflective of their own cultural groups” (p. 759).
  • Students weren’t interested in exploring differences between their world-view and the one presented in the text. Instead, they understood the novels as exceptions rather than the rule. They dismissed the experiences as exceptional or irrelevant, rather than accepting that the novels posed an “alternate reality.”
  • When students were asked to identify with characters, they ended up recreating the characters to reflect a reality closer to their own.

So, we want to (and should) use multicultural literature in classrooms to build empathy and understanding, but we need to take it a step farther. We need to use multicultural literature to challenge students to think about the nuances, underlying assumptions and biases that they hold, and how their own identity shapes their interpretation of characters and character experiences. As middle school readers, in particular, develop their identity and their understanding of the world, literature still seems an ideal forum for this. Dressel identified a few ways to counteract students’ resistance and response:

  1. She had students write in a Dialogue Journal, in which they responded to the novel from the perspective of a character who was part of a nondominant group. This seemed effective—50 of 75 students felt what it was like to be part of a nondominant group.
  2. Focusing students on aspects of the text that they don’t understand, rather than spending time where they do understand, changes how students read.
  3. Before reading, students need information about the culture they’re about to explore. Simply having a lot of multicultural literature isn’t enough, students need to be taught how to ask questions and seek information about what they’re reading.
  4. Teachers need to create space for students to explore their biases, assumptions, and conclusions through private response, small group response, and then whole class response.

Perhaps the biggest shift, though, is thinking about teaching critical literacy rather than multicultural texts. That gets us more into how students are using texts and thinking, and less about the roster of books that students are exposed to.

Source: Dressel, Janice Hartwick. (2005) “Personal response and social responsibility: Responses of middle school students to multicultural literature.” International Reading Association: 750-764

The New Banned Book

Banned Books Week has come and gone, andt The Guardian recently reported a shift in why books are being challenged or banned. Sex, gender issues, and religion have been the staple of banned books, but The Guardian reports “a recent rise in efforts to get books banned that cover poverty and social class.” This list includes notable novels, like The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, and nonfiction books like Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich. (This increase in challenging nonfiction books about inequality is, I think, a particularly disturbing trend.)

In a time when there is increasing inequality alongside a better understanding of how diverse reading fosters empathy and understanding, the trend towards banning books is alarming. As Mary O’Hara writes, “[i]t is not just wealth that separates rich and poor, but ignorance and the absence of social contact.”

Reading is the only way that many of our young people will gain access to experiences that are different than their own. When I was in middle and high school, I vividly remember reading There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz and Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol. Both books shed light on a reality that was a far cry from my suburban childhood experience and helped me refine my ideas of how the world works.

It occurs to me that this trend stems directly from our comfort level. Adults are notoriously uncomfortable talking with kids about sex (hence the prevalence of banned books that are about sex), but adults are also uncomfortable talking with kids about inequality and poverty. The exact reason why we need kids to read those books is the same reason that adults want them out of schools.

We should encourage kids to read about challenging topics, even when we are uncomfortable with the subject or disagree with the author. It’s that friction that helps students grow as readers and as people. And, hopefully reading books that address inequality will challenge young readers to start asking questions that adults may not want to hear.

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Read the lists of banned books on the American Library Association web site.

Something to Talk About: Books that Demand Conversation

The New York Times recently reported on e-reading with young children—is it screen time or story time? The author points out that when young children read e-books they have lower reading comprehension, likely because the kids interact more with the device than the text. Kids also lose the social component of reading; in terms of learning, interacting with a screen is still no match for real-life conversation.

While I’m sure that reading e-books can be beneficial, especially as kids get older and are using interactive books during playtime, engaging kids with print books provides more than an e-reader can. The article mentions how parents were redirecting their kids’ use of the interactive storybook, making the experience about the device rather than the text. It occurs to me that that’s one of the nice things about reading a book—it’s all about time. When parents are reading with their kids, they have to be one-on-one (or two or three-on-one, but still, a low ratio). That ratio opens up a different type of interaction for parents and kids.

Of course, great kids books provide tons to talk about, from the pictures to what happens next. Still, in the spirit of early reading conversations, I’ve compiled a list of books that demand participation from the youngest readers:

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Are You a Cow? and Moo, Baa, LaLaLa by Sandra Boynton

Both of these books ask students to chime in either by confirming that they are NOT a pig, lamb, or hippo, or adding their voice to the mix of animal sounds.

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Home for a Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown

This book is also filled with questions and ponderings about where a bunny could live as he hops from animal house to house.

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Mr. Brown can Moo, Can You? By Dr. Seuss

Implicit in the title, Mr. Brown expects us to make noises just to show that we can.

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Don’t Let the Pidgeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems

Willems is a master at creating space for conversation in his books and the pidgeon books present one character that kids can talk back to.

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What do You do with a Tail Like This? by Steve Jenkins

This book, more informational than narrative, encourages kids to put their knowledge of animals to work as they talk about noses, tails, and more.

Mirrors and Windows: Adding Diversity to the Common Core Reading List

The Wall Street Journal recently featured an article about the Common Core’s

Appendix B and multicultural literature. The authors, Jane Gangi, associate professor at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, NY and Nancy Benfer, 4th grade teacher at Bishop Dunn Memorial School, point out that, “of the 171 texts recommended for elementary children in Appendix B of the Common Core, there are only 18 by authors of color, and few books reflect the lives of children of color and the poor.”

Children need books that show them a mirror—reflect their own identity and experience—and a window—that let them see into others’ experiences (metaphor from Rudine Sims Bishop, professor emerita of The Ohio State University). Teachers are using Appendix B as a starting point to find texts so the more guidance we can provide on which texts will reach, inspire, and engage students of color (close to 50% of American students) and children who are poor (22% of students), as well as providing students who are White and middle or upper class with an understanding of other experiences, the better.

Gangi and Benfer, with The Collaborative for Equity in Literacy Learning, have compiled lists of multicultural titles that could be incorporated into the Appendix for readers in grades K-5. The lists have yet to be incorporated into the Common Core. (Stay tuned to Teaching Tolerance for the updated list.)

After reading Gangi and Benfer’s article, I wondered about the Appendix B list for middle school. So, I took a look and found more diversity in the stories (5 out of 10 represented a multicultural perspective, including Laurence Yep’s Dragonwings, Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry, and Sandra Cisneros’ Eleven). The poetry list also included different perspectives (5 out of 12 poems were written by diverse poets) including Langston Hughes, Pablo Neruda, and Gary Soto. Among the informational texts, 3 out of 23 titles featured a multicultural focus.

Still, the range of diversity presented was limited, and teachers and students would benefit from an increased range of diverse texts. Middle school students are ready to tackle current events and real world topics, so reading books that represent diversity in all its forms (racial, ethnic, geographic, ability, etc) is imperative.

I searched for books that represent quality literature for middle schoolers and that address key elements of diversity. While finding a range of characters and topics was easy, honing in on more specific aspects of diversity was more challenging. Here is a (hardly exhaustive) list of 15 books that add a range of diversity that starts to reflect today’s experience to Appendix B:

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Racial and Ethnic Diversity

Hush by Jacqueline Woodson

Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez

The Skin I’m In by Sharon Flake

Monster by Walter Dean Myers

Mexican Whiteboy by Matt De La Pena

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Diversity of Ability

Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper

Wonder by R. J. Palacio

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

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Diversity of Geography, Region, and Nationality

The Breadwinner Series by Deborah Ellis

Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez

Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier

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Diversity of Sexuality

Absolutely Positively Not by David LaRochelle

Am I Blue? Coming Out of the Silence by Maria Dan Bauer

Out of the Pocket by Bill Koningsburg

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Diversity of Socio-Economic Status

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Kira Kira by Ann Jaramillo

This list is, of course, by no means complete. What other books would you add?

Extending the Discussion: Can We Continue the Conversation about Ferguson?

It’s been more than a month since the shooting in Ferguson, and schools across the country are now in session. This conversation is still relevant: more news from Ferguson, MO made the paper today, PBS organized a recent town hall meeting, and #FergusonSyllabus has sparked discussion on Twitter.

I wonder what kinds of conversations are happening in classrooms. Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich’s recent blog post Justice on the Lesson Plan, encourages teachers to engage students in a dialogue about power, race, and justice (and includes some wonderful resources). But, I admit I’m not optimistic.

First, I wonder how much time teachers are able to devote to these complex discussions. In order to effectively explore this topic students have to understand the issue, work with and through empathy, analyze and evaluate complex ideas, and be willing to participate in uncomfortable conversations. Facilitating these kinds of discussions is no easy task. I’d argue that they are some of the most challenging conversations that teachers will lead all year. I wonder how many teachers have been adequately prepared to lead students into conversations that are uncomfortable for most adults as well—my suspicion is not many. In order for schools to be a true vehicle for change we have to train teachers how to lead effective discussions about issues like Ferguson, and give them time to work with these topics everyday.

It also occurs to me that these discussions are best had in heterogeneous classrooms where a myriad of experiences and perspectives are represented. Unfortunately, those classrooms are few and far between. (Not to say that students don’t benefit from conversation, they do, but it is much easier to build empathy when students can have experiences with peers who represent opposing perspectives.)

This reminds me of my experience teaching special education in a school in Washington, DC where 99% of the students were African American and all but two teachers (me and another teacher) were African American. One of my fourth grade students approached me one day, holding the picture of her brother. He had been shot by a white police officer. “I hate white people,” she said.

“But,” I said, “I’m white.”

“No you’re not,” she responded, “I like you.”

Ultimately, for the larger conversation about Ferguson, and other issues around race and power to change, the smallest conversations, like the one, have to change first.

To start the discussion with your students, here’s an article from PBS about How to Talk to Students about Ferguson. Also, a book list of texts that can be used to teach that, as Rhuday-Perkovich puts it, Black Youth Matter can be found at her blog post. Personally, I recommend reading Rita Garcia-Williams and Jacqueline Woodson.