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.


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

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:


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


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


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


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


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.

On Diversity: Disability in Children’s Literature

The recent posts I’ve done about diversity got me thinking about how the diversity of ability is portrayed in kids’ books. As a special education teacher, I tried to incorporate books with characters that my students could relate to and found that (perhaps no surprise here) the identities of my students with disabilities were as varied as their disability classifications.


Teaching students with learning disabilities, the book that was most reflective of my students’ experience was Eleven by Patricia Reilly Giff about a boy who struggles with reading. I’ve also seen middle schoolers engage with the theme of identity and disability by reading Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper. Still, I wonder if diversity and disability in children’s books follows a similar pattern as ethnic and racial diversity—when a book features a character with a disability, the disability is the main focus of the book or character. 

“Perhaps no group has been as overlooked and inaccurately presented in children’s books as individuals with disabilities,” wrote Joan Blaska in Disability Studies Quarterly in 2004. She points out that children with disabilities were either left out, or included as pitiful or burdensome characters. A 1992 study that reviewed 500 books for young children, found that 2% or ten books included people with disabilities, and only six of those books featured kids with disabilities who were central to the story. In comparison, according to the U. S. Census 19% of Americans report having a disability in 2010. 

Blaska also identified ten criteria that we can use to assess how children with disabilities are incorporated into children’s literature. We should promote books with characters that:

  1. Promote empathy,
  2. Depict acceptance,
  3. Emphasize success,
  4. Promote positive images,
  5. Promote an accurate image of a disability,
  6. Demonstrate respect,
  7. Promote an inclusive “one of us” attitude,
  8. Use people-first language,
  9. Promotes a realistic portrayal of a disability, and
  10. Provides realistic illustrations.

Essentially, characters with disabilities should reflect the actual life experiences of kids with disabilities—they’re friends, students, math-afficionados, video gamers, artists, future chefs, and a myriad of other identities and qualities in addition to having autism, ADHD, a learning disability, or a physical disability. 

It occurs to me that reading about multi-dimensional characters who have disabilities in children’s literature, is important for a variety of reasons—literature serves as a mirror and a way for children to understand the world, it also helps students develop empathy, and normalizes experiences. For children, reading about dynamic, robust characters who are more than their disability, can help them gain an understanding of what it means to have a disability, and how to befriend and engage with children who have an obvious difference. Reading helps children “act out” how to handle situations that are uncomfortable or out of their normal experience, and quality characters with disabilities can help set the stage for children to befriend and engage with the people they meet who have disabilities.

That said, there are books to turn to that address disability in deep, meaningful ways. Rules by Cynthia Lord and Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine feature characters who have autism. Joey Pigza Swallowed a Key by Jack Gantos addresses ADHD. And, Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick combines image and text to tell a story about a character who is deaf. The next step is to publish more books that feature these engaging, memorable characters with disabilities, and to incorporate children with disabilities into children’s literature for who they are rather than because of the disability they represent.

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(For more, here’s a list of books that address diversity and ability from the ALA. And,

Susan Nussbaum also reflected on how disability is represented in literature for The Huffington Post.)





Addressing Gender and Diversity Gaps with Fiction

This article by Julie Drew it today’s Huffington Post caught my eye. Apparently, adolescents are reading tomes (think the Harry Potter series at more than 4,000 pages in total and books like Divergent by Veronica Roth at almost 500 pages) and at record pace. “Young adults want to read,” writes Drew, “good stories, told well, fiction that speaks to the current young lives and that helps them imagine how they could and should act upon the world as adults.”

I’m always surprised at the idea that teens don’t want to read. Kids love books; they love good, strong stories that are engaging (just like adults). Which makes sense, as surveys show, kids and young adults read for fun. Given that, the current YA landscape is a fantastic place to read.

Drew’s article also reminded me of the recent research (see Scientific American and Edutopia) about how reading fiction cultivates empathy. Given the awareness that children growing up today have about conflict, strife, and uncertainty (true-life stories about bad economies, global warming, wars, are just a quick search away), gaining understanding, different perspectives, and problem solving ideas, seems a wonderful reason to read and write for teens. 

Even as literacy rates rise, there is a persistent gender gap; boys consistently score higher in science than girls. This presents an opportunity for YA authors to incorporate science into books that teens will love, and for teachers to start aligning YA fiction with informational text that supports the content behind each plotline. It’s intriguing to think how this shift could impact how teens develop their own perspectives. As Drew writes, “young adult literature, perhaps more than any other commercial genre, contributes to shaping the worldviews of its formative readers.” 

This is where I see YA literature, gender and diversity gaps, and the Common Core colliding. Teaching engaging literature that showcases characters of gender and ethnic diversity alongside informational text that builds students’ technical and science knowledge. After all, as Madeline L’Engle once said, “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”