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Multicultural Literature Helps Middle Schoolers with Search for Identity

TeachMultiLitAs immigration reform is debated in the halls of Congress and in communities across the nation, now is a good time to shine a spotlight on the contributions that immigrants are making to American culture and commerce. Annenberg Learner offers dozens of resources for teaching and learning about immigrant experiences, but in honor of Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, I’m going to hone in on some strategies for teaching multicultural literature. The workshop series Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades demonstrates how teachers across the country are using literature to engage students in reading and responding to the work of writers such as Gish Jen, Tina Yun Lee and Lemsey Namioka.

The works that you will see students exploring in Workshop 1, for example, focus on the theme of dual-identity and the challenges of trying to fit into a new culture while honoring family heritage. These themes are a perfect fit for middle grade students who are often struggling to form and express their own identities.

For example, students will relate warmly to Gish Gen’s character Mona Chang from the story “What Means Switch” who was “ad-libbing [her] way through eighth grade.” As teacher Carol O’Donnell points out, “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.”

O’Donnell uses poetry, short stories and biography to give students insight into the authors’ experiences with being perceived as “other.” The literature also serves as a springboard to discussion of their own experiences with identity issues, bias, and self-discovery. O’Donnell uses structured Peer Facilitation Circles as a strategy to help students make deep explorations of the readings and appreciate these authors’ voices as part of the American story. In the Workshop 1 video, you will see students who take responsibility for their own learning and show genuine respect for their peers’ thoughts and opinions.

The work of many Asian-Pacific American writers is featured throughout the eight Teaching Multicultural Literature workshops. You’ll find content and strategies that fit your students’ interests and needs. When you introduce these writers to your students, some will see mirror images of themselves; some will see worlds they didn’t know existed. How do you use the richness of multicultural literature to engage your students?

 

Monday Motivation: Read and Write Poetry to Explore Identity

NaomiShihabNye

Carol O’Donnell’s students discuss dual identities, being caught between two worlds, in Teaching Multicultural Literature, workshop 1, “Engagement and Dialogue.” Poetry written by Naomi Shihab Nye is used to introduce the concept of exploring one’s own identity.

Naomi Shihab Nye was born in Missouri to an American mother and Palestinian father. She has lived in old Jerusalem and San Antonio, Texas and traveled to the Middle East and Asia.  Her work incorporates the voices and perspectives of Mexican Americans and Arab Americans. Nye is inspired by small things and everyday events, and she journals “because I wanted to remember everything. The quilt, the cherry tree, the creek. The neat whop of a baseball rammed perfectly with a bat. My father’s funny Palestinian stories.”  See more about Nye here and read her poem Half-and-Half here. Use her story and poetry to inspire your students to think about their own identities and what it means to be part of a multicultural community- whether your definition of community is as small as a classroom or as big as the world.

Nye says in an ALAN review: “Anyone who feels poetry is an alien or ominous force should consider the style in which human beings think. “How do you think,” I ask my students. “Do you think in complete, elaborate sentences? In fully developed paragraphs with careful footnotes? Or in flashes and burst of images, snatches of lines leaping one to the next, descriptive fragments, sensory details?” We think in poetry. But some people pretend poetry is far away.