Culturally Relevant Materials: Building Community In the Classroom

By Lauren Hunt, Lori Deese, & Lisa Stockdale, Kershaw County School District, Camden, SC, Julia López-Robertson, University of South Carolina

In The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano, Manzano captures the struggles that are often part of mother-daughter relationships. Yet, in the end, the three females (Evelyn, her mother, and her grandmother), all gain better perspectives of themselves and each other. This story would most likely resonate with many teenagers because of the struggles teens face as they move from adolescence to adulthood. This book could be potentially more powerful for English Learners (ELs) who struggle not only with this rite of passage, but also having to face it in a country that is not their first home. I especially think of the Dreamers whose parents came to America searching for better lives for their families. I wonder if these students have difficulty understanding their parents desires to hold tightly to the ways of their country while they are fervently seeking to become a part of American culture. As a teacher, I wonder how I can best meet these students’ unique needs.

Reading this book makes me think beyond my life and about how other people are connected to their communities or families. This extends to having community within the classroom, which we do well at our small community school. Several years back, I started interviewing my students on the first few days of school–not just the normal sheet but a real sit down private time in the back of my room. I ask questions and make notes in a notebook. I learn so much about the children I get to work with in that year and at the end of the year I do the same. I like to see how much has changed in their lives and things that have brought them joy throughout the school year.

Change is a pervasive theme throughout this book–from the sociopolitical changes resulting from the Civil Rights Movement both in the nation and in el barrio to the personal changes in identity occurring within the characters. As Evelyn learns more about her sociocultural heritage and begins to take pride in it, the whole way in which she perceives herself in the world begins to evolve. She recognizes her potential to be an agent of change and she embraces her cultural identity as a Puerto Rican girl living in Spanish Harlem.

Using books such as The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano and other culturally relevant (CR) materials with English learners allows students to see their own lives represented within texts and acknowledges and honors students’ home languages and cultures. By choosing CR texts and materials, teachers open space in class discussions for multiple viewpoints to be heard, support students’ identities as bilingual learners and enhance all of their students’ understandings of the reading and writing process. Purposefully selecting meaningful CR instructional materials instead of assuming that state or district-recommended resources will meet students’ needs is one step that teachers can make toward creating more culturally relevant and responsive classrooms.

Another way in which teachers can work toward creating more culturally relevant and responsive classrooms is to be mindful of how much teacher-talk versus student-talk is taking place. In many traditional classrooms, teachers tend to monopolize student discussions and activities and do not provide enough wait-time to allow students, particularly ELs, to adequately process their responses. While most students benefit from ample opportunities to use their language(s) in authentic social situations, many American classrooms provide far too little time in the day and maintain schedules that are far too rigid for students to engage in authentic talk. In the culturally responsive setting, however, teachers encourage more student-lead dialogue and are willing to relinquish sole control of classroom discussions. By planning more student-centered instruction, teachers give their students ownership in their own learning.

CR teachers recognize that students from diverse backgrounds bring a wealth of knowledge into the classroom and are careful to give students opportunities to demonstrate ways in which they are experts in various fields. Students reading The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano may be able to speak to the preparation of Puerto Rican or Latino foods, the intended meanings of phrases such as tapar el cielo con la mano and the similarities and differences between their home cultures and Evelyn’s. Implementing culturally responsive pedagogy allows teachers to better understand students’ sociocultural backgrounds and their funds of knowledge. In culturally responsive classrooms diversity and bilingualism are celebrated. Language and literacy are fostered through meaningful, authentic communication that mimics the “real-life” experiences of how people learn in the real world.

Resources for locating high quality Latino Children’s Literature:
Pura Belpre Award
The Pura Belpré Award, established in 1996, is presented to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth. It is co-sponsored by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association (ALA), and the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish-Speaking (REFORMA), an ALA Affiliate.

The award is named after Pura Belpré, the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library. As a children’s librarian, storyteller and author, she enriched the lives of Puerto Rican children in the U.S. through her pioneering work of preserving and disseminating Puerto Rican folklore.

Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award
Texas State University College of Education created The Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award in 1995 to honor authors and illustrators who create literature that depicts the Mexican American experience. It is named in honor of Texas State University distinguished alumnus Dr. Tomás Rivera.

Américas Award
The Consortium of Latin American Studies Programs [CLASP] founded the Américas Award in 1993 to encourage and commend authors, illustrators and publishers who produce quality children’s and young adult books that portray Latin America, the Caribbean, or Latinos in the United States, and to provide teachers with recommendations for classroom use. CLASP offers up to two annual book awards, together with a commended list of titles.

Journey through Worlds of Words during our open reading hours: Monday-Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

3 thoughts on “Culturally Relevant Materials: Building Community In the Classroom

  1. Teri Davis says:

    Using cultural relevant texts is such an important part of our classrooms. Exposing our students to different cultures can create adults who have honor and respect for all, not just tolerance.

    I agree this would be an amazing book to share with teens who are in the adolescent to adult shift in their lives. It holds a powerful message in the importance of our families and culture that they often try their best to run away from.

  2. Kerry Nemetz says:

    Now more than ever I believe it is imperative for teachers to use culturally relevant texts in the classroom. I am definitely adding this book to my reading list. I believe reading culturally relevant books is essential for teachers. Our classrooms are growing more diverse and we as teachers must try to view things from our students’ points of view.

    Culturally relevant books give students an opportunity to see themselves in different texts. This allows students to feel that their culture is acknowledged and valued. Many books that we read throughout school focus on white males and families. Teachers can provide other points of view by using culturally relevant books in their classrooms.

    It is important for all students to feel valued and important in the classroom. There are many ways for teachers to create a more culturally relevant classroom where all students feel included and valued. Culturally relevant books are just the beginning. Teachers should give students opportunities to share their diverse backgrounds and the things that make them special. Teachers can also provide time where students lead the classroom/small groups or provide opportunities for students to share things that are important to them.

  3. Tara says:

    I agree that students from diverse backgrounds bring a wealth of knowledge into our classrooms. Many times, these students are forgotten or pushed aside because of language barriers or such, but this should not be the case. In my classroom I try to find ways to include my EL students every day, if not in the whole group setting then definitely in a small group setting. For the EL students, oftentimes, they are more comfortable adding their voice to discussions in small group settings. I believe this is mainly due to the fact that their small group usually consist of peers that are on their same reading or math level and they feel comfortable sharing within the group. Often, these small group interactions allow me to bring our discussion to the whole group, where they are able to now share more comfortable having already discussed it with myself and their familiar small group. By the end of the school year, they are comfortable enough with themselves and their classmates to share information and join in most any discussion that may happen in the classroom. Teachers should use any and all opportunities to include culturally diverse students in classroom conversations whenever possible. These students have a wealth of information to share.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *