Classroom Connections Using Multimodal Artifacts

By Priscila Costa, Asiye Demir, Lauren Hunt and Julia López-Robertson, University of South Carolina

All the Stars Denied and Buried Beneath the Baobab TreeIn our 5th and final post in this series, we would like to provide teachers with ideas for how students can respond to the reading of the two novels we have been discussing– All the Stars Denied (McCall, 2018) and Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree (Nwaubani, 2018). As you might remember from reading the first article in this series, we are educators with many years of teaching experience at different settings with diverse student populations, and we see various possibilities for the use of these two texts. It has been an educating journey for each of us as we worked together to design strategies that can be implemented in classrooms at various grade levels and at various contexts. Before we present you with instructional ideas, we would like to share with you some of our personal thoughts.

Lauren Hunt: I began this week’s blog by looking back at my previous entries. It’s amazing to me how much I feel like I’ve grown and changed as a reader in such a short span of time. I am learning to become more thoughtful as a reader. I’ve begun to question literature through different lenses and to think critically about what I read. It’s been quite an interesting journey so far. I am also rethinking my practices as a literacy teacher in an effort to better reach all students.

Priscila Costa: When I was a school student, I rarely read the novels assigned by my teachers. I am not proud of it, but the fact is that the power summaries were enough for me to get the gist of the stories, and I knew what teachers and standardized tests would ask me about the texts. I focused on what Rosenblatt (1995) defines as efferent reading. Unfortunately, when I first became a teacher, I reproduced that model in my classroom. Through the readings I have done lately, as well as from the experience I have gained writing this blog, I have learned the value of the aesthetic reading. The aesthetic reading allows for the transaction between the reader and the text in the construction of meaning. If I want to inspire critical thinkers in my classrooms, I now know that I must open up spaces for my students to interact with the texts beyond the facts and evidences in them.

Asiye Demir: We read two international young adult novels that can raise many sensible but important topics, such as religion and immigration. Besides these two big focal points, both novels had other life-related sub-topics such as women’s rights, girls schooling, discrimination, etc. Both novels can be used to interpret worldwide issues in the classroom setting, and there might be many other novels toward that end. As an international adult, I was amazed by probing these novels through different theoretical lenses and catching the meaning between the lines. Moreover, practical suggestions were a very valuable contribution that I incorporated in my literacy studies. I hope my suggestions will be helpful for everybody.

Suggestions for using artifactual literacies

With these thoughts in mind, here are our final suggestions for teachers to utilize artifactual literacies as a tool for reading instruction and assessment with the two novels. Pahl and Rowsell (2010) offer that “many children do not see the relevance of ‘schooled literacy’, that is, literacy that is about the kinds of activities that are relevant to school assessment” ( p. 7). For teachers to encourage students to become lifelong readers, it is necessary to help students connect to the literature with which they interact. One way to connect literacy to the lives and experiences of readers is through artifactual literacies.

In addition to implementing the use of culturally relevant books such as All the Stars Denied or Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree, teachers should strive to create authentic experiences for readers using artifactual literacies instead of worksheets. Authentic experiences allow students to share their stories. For example, teachers may choose to help their students connect to All the Stars Denied by encouraging them to create a class quilt where each student designs a square of their interpretation of the book. This culminating activity would allow everyone the opportunity to share their voice. One idea for using artifactual literacies with Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree is to challenge students to bring an artifact to share with the class that represents what they personally value and hold as important. In the novel, Ya-Ta deeply valued education, so she may have chosen a textbook for her artifact. An activity such as this one provides a way for educators to get to know their students in a more personal and authentic way.

According to Pahl and Rowsell (2010), “many educators who have carried out projects, such as quilt making, collage or art projects, with students have reported that deep and meaningful conversations happen while students are engaged in such activities” (p. 46). Conversation and dialogue are key to student learning. Teachers must evaluate their current practices and provide authentic meaningful experiences for students to share ideas, build community and connect to literature.

One of the most ignored artifacts of books is the book covers. Many readers do not pay attention to the covers of the books except when they are buying it. If we think that we are going to use these books as a part of our academic reading, then students are not even going to look at the covers. However, book covers are produced artifacts that summarize the story. From the perspective of artifactual literacies we can use book covers as a part of the story “infused with meanings” (Pahl and Rowsell, 2010, p. vii).

Every one of us has experienced walking into a book store to browse, for personal readings, not class requirements. We look at the front and back covers. Maybe we read a couple of pages in the book. Then, we might buy a book just because we like the cover, but we might not like the story in it. This human behavior has many learning opportunities for students, even when they are adults. Hence, we strongly recommend focusing on the cover pages of the books before and after reading them.

Before reading, we can ask students to focus on the front picture and guess about the plot of the story. Maybe have them write a half-page text about their initial ideas and guesses. After reading, we can return their initial thoughts and make comparisons to see if they truly guessed some points. This activity is beneficial to improve their critical thinking since they will try to find the connections. They are going to see their biases, misunderstandings or accurate predictions about the plot.

It is undeniable that some of the publishers are not doing a good job in the design of book covers, but we have two book covers that can tell us many things about the plots. All the Stars Denied has a dark blue background with a house on the front cover. Since the title includes ‘stars’ the backdrop shows the night. The home is depicted without a roof which means something happened in there. This idea led us to look at the flames that are rising from the roof which was probably demolished by the flames. As a creative idea of the illustrator, the flames show the U.S. American flag. Then, there is an important piece of information in small letters at the bottom of the picture, “An American story of deportation and resistance.” One could have paused and thought whether something good or bad happened to that house.

The details students might give on their reflection will be a very good opportunity to reveal their biases, experiences and comments about both past and current situation of immigration around the world. Specifically, if you have immigrant students in your class or the people who are close to immigrants, this will be an excellent connection for insider ideas. “An idea can be drawn, enacted, modeled, or spoken” (Pahl and Rowsell, 2010, p. 4). That is, the front cover of this book can be connected to other pieces that are produced in different modes.

The other novel we deeply explored in this series is Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree. On the front cover, there is a huge tree, a Baobab as we guess from the title of the book, and the branches of the tree are shaped as a woman’s face toward the sky. There is a full sun (or moon) with a green background. If we consider the meaning of the green color in Islam, we will see that Muslims believe that prophet Muhammed liked green and wore it very often. This might be an over thinking, but a Muslim would identify that at first glance.

The very first page inside the book has a shadowy woman in a hijab (head scarf worn by Muslim women). This page helps us to raise habitus questions in the class. By taking from Bourdieu (1990), Pahl and Rowsell (2010) state that artifacts are bridges that can take us to habitus which is “everyday routines, household chores, household literacy practices, religious practices” (p. 8). If you have a Muslim student in the class, this artifact will help to access this information about Muslim daily life.

Among many other sub-messages of this novel, the cover page of the novel would be very effective to teach the relationship between religious practices and culture. Since the classrooms in the United States are mostly multicultural, there might be various stereotypes about Muslim clothing. Women in different cultures interpret the hijab in different ways and wear it differently. This picture illustrates obvious cultural influences on it. The depiction in the novel is only one of them.

These two texts can be combined with other books that have similar topics or be used independently. These two books covers are reading materials that contain “sedimented identities” (Pahl and Rowsell, 2010, p. 9) that can be revealed with activities and discussion. After reading, instead of requesting students to answer stale questionnaires about the text elements or to write the usual response essays, teachers may choose to propose the use of artifacts. Older students can be inspired to design variations for the book covers, advertisement pieces for the novels, videos, poems, photo exhibitions, fine-arts creations and other creative responses to the novels. For that multimodal form of assessment, we recommend that the assessment rubric be designed and negotiated with the students in advance to set clear and rigorous expectations.

Finally, since we started the blog series suggesting songs that would connect to the literature, we would like to conclude it with one more song – another artifact – that was selected by one of our colleagues and relates to both novels in different ways. Heartbeat, A Song for Syria (UNICEF, 2017), performed by 10-year-old Ansam and a choir of displaced Syrian children, has its lyrics in Arabic but the videoclip has subtitles in English. The song is a tribute to the Syrian population who has lost everything due to the war. They sing that the children’s voices may be weak, but they want to be the change. Together they can hope, be strong, and grow. The video clip is touching – amidst the war scenery, those children have bright smiles on their faces. They are the image of hope for a better future. Estrella, the protagonist of All Stars Denied, as well as Ya-Ta, the protagonist of Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree, are children who wanted their voices to be heard and who longed for justice and hope and for their childhood. The voices of your students can be heard through the discussion of literature and through the use of artifactual literacies.

Bourdieu, P. (1990). The Logic of Practice. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.
McCall, G. G. (2018). All the Stars Denied. New York, NY: Lee & Low Books.
Nwaubani, A. T. (2018). Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree. New York, N.Y.: Katherine Tegen Books.
Pahl, K., & Rowsell, J. (2010). Artifactual Literacies: Every Object Tells a Story. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Rosenblatt, L. M. (1995). Literature as Exploration (5th ed.). New York: Modern Language Association.
UNICEF. (2017, March 15). UNICEF and Regional Ambassador Zade Dirani Launch ‘Heartbeat’, A Song for Syria [Org]. Retrieved April 21, 2019, from unicef website:

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