Invitations and Negotiations

By Marie LeJeune, Ph.D. & Tracy Smiles, Ph.D., Western Oregon University

Like many of you who work with (or who are) graduate students, this is a busy time of year for us. We’re in the mad rush of the last few weeks before graduate theses are due for spring graduation and spending many hours working alongside graduate students on their research, analysis and writing. This is work we both dearly love, not only for all we see it teaching the action researchers we work with, but for all it teaches us as readers, writers, and researchers. One of our latest lessons and “aha moments”? How vital — yet slippery — claiming a theoretical framework can be for many teachers and beginning researchers. Recently we worked with a graduate student who claimed she didn’t have a theoretical framework to base her research on, even though she had a detailed research question, methodology, and data analysis plan already in place. She was working with middle school students on authentic vocabulary and language based practices and planned to incorporate rich literature selections and readalouds to investigate its impact upon students’ vocabulary growth. Trying to push her towards reflecting on the “whys” of her project—the theoretical framework she was operating from, Marie asked her (anticipating her reply), “Well if you’re working on developing vocabulary with kids why aren’t you simply doing the practices you said your principal has been encouraging, like ‘word of the day’ and vocab packets with worksheets?” Our graduate student gave us a stricken glance and said, “Well, because I would never use such inauthentic literacy practices!”
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Those "Blank Stares"

by Mary Starrs Armstrong, University of Alaska, Anchorage, AK

This Month of Mondays has challenged my thinking about a number of topics. Here are just a few:

Engaging Students
Nuser1 brought up an idea that may lead to unintended self-censorship: choosing not to teach biography (e.g.) because s/he had a depth of knowledge and background in history (e.g.) that surpassed her students’. S/he therefore avoids some of the blank stares, eyes in the lap, and other student behaviors that signify lack of knowledge, interest, or engagement.

I wonder if that’s akin to the brilliant physics professor avoiding teaching 100 level courses.

The gap between understanding what one might need to know about certain persons who contributed to the history of mankind and what students bring to the experience looms large, making the writer limit teaching something for which s/he has background, knowledge, and presumably some passion.

So, do we water down our content or sublimate our passion?
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Learning about Life through others’ Lives, Part 3

by Mary Starrs Armstrong, University of Alaska, Anchorage, AK

This is not the conventional great-teaching-deep-cultural-exploration and learning-Rosenblatt-inspired-response entry. This is a what’s-on-my-mind, I’m-exposing-my-dismal, disappointing-failure entry.

Typically, teachers use non fictional texts to explore cultures within and beyond their students’ world, knowing the importance of gaining information as they their develop a global perspective of others from the outside in; however, we’ve found that getting acquainted with characters in story may open the world to children in ways expository text doesn’t. Enter biography, with its factual base and strong narrative style to function as a literary bridge between fiction and non fiction, and a cultural link between characters’ lives and environments and our children’s lives and environments.

Children connect with story almost on a visceral level. Similarly they are fascinated by the lives of others, especially if they have a cultural framework of the times surrounding that character. Young children ages 6 – 9 are at a critical time for social and attitudinal growth. Biography can provide rich examples of problems and solutions, challenges and strategies utilized by people in history and those who are our contemporaries.

The exploration of life and culture through biography is written about eloquently in Language Arts text books, Children’s Literature text books, heralded in break-out sessions at conferences, and read about in journals. Accounts bring to light successful, upbeat lessons with widely inspiring results.

We know that one way children learn about people’s lives is through biography. They can learn about culture and environment, perseverance and persecution through biography as well. Duthie (1998) writes, “Biography and autobiography are important components of lifelong literacy … open a door for reflection and discussion, and can satiate curiosities with positive resolve at a crucial time in their development.” Who argues? What better way to grow a global perspective of others?

Well, that’s what I’d like to know. Read on:
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Learning about Life through others’ Lives, Part 2

by Mary Starrs Armstrong, University of Alaska, Anchorage, AK

Reading biographies, studying the genre while having access to a variety of titles about the same person offers choice as well as opportunities for depth and exploration. Consider Elisabeta, a Mexican American fifth grader who did not see herself as a reader, who expresses surprise at the extent she got hooked on reading about the life and work of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo:

I really don’t like [books], but if it’s something really good, if it’s about a person and I’ll want to keep wanting to learn about that person and what else they would do … when we read the biographies, I like had to read them. I picked up a couple of them and like … Frida was one of the ones. At first I read the picture book and it was pretty good, and I found another one of her and I picked it up and read it and kept reading more and more and getting hooked and I didn’t realize it … all of a sudden I was fighting people just to get the Frida books. [I was getting very interested] very. Because I don’t like reading … like her books, I just loved reading them. She would like … she went through so much stuff and life, she still kept going on and going on …Yeah! I got hooked on Frida.

Further, offering biographies of people about whom the readers have never heard fuels curiosity and hopefully, further inquiry. After reading biographies of Elvis and Amelia Earhart, Marianne, a Caucasian third grader found a biography of King Tut (Edwards 2006). She told me:
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Learning about Life through others’ Lives

by Mary Starrs Armstrong, University of Alaska, Anchorage, AK

This month I invite you to explore biographies, focusing on personal response and extensions to culture. In what ways can reading biographies, thinking and writing and talking about them inform us about ourselves as well as other cultures?

Biographies and autobiography have the unique ability to reach into the soil of human experience and till it for the reader (Duthie, 1998) as well as provide a springboard for thought and argument, inquiry and pleasure (Harvey 2002).

Through reading and responding to Harvesting Hope (Krull 2003), Mario made personal connections that evoked memories keeping him focused, interested while expanding his world.

Mario was a Mexican American fifth grader whose first language is Spanish. He quickly found parallels to events in the early life of Cesar Chavez to a few poignant experiences of his own. He told me:
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Living Between Two Cultures: A Digital Literature Discussion of Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez, Part 5

By Andrea García, Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY, and Carmen Martínez-Roldán, Universtiy of Texas, Austin, TX

Stories, novels, are the truth according to character… you are not talking about the truth universally, you are talking about the particular individual embodiment of different truths. — Julia Alvarez (2009, Radio interview KUER)

Whether multicultural literature is alien or exotic is not inherent in itself, but rather lies in the perception of the reader. From the perspective of marginalized ethnic groups this new category of literature is not alien or exotic at all. Instead, it represents their world, reflecting their images and voices. When it is incorporated into the curriculum, children from these groups find characters with whom to identify in the books they read in school. (Cai, 2002, p. 11)

In the last decade, much has been written about the multiple and contested meanings of multicultural literature. In particular, scholars focusing on this issue caution that different definitions of what constitutes multicultural education may impact the ways in which this type of literature is used in the classroom. Making a distinction between a pedagogical and a literary definition of multicultural literature, Cai (2002) writes that, “the pedagogical definition of multicultural literature is predicated on the goal that this category of literature is supposed to achieve: Creating a multicultural curriculum and implementing multicultural education” (p. 4). In this respect, multicultural literature has the potential to help expand the curriculum and bring a pluralistic perspective, one that is inclusive and democratic versus exclusive and hegemonic.
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Living Between Two Cultures: A Digital Literature Discussion of Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez, Part 4

By Andrea García, Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY, and Carmen Martínez-Roldán, Universtiy of Texas, Austin, TX

In their discussion of Return to Sender, our students expressed some of their transactions with and responses to the text through the use of Graffiti Boards. In each collective graffiti created by the teacher candidates, specific reference to the letters written by Mari appears as an important element of those transactions with the story.
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Living Between Two Cultures: A Digital Literature Discussion of Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez, Part 3

By Andrea García, Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY, and Carmen Martínez-Roldán, Universtiy of Texas, Austin, TX

“The girls told me about how they build altars to their relatives who have died, most especially the ones who’ve died in the last year,” Grandma is explaining. “So I asked them if they’d help me do one for Gramps. I don’t call it an altar,” Grandma quickly adds as if she might get in trouble with Reverend Hollister at church… “I call it a memory table.”

In Return to Sender, Alvarez’ storytelling weaves together the cultural practices that define her characters’ interactions with their worlds. Friendship, hard work, loss, and family ties, are all deeply shared values and experiences that influence how each individual character defines his/her role within the narrative.

Through events such as the transformation of the Mexican practice of creating “altars” into what Tyler’s Grandma defines as a “memory table,” we are reminded of the dynamic and ever-changing nature of culture (Nieto, 1999). Like González (2005) indicates, our day-to-day practices are always informed by multiple cultural systems, which in turn help us develop a hybrid and intercultural knowledge base of the world.

This week, we invite readers to consider the ways in which Mari and Tyler begin to discover and understand each other’s cultural identities by sharing and learning about their cultural practices. From sharing El Día de los Muertos to sharing star-gazing at night, Alvarez’ story is rich with cultural encounters between what is considered the majority and the minority culture in this story.
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Living Between Two Cultures: A Digital Literature Discussion of Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez, Part 2

By Andrea García, Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY, and Carmen Martínez-Roldán, Universtiy of Texas, Austin, TX

Literature educates not only the head, but the heart as well. It promotes empathy and invites readers to adopt new perspectives. It offers opportunities for children to learn to recognize our similarities, value our differences, and respect our common humanity. In an important sense, then children need literature that serves as a window onto lives and experiences different from their own, and literature that serves as a mirror reflecting themselves and their cultural values, attitudes, and behaviors. Bishop, cited in Wolf, 2003

Literature can become a conduit-a door-to engage children in social practices that function for social justice. Botelho & Rudman, 2009, p. 1

When inviting teachers to share their initial responses to Return to Sender, focusing on the ideas or themes that resonated personally to them as readers, Cynthia created a Graffiti Board response that zeroed in on the larger sociopolitical issues that frame the story. Return to Sender has the potential not only to serve as window and mirror for many readers but also to invite children and teachers to engage in social practices that function for social justice. Throughout the novel, Alvarez presents a multiplicity of voices on critical issues with consequences for social justice, such as the issue of immigration and undocumented immigrants. This week we would like to focus on one specific event in the story: the town meeting held in the school lunchroom. Julia Alvarez captured both the anti-immigrant discourse and a critical alternative discourse. The first discourse is represented in that scene by Mr. Rossetti who proposes, “So, I want to put a motion forward that says that anyone who’s not here legally needs to be rounded up” (p. 189), an ideology enacted in real life by Immigration and Customs Enforcement through “Operation Return to Sender” in 2006.
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Living Between Two Cultures: A Digital Literature Discussion of Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez

By Andrea García, Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY, and Carmen Martínez-Roldán, Universtiy of Texas, Austin, TX

In our work as Latina teacher educators, we prepare teachers to be successful literacy educators in a multilingual world. In our teaching, we use high quality children’s and adolescent literature in order to invite our students to read multiculturally (Hade, 1997). That is, through small group and whole class literature discussions, we engage pre-service and in-service teachers to make personal connections with the literature and to take a critical stance to explore questions that often reveal the many sociopolitical forces shaping the education of minority students in the United States. These include interpreting signs of power, race, class, and equity, among others, as they are represented in the literature.

In the past, we have selected books that address some of the familiar challenges encountered by recent immigrants to the United States, including the process of adapting to a new schooling practices and language learner. We have also used books that describe the day-to-day complexities of living in between two cultures from the perspective of cultural insiders. Examples include A Step from Heaven by An Na (2001), Tangled Threads by Pegi Deitz Shea (2003) or Behind the Mountains by Edwidge Danticat (2002)

This semester, Carmen and Andrea have planned for a Digital Literature Discussion Project with students enrolled in a graduate teacher preparation program in New York, and in an undergraduate program in Texas. During the month of March, our WOW Current posts will help to facilitate an online literature discussion of Return to Sender. This latest book by outstanding Latina writer Julia Alvarez, was recently announced as the recipient of the American Library Association’s prestigious Pura Belpré Award, which every year recognizes excellence in children and adolescent literature that “best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience.”
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