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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Teaching Biography: Learning about Life through Others’ Lives

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

Harvesting Hope: teaching biography to enrich cultural knowledgeThis 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)

Graffiti Board response to Return to Sender

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

Image of graffiti board in response to Return to Sender

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.”
Drawing of a reader response diagram for Return to Sender
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

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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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Interview with Yuyi Morales, Part 4

by Jeanne Fain, Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, TN and Julia López-Robertson, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC

We wanted to hear Yuyi’s insights on publishing and inquire about her future plans. Additionally, we wanted to end our blog with children’s responses to Yuyi’s work. We asked our colleague Robin Horn from Galveston Elementary in Chandler, AZ and a preschool teacher associate of Julia’s at Spears Creek Road Child Development in Elgin, SC to share responses from Yuyi’s new book with Tony Johnston, My Abuelita. The children responded sharing their stories and connections with the book.

Jeanne: What are your thoughts about children’s publishing especially in regards to bilingual children’s literature?
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Interview with Yuyi Morales, Part 3

by Jeanne Fain, Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, TN and Julia López-Robertson, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC

I have been questioned about my use of Yuyi Morales’s skeletal Señor Calavera in preschool classrooms. Some teachers were initially hesitant to read about him, so I asked Yuyi about her perspectives on him. I wanted to get the insider’s perspective on him and I wanted to hear what children had to say about him. First, we’ll let Señor Calavera share his own search for identity.

WOW! Did you know Señor Calavera has his own My Space account? He does. Maybe you should be his friend there. He’d be a good friend to have because he’s also a decorated story teller. Unfortunately (or fortunately?), something happened on the way to the ALA Pura Belpre book award ceremony.
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Interview with Yuyi Morales, Part 2

by Jeanne Fain, Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, TN and Julia López-Robertson, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC

One of the questions that I often ask children when we are reading bilingual books, is what language do you focus upon? Do you look at both languages in the book? Students have told me that they read the language that they know. Or if they have a question, they read both languages to make sense of the text. We were interested in knowing Yuyi’s process as an author and her views of bilingual texts when English Only is not just sentiment, but the law in many places.

Jeanne: You use code switching (alternating back and forth across languages) often in your books. What process do you use when writing? Do you write in English and then shift to Spanish or vice versa? Have you had to advocate for the use of Spanish in your books?
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