Considering Identity through the Lenses of Literature and Writing
by Amanda Villagomez
During the 2012-13 school year I participated in a global literacy community with colleagues in eastern Oregon focusing on using global literature as a means for students to expand their understandings of culture, both their own and those of others. We observed how utilizing global literature impacted students’ understanding of events and experiences throughout the world. The books provided access to scenarios that students had not necessarily observed first hand in their rural, high poverty communities.
While we each created a global literacy unit, we had flexibility to do so in a way that aligned with our individual school/classroom philosophies and the needs of our students. We checked in with each other throughout the project to see glimpses into how the units were unfolding, noticing similarities and differences between the two schools and three grades. We expanded our classroom libraries with an intentional global literature focus, benefiting current and future students.
I taught my unit with 8th graders in a K-8 Spanish/English dual immersion charter school. Part of the values of the staff and the vision for the school is to promote social justice and tolerance. This vignette features a general overview of the unit I taught, with a focus on book clubs and responses to reading.
The Big Picture: Looking Within/Looking Beyond
My literacy philosophy recognizes the importance of consistent opportunities to read and write, as well as valuing discussions. Students had 30 minutes of independent reading and 55 minutes of language arts daily Monday-Thursday. I expected them to read for 30 minutes at home Monday-Friday. While they could choose the language in which they read for independent reading, the language arts block rotated between English and Spanish weekly. Throughout the year we talked as a class about the reading-writing link, discussing what it means to read like writers and write like readers.
The Looking Within/Looking Beyond unit spanned 3rd and 4th quarters, with consistent links between reading and writing. Typically, students chose the books they read for their reading requirements. During the unit, options were narrower because of the global literature focus, but students had choice as they participated in four book clubs and selected three books to read independently.
Students frequently wrote about what they were reading in addition to larger genre studies. During the third quarter, state testing and writing work samples impacted the regular language arts time, so students had two shorter writing assignments. In Spanish they wrote multiple identity poems, reflecting on themselves, their culture/values, and who they are as individuals. In English they were able to choose between a personal narrative or a realistic fiction piece incorporating a global experience, a chance for students to apply what they already knew based on genre studies earlier in the year. Fourth quarter, students explored a new genre of literary essays. Based on suggestions by Calkins and Colleagues from the Reading and Writing Project (2012), students wrote a literary essay that explored a single theme or character in Spanish, while writing about how multiple texts explored a similar theme/concept in different ways in English.
A Closer Look: Book Clubs and Responses to Reading
Before starting the unit, I booktalked the 11 options (see Table 1). While listening, students listed their preference for each book in order to consider interest as one aspect while grouping students. At the start of each book club round, students got into small groups with copies of a book club rubric/calendar. While students knew the date by which they needed to complete their books, they chose where they wanted to read to for the other meetings. They also had the option of deciding as a group to finish the book earlier than required.
|Does My Head Look Big in This?||Randa Abdel-Fattah|
|Ten Things I Hate About Me||Randa Abdel-Fattah|
|Antes de ser libres||Julia Alvarez|
|En busca de Milagros||Julia Alvarez|
|Under the Mesquite||Guadalupe Garcia McCall|
|Maximilian and the Mystery of the Guardian Angel: A Bilingual Lucha Libre Thriller||Xavier Garza|
|Inside Out and Back Again||Thanhha Lai|
|A Little Piece of Ground||Elizabeth Laird with Sonia Nimr|
|Habibi||Naomi Shihab Nye|
|Shooting Kabul||N.H. Senzai|
Table 1: Book Club Books
When we met for the first book clubs, I reminded students of expectations. Ideally, they would have a free-flowing conversation about their books and I would mainly listen. In addition, their comments should reflect that they considered what peers have already stated.
When we began the book clubs for this unit, students were familiar with almost all of the six Notice and Note signposts (Beers & Probst, 2012), mini-lessons that supported students in thinking about what they should pay attention to as they read in order to have a deeper understanding of the texts. I encouraged students to point out any thinking they did while reading related to these signposts. At times, when it seemed students were mainly making surface level comments about the text, I modeled examples of the signposts in the texts.
If students’ comments were largely summarization, I reminded them that everyone had read the same book and as a result, their contributions should focus on going beyond summary. I often asked them to think of the reason why whatever part of the text they were summarizing stood out to them or why they wanted to bring it up in the discussion.
As typical, during the book club meetings, different groups and different students within groups needed a different level of scaffolding to push their thinking about the text. Conferring was a means to provide interim support to some students. For example, while reading Shooting Kabul (Senzai, 2010) because of the frequent flashbacks, one student demonstrated confusion about a key aspect. When I noted the confusion, while talking one-on-one, we looked at the text again and discussed signals in the text that would help in determining the transitions in the narration.
Discussions prompted by these books resulted in a range of conversations as students brought up their own reactions to the characters and events. Some texts described scenarios and cultures much different than students’ lives, such as Does My Head Look Big in This? (Abdel-Fattah, 2005). Details related to the geographical context of Australia and the Muslim religion were completely new to the adolescent girls who participated in this book club; however, they were able to connect to Amal’s emotions and respect how difficult it would have been for her to make a choice that would draw attention to something her peers would view as different. Books like Under the Mesquite (Garcia McCall, 2011) provided readers with a portrayal of their own culture or a predominate culture in their community. Students considered how their families were similar and different to Lupita’s, as well as considered the tough choices she had to make that went against some cultural norms or expectations.
Because of the range of experiences and cultures represented in the texts, book club meetings were rich opportunities to learn from each other and to co-construct understandings about texts and culture. Through interacting with peers, students were able to expand beyond their own thoughts and were able to benefit from their peers’ perspectives and prior knowledge that supported stronger comprehension of the experiences in the texts.
Written Responses to Literature
Writing is a powerful means to process thoughts and become more aware of thinking about text. As a result, I intentionally incorporated a range of written responses to reading into the unit, starting with informal quick writes and progressing toward more formal text analysis essays at the end of the unit. In this section, I will outline student examples from in-class quick writes periodically throughout the unit. I use pseudonyms for each of the students and share journal excerpts exactly as they were written. Because they are quick writes, they are not as polished as writing that they have revised and edited.
Before writing the first reading response, I talked to students about the type of writing they should focus on. Similar to book clubs, I told them that their writing should not simply restate what happened in the text, but instead, it should be their thoughts and reactions to what they were reading. They wrote the following in their notebooks:
Example Questions to Consider:
• How is the main character’s culture similar and/or different to my own?
• What influences impact the character’s decisions? (motive)
• What can I learn from the character’s experiences and decisions?
Because the written responses were at different points in the unit, the book club discussions and the book club responses had a reciprocal relationship. The writing could provide a springboard for processing thoughts that students could then share in book club meetings or lingering thoughts from book clubs could influence what was on students’ minds when it was time to write.
Looking at different students’ entries who participated in the same book clubs provides glimpses into the co-construction of meaning and the range of perspectives that students brought to the discussions. For example, shortly after reading a section of Shooting Kabul (Senzai, 2010) in which the events of 9/11 occurred about an event where the main character’s mother is surprised, Daniela wrote, “but what I’m confused of is that I thought she knew that, that was going to happen because she lived in Afghanistan and that’s wear the terrorist came from” (1/25/13). Her comment demonstrates a misconception that simply being from Afghanistan would result in an awareness of the terrorists’ plans.
One of her classmates, Henry, loves history and is fascinated with wars. In one of his later journal entries, he wrote:
just because someone from the same culture and religion as someone else that did something bad doesn’t mean that they did it to and that we shouldn’t judge there culture and religion because of that bad things. Some examples of what I’m talking about are pearl harbor and 9/11. After pearl harbor a lot of people started making fun of japanese people and started stereotyping them and discriminating them. the exact same thing happened to muslims after 9/11. (n.d.)
His quote reflects both his background knowledge about other historical events as well as ideas that the group discussed. His comments and those of others in the group served to clarify Daniela’s confusion, expanding awareness that could prevent future stereotypes of whole groups based on the actions of some.
Student entries also demonstrate how the unit helped students strengthen their understandings of the world and interactions. For example, Charlie wrote:
Another interesting thing I learned is that people judge others just because they are scared of them. I kind of knew that but it’s true. I learned more about how it affects that person who’s being bullied and how it can really really affect it. (2/18/13)
In this instance, the text confirmed what he already believed, while also expanding his knowledge of the impact. In another entry Charlie continued to think through judgments that people make of others that he referred to as part of the human experience.
A salient theme in the notebook entries was readers considering relationships in their own lives based on the characters’ experiences. For example, some students noted that while overall contexts (cultures or experiences) of the books were very different from their own lives, they could relate to relationships such as those among siblings or between parents and children. Referring to Does My Head Look Big in This? (Abdel-Fattah, 2005), Audrey noted:
Her culture is really different and also her life. She’s Muslim but I don’t know a lot about Muslims….Also she has these parents that think they are cool. I can relate because my mom says she’s “cool”. (1/25/13)
For others, the events or experiences made readers reflect on valuing others in their lives, such as Lizzy who while reading Under the Mesquite (Garcia McCall, 2011) wrote:
I also learned that in my life I should stop taking things for granted because her mom passed away and I still have my mom. She doesn’t have cancer and she would be willing to do anything for me. Another thing I learned is that I should start caring and being nicer to my sister. Because at times in Lupita’s life her siblings were all she had and she had to take care of them. (2/28/13)
Both quotes demonstrate examples of literature prompting students to think about their lives.
Being able to plan instruction that incorporated a range of global literature book club sets allowed for a context in which students could better understand themselves and others. In the unit, I included the combination of reading, writing, and discussing in order for students to have multiple means to consider the experiences portrayed.
Abdel-Fattah, R. (2005). Does my head look big in this? New York: Orchard.
Abdel-Fattah, R. (2006). Ten things I hate about me. New York: Orchard.
Alvarez, J. (2004). Antes de ser libres. New York: Random House.
Alvarez, J. (2006). En busca de milagros. New York: Laurel-Leaf.
Beers, K. & Probst, R. E. (2012). Notice and note: Strategies for close reading. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Calkins, L. & Colleagues from the Reading and Writing Project. (2011). Common Core reading & writing workshop: A curricular plan for the writing workshop grade 8. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Fleischman, P. (1997). Seedfolks. New York: HarperCollins.
Garcia McCall, G. (2011). Under the mesquite. New York: Lee & Low Books.
Garza, X. (2011). Maximilian and the mystery of the guardian angel: A bilingual Lucha Libre thriller. El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos Press.
Lai, T. (2011). Inside out and back again. New York: HarperCollins.
Laird, E. & Nimr, S. (2003). A little piece of ground. London: Macmillan.
Nye, N. S. (1997). Habibi. New York: Aladdin.
Senzai, N. H. (2010). Shooting Kabul. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Amanda Villagómez is a professor of education at Eastern Oregon University and formerly taught 6th-8th grade dual immersion language arts.
WOW Stories, Volume IV, Issue 8 by Worlds of Words is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at wowlit.org/on-line-publications/stories/iv8.