“This book is the most Spanish I ever got to talk in school”: Culturally Relevant Texts within Prescribed Curriculum
By Angela Grabow
Like many teachers in Arizona, I am required to follow a prescriptive curriculum that leaves little room to engage kids in real talk about meaningful texts. I wanted to give students a realm in which to talk about texts in the same ways that they talk about the latest movie, a popular song, or an event in their lives. I wanted to facilitate a coming together of readers around a text that was voluntary and governed by their self-created structures, so that they could each read their worldviews, experiences, and concerns into that text (Smith, 1995).
I presented my third grade class with the idea of meeting to talk about a book read in their spare time. Meaningful connections with text cannot happen without meaningful texts (Egawa, 1990). My classroom is a self-contained ESL classroom comprised of twenty-eight students who were primarily first and second generation migrant, refugee, and immigrant children. Frustrated with a mandated curriculum and limited text selection featuring realistic stories with Caucasian characters or fantasy texts with animal protagonists, I chose a text with characters that were more reflective of the students I teach. My Name is Maria Isabel, by Alma Flor Ada (1993), is “an engaging story that combines the efforts of a Puerto Rican family to adjust to a new sense of life with a shared sense of pride in their heritage” (Day, 1993, p.15).
After giving a short presentation on the book, twelve students decided they would like to participate. They split themselves into two groups that met during their 20 minute independent reading time twice a week. One group was composed of Latino students and the other was composed of Muslim students from different ethnic backgrounds.
Initially I met with students to discuss their goals and to ask permission to record their conversations. To introduce discussion, I recorded a session in which students discussed their favorite TV shows. We listened to the recording and commented on how people “talk” with each other. When I shared that I wanted them to talk about the book in the same way that they had talked about TV shows, they looked confused. In our next meeting, students did an on-line search for book clubs and we watched clips of adults meeting and talking about books. This prompted a lot of excitement and they were ready to begin. Over the next eight weeks, students engaged in several conversations that demonstrated deep understanding of the text and meaningful connections to recurrent themes within Latino literature.
Most importantly students discussed and connected the text to their own lives and experiences in complex and thoughtful ways. One compelling dialogue from the Muslim group centered on sociopolitical themes of “border crossing” and immigration. Medina and Enciso (2002) state “the border exists as a constant, lived experience of surveillance that monitors immigration status, political affiliations, citizenship, and identity” (p. 37). Students clearly evidenced this understanding in an exchange that led the group to seek my intervention on the issue of whether or not people other than Mexicans speak Spanish.
Judin: American poor is better than being poor in other countries.
Mohammad: She’s American.
Sala: No it says Puerto Rican.
Serai: But she speaks Spanish so she is Mexican.
Judin: She is in America so she is American like Mohammad said. She can be American and Mexican like the some kids at our class.
Sala: Some kids are American Mexican some are Mexican Mexican. They could go to jail or get kicked out; they are not American.
Serai: You are not an American without papers. You can have immigrant papers, refugee papers, or Mexican papers and then you are an American.
Judin: She is from Puerto Rico.
Sala: Then maybe she gots Puerto Rican papers.
Judin: Then she could be an American like Mohammad said.
Serai: But a Mexican American ‘cause she speaks Spanish.
Sala, Mohammad, Judin, Adair: NO!
These students were either immigrants or refugees to the United States, so I was not surprised they had some familiarity with “papers” and issues of citizenship. Because of their community and peer group, it also made sense they would have insights and opinions on border crossing from Mexico. What surprised me was the depth of understanding from which they drew in the process of trying to reason through the main character’s citizenship status based on country of origin, language, and how she came to live in the United States.
The Latino group looked at the significance of language within the story:
Ida: Stupid is only a bad word in school.
Nina: Like Spanish is only bad in school.
Nina: But not in 3rd grade.
Carlos: Maybe not in 4th grade too.
Maya: My brother said in high school you can say “stupid” but Spanish is still bad. Talking in Spanish means you’re a bad kid at high school.
Ida: At Maria Isabel’s school she can talk in English and Spanish.
Joel: That’s because it is in Nueva York.
Jorge: This book is the most Spanish I ever got to talk in school not at recess.
This type of dialogue was common in the Latino group’s transcripts. Students were immediately captured by language used in the book. Joel commented, “I like this book because there are LOTS words in Spanish.” The students showed an understanding of varying language uses according to context, which demonstrates a developed view of language and language usage. Unfortunately they also have caught on to the stigmatization of Spanish in school. I was saddened by student comments that Spanish was a “bad” language, likened to the use of “stupid.” While I was comforted that students did not feel Spanish was bad in third grade, I was also humbled that they felt this could and would change throughout their schooling. This belief is so engrained that they had talks with siblings and other family members on the subject of when and where Spanish is looked down upon, even geographically, as indicated by Joel’s statement, “That’s because it is in Nueva York.”
Their comments indicated the messages being delivered to students consciously or unconsciously by schools and the importance of teacher role in the delivery of these messages. The dominance of the English language is felt by students who speak languages other than Spanish as evidenced by a comment made by Serai, a tri-lingual student, during a whole group discussion:
I told my mother I did not want to speak my other languages anymore, only English. She started crying. She will be happy, teacher, that you say it makes me special and to practice them.
Teachers play a crucial role in providing students with a rich variety of texts, including those that might serve as a catalyst for discussion or reconciliation of the social issues they observe and that affect them. In this case, such dialogue was accomplished by inquiry surrounding the short chapter book, My Name is Maria Isabel. Martínez-Roldán (2005) states that inquiry involves a speaker who “attempts to elicit another’s help in getting beyond his or her own present thinking” (p. 23). As teachers we have an obligation to provide our students with opportunities and texts that recognize that all persons need to see themselves in the books that they read and be validated by the images in the literature available to them (Day, 2003). Moving in this direction requires taking risks and lots of creativity as a teacher. My students’ talk about texts has motivated me to keep finding time in my class, limited as it is, to provide the children with this experience.
- Ada, A.F. (1993). My name is Maria Isabel. New York: Aladdin.
- Day, F.A. (2003). Latina and Latino voices in literature, lives and works. Westport, CN: Greenwood.
- Medina, C. & Enciso, P. (2002). “Some words are messengers/Hay palabras mensajeras”: Interpreting sociopolitical themes in Latino/a children’s literature. The New Advocate, 15(1), 35-47.
- Egawa, K. (1990). Harnessing the power of language: First graders’ literature engagement with Owl Moon. Language Arts, 67, 582–588.
- Smith, K. (1995). Bringing children and literature together in the elementary classroom. Primary Voices K-6, 3(2), 22-32.
- Martínez-Roldán, C.M. (2005). The inquiry acts of bilingual children in literature discussions. Language Arts, 83, 22-32.
Angela Grabow teaches third grade in Phoenix, Arizona.