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Author Interview: 'More Mirrors in the Classroom'

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Jane Fleming, Susan Catapano, Candace M. Thompson and Sandy Ruvalcaba Carrillo agreed to answer a few questions about their book, More Mirrors In The Classroom.

Jane Fleming is a reading specialist and co-founder of KIDS LIKE US, a nonprofit organization dedicated to research, professional development, and advocacy around teaching with culturally relevant texts.

Susan Catapano is professor and international coordinator in the Watson College of Education at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.

Candace Thompson is an associate professor in the Watson College of Education at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.

Sandy Ruvalcaba Carrillo is a resource teacher of English learners on the Southwest side of Chicago with 17 years of experience in education.

LF: You introduce the book as a way to support culturally relevant teaching.  Can you share a summary of what CRT looks like and why you think it's important?

Jane, Susan, Candace & Sandy:

Culturally relevant teaching draws on student's cultural and linguistic knowledge as a foundation for effective instruction in school. Essentially, it is instruction that is designed to use students' experiences to support their learning. In "More Mirrors in the Classroom" we describe how educators can use culturally relevant texts as a tool to increase the effectiveness of literacy instruction.  Multicultural education scholar Rudine Sims Bishop talks about books as "mirrors" and "windows."  Mirrors are books in which children can find themselves, their families, and their communities reflected and valued, while "windows" help us develop understandings about the wider world. Through "More Mirrors in the Classroom," we're hoping to help educators better understand the powerful role that "mirrors" can play in supporting children's reading and writing development.

Here's an example of what this can look like. Some of our teacher partners recently discovered the book, "Niño Wrestles the World" by Yuyi Morales. It's a terrific story about a young boy who, while playing with his toy wrestling figures, imagines that he is a world champion Lucha Libre competitor. One by one in his imagination, Niño defeats luchadores drawn from Mexican folklore - The Mummy of Guanajuato, La Llorona, El Chamuco. When these teachers, who work in a predominantly Latino neighborhood in Chicago, shared "Niño Wrestles the World" with their primary grade students, the level of engagement went through the roof. The children knew a lot about lucha libre, the Mexican professional wrestling tradition and cultural phenomenon, and they had so much to discuss.

They went home and asked parents and grandparents to remind them of the folktales represented by characters in the book, and they came back to school wanting to share those stories with their teachers and classmates. Recognizing the cultural relevance of this text for their students, and the enthusiasm for learning it generated, the teachers decide to build an instructional unit around this content, reading fiction and nonfiction works about lucha libre, researching Latino folklore, and comparing versions of tales from different regions. Children then wrote their own versions of "Niño Wrestles the World" that incorporated their own characters but utilized the onomatopoeia and graphic format of the original mentor text. The class also worked with the art teacher to help students create their own paper mache versions of lucha libre masks, designing them to capture the essence of the characters they created. In the teachers' words, the student work that came out of that unit was "phenomenal" - like nothing they'd ever seen before.

To be clear, these teachers are designing standards-based language arts instruction. They are teaching students how to comprehend and analyze fiction and nonfiction text, how to write narrative, informational, and persuasive pieces, how to use a mentor text to identify and practice various elements of writing craft, how to compare, contrast, and synthesize information from various sources, etc. The difference is that they've grounded that instruction in what students know, inviting children to bring their whole selves to school and allowing them to use their background knowledge and experiences as assets in learning to read and write.

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LF: How do you define "urban children's literature" and what is its role in culturally relevant teaching?  Can you share one or two specific examples of what it can look like in the classroom?

Jane, Susan, Candace & Sandy:

We draw on Vanessa Irvin's work in defining urban children's literature as "books that recreate scenes and activities that realistically occur in daily life for children in the city." They reflect the racially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse communities that make up our nation's cities. Characters often reside in multi-unit buildings or in homes including multiple or extended families. They may rely on public transportation, or walk to shop in nearby delis or bodegas. Their blocks may have sidewalks, and traffic, and brownstone steps, rather than expanses of private yards and green space. The topics addressed in urban literature are realistic, sometimes revealing challenges that many urban public school students face. Characters in some books may experience economic hardship or concerns adjusting to a new culture or learning a new language. But like all kinds of children, they also treasure their families, enjoy exploring their neighborhoods, and get into typical, playful mischief with friends. Informational texts might feature people of color who are accomplished in diverse fields and industries, as well as books that feature urban architecture or urban ecology to provide a familiar foundation for learning new mathematics and science concepts.

There are two important roles that urban children's literature children plays in culturally relevant teaching. First, urban children's literature can serve as a bridge to learning new content and mastering reading and writing strategies. All readers use their background knowledge, familiar schema, and experiences when trying to recognize words and make sense of texts - the same is true for young learners in city schools. But because published curricula are typically geared toward a national, middle class audience, very few of the selections we typically use for reading and writing instruction draw on urban public school students' experiences. For example, trying to teach city kids how to visualize or make inferences while reading a book about camping out in the country is pretty challenging.

Our research shows that when teachers supplement the curriculum with some more relevant text selections that allow children to bring what they know to discussions about content, this often results in "unlocking" students' potential - student interest and engagement increase, oral language and writing productivity increase, and students' depth of comprehension increases. We're working hard to help teachers understand the importance of culturally relevant texts in reading and writing instruction and to get more "mirrors" in the classroom.

Another really important role that urban children's literature plays in culturally relevant teaching is that the materials can serve as a connector between teachers and children. Most urban public school teachers do not live in the neighborhoods in which they teach. They've also often grown up in very different environments from their students, so teachers and children don't always have a lot of lived experiences in common. Many of our teacher partners have described how urban children's literature has opened up conversations with their students, helping them learn more about each other and deepening the strength of their relationships. Getting to know their students better then helps teachers plan even more relevant instruction. In addition, when teachers use literature that engages students and draws on their experiences, they often find themselves surprised by the high level of critical thinking that even young children are capable of. This often changes their perceptions and raises their expectations for their students.

One specific example that comes to mind is when a kindergarten colleague of ours decided to try out the book "Something Beautiful" by Sharon Dennis Wyeth in a unit on community. The story is set in a neighborhood very similar to the one this school is in on Chicago's west side, and by the teachers' own admission, their students don't often see their neighborhood reflected in children's books. After reading "Something Beautiful," this teacher reported that "you could have heard a pin drop during that read aloud" because the children were so focused on the story. In the discussion that followed, she described how children were super-engaged in the conversation, making what she called "profound connections" and building on each other's ideas. The way children responded really changed this teacher's view of what her young learners were capable of when they could draw on their experience to make sense of the text.

LF: Many schools use pre-packaged programs for literacy instruction.  Are you aware of any that promote the kind of pedagogy you're promoting in the book?  What do you recommend that teachers do if they are stuck with using these programs that don't support CRT?

Jane, Susan, Candace & Sandy:

Pre-packaged curricula are typically written with a broad national audience in mind, so often there are few urban children's literature selections included. In general, we can't expect that a publisher will know who our students are and design a language arts or social science curriculum that is perfect for them. That's our job as educators.  Rather than looking for a "perfect" curriculum, we encourage educators to review the curricula that are being used for reading and writing instruction in their schools and to consider carefully whether the text selections include a balance of mirrors and windows that can engage students with the content and support them in using their experiences as a foundation for learning new things.

When there are gaps, we work with teachers to use the KIDS LIKE US website and other sources to find books that may be good additions to their units. We don't expect teachers to design curriculum from scratch, but we can view published curricula with a critical lens and supplement some text selections to design instruction that is potentially more culturally relevant for our students. Once teachers see how their students respond and what kinds of texts resonate with their students, they often get ideas for creating units like the one inspired by "Niño Wrestles the World" described above.

An important factor is that we also need administrators to provide teachers with some professional leeway to make these kinds of instructional decisions. If administrators expect teachers to adhere super-strictly to the text selections included in their published curricula, they won't get very far in designing more culturally relevant instruction for their students. Trust that teachers know the children in your school, try supplementing some recommended texts with others that may be more culturally relevant, and look for evidence of increased engagement, high-level collaborative conversations, deeper comprehension, and great writing productivity amongst your students.

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LF: I particularly liked your "Getting Started" chapter.  What are one or two actions you think teachers can do right now if they want to begin using literature in a CRT framework?

Jane, Susan, Candace & Sandy:

We recommend teachers begin by reviewing their current curriculum and their classroom library collections with their students and families in mind. Ask yourself the following questions: Does your core curriculum include many literature and informational text selections in which your students can see themselves, their families, and their communities reflected and valued? What proportion of books in your classroom or school library include characters that share your students' culture, language, and community context? Does your collection reflect your students in realistic family, community, and friendship stories, or are the majority of multicultural selections limited to the study of history, holidays, or world cultures? Educators can utilize the KIDS LIKE US website and other online resources shared there to find books that might be good additions to their curriculum and to curate high quality, culturally relevant collections for their students. We're gradually adding more and more books to the site, and soon we'll have recommended text sets posted that align with common language arts and social studies themes.

We also encourage teachers to engage children, family members, and others in the school community in reading and reviewing books to help assess cultural relevance and authenticity. Their feedback and insights will help teachers discover books that might resonate most with children in their communities. Teachers might then identify unit themes that these books can connect with, and gradually build more mirrors into the curriculum. This doesn't have to happen all at once - we know this takes time. Consider starting with one upcoming unit and taking a few minutes to reexamine the text set to see if any of your current selections are potentially culturally relevant for your students. If not, try one or two new selections, and watch how students respond.

LF: Thanks, Jane, Susan, Candace & Sandy!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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