Language Arts Journal of Michigan Volume 19 Issue 1 Relevance Article 9
Making Meaningful Connections: The Role of Multicultural Literature in the Lived Experiences of Students Gina Louise DeBlase Wayne State University
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Recommended Citation DeBlase, Gina Louise (2003) “Making Meaningful Connections: The Role of Multicultural Literature in the Lived Experiences of Students,” Language Arts Journal of Michigan: Vol. 19: Iss. 1, Article 9. Available at: https://doi.org/10.9707/2168-149X.1279https://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/lajm?utm_source=scholarworks.gvsu.edu%2Flajm%2Fvol19%2Fiss1%2F9&utm_medium=PDF&utm_campaign=PDFCoverPageshttps://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/lajm/vol19?utm_source=scholarworks.gvsu.edu%2Flajm%2Fvol19%2Fiss1%2F9&utm_medium=PDF&utm_campaign=PDFCoverPageshttps://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/lajm/vol19/iss1?utm_source=scholarworks.gvsu.edu%2Flajm%2Fvol19%2Fiss1%2F9&utm_medium=PDF&utm_campaign=PDFCoverPageshttps://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/lajm/vol19/iss1/9?utm_source=scholarworks.gvsu.edu%2Flajm%2Fvol19%2Fiss1%2F9&utm_medium=PDF&utm_campaign=PDFCoverPageshttps://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/lajm?utm_source=scholarworks.gvsu.edu%2Flajm%2Fvol19%2Fiss1%2F9&utm_medium=PDF&utm_campaign=PDFCoverPageshttps://doi.org/10.9707/2168-149X.1279mailto:email@example.com
MAKING MEANINGFUL CONNEC
TIONS: THE ROLE OF
MULTICULTURAL LITERATURE IN
THE LIVED EXPERIENCES OF
GINA LOUISE DEBLASE
WAYNE STATE UNIVERSITY
Sitting in the back of an eighth grade
English classroom on an early winter day, I listened
while the teacher and students talked about the
Native American short story, “The Medicine Bag.”
In the story, a Sioux great-grandfather carries on
tradition by passing down the family medicine bag to
his great-grandson. Because this eighth grade class
was part of a K-8 Native American magnet school,
the teacher’s selection of this story seemed like a
good choice for connecting literature to the lives of
students. Multicultural literature has the potential to
help connect the world of the classroom with lives
our students live outside of the classroom. However,
in order for this potential to be realized, classroom
discussions of this literature must create space for
students to connect the literature to their own lives as
a primary means for creating significance and
understanding. For Native American adolescents, the search
for identity is often caught up in conflicting cultural
values between Native American and white society.
Mindful of the tensions this disparity causes in the lives of adolescents, Mary, the classroom teacher,
sought out multicultural literature, such as “The
Medicine Bag,” in an effort to make literature relevant to the lives of her students. She viewed
literature as an opportunity for students to “bring
their own lives” to the texts and to see their lives “in
the context ofa community [i.e., the classroom
community].” As she told me in an interview, she
wanted her students to use literature as a tool for
“express[ing] how they felt.”
LANGUAGE ARTS JOURNAL OF MICHIGAN
Research supports Mary’s perspective and has documented how the use of multicultural
literature can help develop students’ abilities to use
multicultural perspectives and knowledge to think
about literature, society (Miller & McCaskill, 1993;
Rios 1996; Rogers & Soter, 1997), and their own
lives. The diverse perspectives found in the voices
of cultural groups who have been excluded from
literary study can offer “alternative vantage points on
the world” (Greene, 1992). In this view, literature by
and about Latinos/a, African Americans, Native
Americans and Asians can provide teachers with
opportunities for meeting many goals of
multicultural education, where voices interact and
students reflect, think critieally, increase cultural
awareness, decrease ethnocentrism, and develop a
However, as I learned from observing and
listening to the students in this particular classroom,
in order for multicultural literature to engage
students in critical thinking and provide
opportunities to connect classroom life to the lives of
our students, it is not sufficient to simply introduce
multicultural literature into the classroom. We need
to think more deeply and critically about the ways
students’ cultural, social, and community identities
and experiences interanimate with the reading and
teaching of multicultural literature in language arts
classrooms to create meaning. Because students
bring their own experiences and perspectives to the
reading of multicultural literature, using it in the language arts classroom requires attention to not
only what we teach when we select multicultural literature but also to how we teach it. What questions
do we raise for discussion? Do we engage and validate our students’ experiences and prior
knowledge to help shape meaning? Do we find
space for multiple interpretations and understandings
of multicultural literature?
Kristy, a student in this particular eighth
grade classroom, provides an excellent case study for
thinking about these questions and issues. As part of
a research project, I had the opportunity of meeting
with Kristy several times to talk about her
experiences in this English class. As Kristy narrates
her thinking around these experiences, she provides
an important perspective of the multicultural
literature she read in her eighth grade English class
as she connected it to her life.
Kristy At the time of this study, Kristy was a
fourteen-year old Native American girl a member
of the Mohawk tribe which is part of the Iroquois
Nation. Tall, with long dark hair and braces she
dressed simply in blue jeans, tee-shirts, and sneakers.
In her eighth grade English class, she was usually
very quiet and seldom contributed to discussions.
She was, as she told me teachers in her school
expected her to be – “nice, polite, and smart.”
Kristy thought of herself as a poet and, in
fact, she was very proud that a poem she wrote about
her grandmother had recently been accepted for
publication in a New York State student anthology.
She wrote her poem, “Ak Sot Ha, My Grandmother,”
in alternating stanzas of English and Mohawk,
perhaps as representative of her sense of living in
two worlds. Much of Kristy’s time outside of school
was spent at the Long House, and she was taking
lessons to learn to speak and write the Mohawk language. Several years ago, Kristy and her friend
planted a traditional Native garden incorporating, as
she explained it to me, “the old ways” of planting and sowing and together they were learning the traditional Mohawk meaning behind each of the plants.
Clearly, Kristy’s life experiences as a young
Mohawk woman were very significant and a primary social foundation to her sense of self. Because of this, I believed Kristy’s perceptions about the Native
American literature she read in her English class
would be particularly relevant and revealing for what
they might suggest about the role of multicultural
literature in the lives of students of color. In one of
two interviews I had with Kristy, I asked her what
she thought about the Native American stories she
read in English class.
Kristy: Sometimes [they] seem kind
of fake and sometimes real. Fifty
percent. Sometimes I feel they’re making fun of us. They don’t know
any-thing. They’re just talking stuff to
make us look bad. . .. They be
talking stuff they don’t even know
about and it just makes … me feel
bad… , And I feel angry because
they don’t know anything about it
and there’s stuff that wasn’t Native
that I learned. Like there’s always
two sides [to every story].
Kristy challenged the validity of the texts she
read in English class. Her sense was that sometimes
the stories were inauthentic saying that they “seem
kind of fake” and that “they don’t know anything
about it.” Further, these stories left her feeling “bad”
and “angry.” However, my analysis ofthe teaching
of multicultural literature in this classroom suggests
that Kristy’s sense of the stories she read was
directly related to the enacted pedagogy around the
reading and teaching of the literature.
Below is a segment of the discussion of
“The Medicine Bag.” In this classroom excerpt,
students were taking turns reading the story aloud.
Mary would stop the reading at certain points to talk
about what they had just read. This segment begins
with Mary introducing the story, prior to the beginning of the reading.
Mary: How many people in here are learning the Native American traditions? Who are you learning them from?
Kristy: My friends.
Amanda (Mohawk female): My pastor.
Mary: That’s right. You go to aNative American
church. Different cultures are probably so
integrated, we lose culture. Culture is what we eat,
how we dress, our values, the music we listen to.
The Native Americans had to retrieve their culture
because of it being systematically taken away. It’s similar to Black Americans.
Damien (African American male): Kristy, what kind
of music do you listen to?
[Kristy does not answer Damien.}
SPRING/SUMMER 2003 29
Paul (African American male): Beating drums. Mary: You have tapes [of Native American music] don’t you? Kristy: Yes. Mary: What’s the stereotype of Native American men? Amanda: TalL Mean. Mary: How does he wear his hair? Amanda; Braids.
Mary: At this age, you get embarrassed about how
parent and family members look and what they wear.
[This is in reference to the boy in the story who is
embarrassed by his grandfather sNative American dress.]
[Mary asks a student to begin to read the story aloud
and the student does so. Paul interrupts the reading
to ask Kristy a question.]
Paul: Do you know what that means Kristy? [Referring to the words “Hau, Takoza” in the story.] Mary: No. Kristy knows Mohawk. This is Sioux. Continue reading Kristy.
Mary: So do Native Americans show affection in public? [referring to scene in the story where Mom
moves to embrace Grandpa and remembers that public displays of affection are unseemly to the
Sioux]. No. Is that true now? No. Now, Native Americans like to show affection very publicly.
[Mary calls on other students take turns reading
Mary: What might fainting be a foreshadowing of? [referring to scene in story when grandfather faints]
Paul: He’s going to die.
Mary: Be aware that when something like this
happens, it usually signals something else is going to
happen…. Does anyone spend time with their
grandparents? [Many hands go up.] What a
wonderful gift! Why? Tina (European-American female): They’re wiser.
30 LANGUAGE ARTS JOURNAL OF MICHIGAN
Kristy: You learn about the family. Mary: They pass on traditions, names. Grandparents accept and love you unconditionally. You don’t have to make sure that you do the appropriate thing. Jared (African-American male): They just spoil you. Mary: Jared, continue reading. I’m giving points for reading.
Mary: Note what it says about the oldest male child. Even though it’s a matriarchal culture, this was
something that girls couldn’t participate in. Tina: What if there were only girls? Mary: I don’t know. I’ll have to ask the Native
American teacher upstairs. Are there any customs in your families that you’re uncomfortable with?
Mary: My grandmother prayed the rosary. We weren’t comfortable but we did it to honor her. Sometimes there’s tension. We’d say the rosary with her but not on our own. Although she thought we did.
[Mary reads the rest ofthe story.}
Mary: What do you think of passing customs down only to men? Paul: That’s genderizing (sic) or something.
[Bell rings for the end ofthe period.}
Mary: We’ll talk about that tomorrow.
In this excerpt of classroom discussion, there
were simultaneously several different purposes for
the classroom talk. From the beginning, Mary
attempted to acknowledge some students’ expertise
and personal knowledge by asking who in the class
was learning about Native American traditions. Kristy and Amanda responded that they were
learning from friends and the pastor at church,
respectively. However, rather than asking the girls to elaborate on what they knew, Mary turned to a
definition of culture based on popular conceptions of
culture as food, dress, and music. She then opened
space for a potentially significant and meaningful
discussion when she remarked on the similar ways
both the Native culture and the African American
culture were both systematically “taken away.”
Damien, an African-American boy, perhaps in an
effort to take up the connection that Mary had made
between these two cultures, asked Kristy what kind
of music she listens to. Kristy, though, did not answer to Damien. Similarly, later on, Paul, another
African-American boy, asked Kristy if she knew the
meaning of two of the Sioux words found in the
story. Mary spoke for Kristy when she responded
that Kristy knew the Mohawk language and not
Sioux. Mary then moved on to make a
generalization about Native displays of public
affection and any potential for Kristy, Damien, Paul,
and the other students to engage with multicultural literature in a dialogue that might help them to make
meaningful connections across their own experiences
This same missed opportunity occurred
again around their conversation about the role of
grandparents in their lives. Further, at the end of the
conversation, Mary introduced the issue of gender bias in the story and Tina posed an interesting dilemma (“What if there were no girls?”) around that issue which, again, was not taken up during this class session or on the following day.
Given the context for discussing
multicultural literature in this class, it is possible to construe Kristy’s boredom, referred to earlier, as
caught up within the anger she said she felt about the
misrepresentation of Native peoples in the literature
and her inability to articulate what she knew and felt
about Native culture. Stereotypical representations
of Native peoples, such as the description of Native
men that Mary pointed out to the class, were, at
times, unwittingly reproduced in the teacher’s own
talk. For example, during a review of vocabulary
words for a spelling test, Mary used the term “Indian
giver” to help clarify the meaning of the word
“rescind.” So, while Mary did attempt to use the literature to help students think more deeply about
their own experiences and to offer a social critique of
racism, these goals for literature were not elaborated
or consistent throughout her teaching.
Consequently, Kristy was never able to
articulate her own critical and resistant reading of
these texts, based in her own experiences. Recall
that in my conversation with Kristy, she said, “I feel
angry because they don’t know anything about it and
there’s stuff that wasn’t Native that I learned. Like
there’s always two sides [to every story].” The point
Kristy felt so strongly about was that she had come
to understand that the culturally dominant versions
of history she had been taught were not, necessarily,
the only versions or even the correct versions. Here
is the rest of my conversation from my first
interview with Kristy:
Interviewer: Two sides to every story?
Kristy: Yeah! I used to like to read about Abraham Lincoln. But when I heard about what he did to
some of the Native American people, I kind of hated
him then. Like they don’t tell you what he did.
They just tell you the good stuff really.
Interviewer: So how did you find out about what he
did? Kristy: I found out when we were protesting in Albany. We were protesting there and I was listening very closely. There were a lot of people there and it was noisy. And they were saying that they killed thirty-two Native Americans [during the time of Lincoln]> And that half of them didn’t even do
anything. And at the end when they died, they
holded hands together and sang.
Through her experiences outside of school,
she had learned there are cultural and historical
stories about Native people left out of classroom
texts. At fourteen years old, Kristy’s identity as a
young Mohawk woman has begun being shaped by
an evolving awareness of the ways in which her
identity is caught up in the larger sociopolitical
structure. Kristy sensed the missing voices and
perspectives (the other side of the story) in much of
SPRING/SUMMER 2003 31
this literature and it angered her and made her “feel bad.”
As a consequence, the teaching of multicultural literature (in this instance, specifically Native American literature), rather than creating
space for multiple meanings and the opportunity to
listen to and learn from students’ experiences,
reinforced the sense of polarized and oppositional
communities school community was set apart from
Kristy’s Native American community. In other
words, there existed a disconnect for Kristy between
her experiences in school and the significance of her
lived experiences outside of school. Ironically, this result was the exact opposite of the teacher’s
intentions for this literature. Recall that Mary said
she taught this literature because of the opportunities
it held for “students to bring their own lives” to the
text and to see their lives “in the context of
In fact, students’ experiences outside of the
classroom directly impacted meanings they made
from representations in the literature as well as
classroom talk around the literature and the ways in
which they took up and, on occasion, resisted these
representations. For example, Kristy was deeply
involved with her Native way of life outside of
school. She had attended a protest rally in Albany
where she learned that Abraham Lincoln, someone
she used to admire, had been responsible for killing
Native peoples. She told me that her experiences
had led her to believe that the Native American stories she read in English class were “kind of fake and sometimes real. They’re just talking stuff to
make us look bad. And I feel angry because they don’t know nothing about it.” Yet, because there was no space for the articulation of diverse experiences in
the classroom, she had little to say during class. Mary interpreted Kristy’s silence as
reticence. In an interview, when I asked her to
describe Kristy her assessment is very revealing:
Mary: She is very poor. She has a learning disability.
She’s just a typical Native American girl. Very
reticent. But I thought she wrote really
LANGUAGE ARTS .JOURNAL OF MICHIGAN
good papers. She really would not articulate verbally. Kristy isn’t very bright.
Implications for classroom practice The teacher in this study understood the
importance of incorporating multicultural literature
into her curriculum as a way to make literature
relevant to the lives of her students. However, she
struggled with how to enable classroom discussion
about the literature in ways that allowed students to
bring their own experiences and understandings into
the exploration of meaning. As a result, she was not
able to achieve the positive goals she had for teaching the literature. In fact, as Kristy’s story
demonstrates, the inadvertent silencing of her voice
and the voices of others contributed to Kristy’s sense
of frustration. This suggests the need to develop specific strategies around the teaching of
multicultural literature that move students toward
connections in their own lives. Such strategies
involve allowing students to take charge of their own
learning and leaving space for them to ask the
questions and entertain the possible responses about
the literature they are studying. In this way, students
“own” the understandings they make about texts in a
way they do not when discussion focuses on the
teacher’s questions designed to elicit specific and
factual information. When students ask the
questions and clarify their understanding, then meaning becomes student-generated while still allowing them to practice their text analysis skills. In the classroom, this can be accomplished in several
ways: 1. Form reader response circles where reading
is acknowledged as a social activity. In such a circle, students can pick one passage they find the most interesting or important,
explain why, and invite others to respond
2. Form literature study circles. These are
different from response circles in that the
former is an expression of individual views
and the latter is focused more on
collaborative construction of meaning
around the texts (Cherland, 1994; Daniels,
3. Ask students to respond in writing to a
reading. Some prompts might include what
they liked, what they didn’t like, what
confused them, and what they thought about
particular sections of the text.
Ifwe are better able to understand the many
dimensions of this relationship between multicultural
literature and students’ outside lives, we are better
able to create the democratic classroom we envision
– a place for the articulation of lived experiences and
perceptions of those experiences both in and out of
Works Cited Cherland, Meredith. Private Practices: Girls
Reading Fiction and Constructing Identity.
Bristol, PA: Taylor & Francis, Inc. 1994.
Daniels, Harvey. Literature Circles: Voice and
Choice in Book Clubs and Reading
Groups.2nd ed. Portland, MA: Stenhouse
Greene, Maxine. “The Passions of Pluralism:
Multiculturalism and the Expanding
Community,” Educational Researcher, 22.1
(1992): 13-18. Miller, Suzanne, and Barbara McCaskill, eds.
Multicultural Literature and Literacies:
Making Space jor Difference. Albany, NY:
State University ofNew York Press 1993.
Rios, Francisco, ed. Teacher Thinking in Cultural
Contexts. Albany, NY: State University of
New York Press, 1996.
Rogers Theresa. and Anna O. Soter, eds. Reading
across cultures: Teaching Literature in a
Diverse Society. New York: Teachers
College Press, 1997.
SPRING/SUMMER 2003 33
- Language Arts Journal of Michigan
- Making Meaningful Connections: The Role of Multicultural Literature in the Lived Experiences of Students
- Making Meaningful Connections: The Role of Multicultural Literature in the Lived Experiences of Students