Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Teaching Multicultural Literature : A Workshop for the Middle Grades
Workshop 1 Workshop 2 Workshop 3 Workshop 4 Workshop 5 Workshop 6 Workshop 7 Workshop 8
Workshop 4: Research and Discovery - An Na, Edwidge Danticat, Laurence Yep, and more
Authors and Literary Works
An Na
Edwidge Danticat
Pam Munoz Ryan
Walter Dean Myers
Laurence Yep
Key References
Video Summary
Teaching Strategies
Student Work
Interactive Workbook -- Explore two poems using strategies from these workshops. Go.
Channel-Talk -- Share your views on the discussion board. Go.

Authors and Literary Works
Talking with Laurence Yep

How would you describe yourself as a writer?

I think of myself as a storyteller. It's what I do. If I were bagging groceries in a supermarket, I'd still be writing at night, and that would be my real identity. I try and listen to people and then take them inside myself, take those stories inside myself, think about them, and then put them out in my own way, and hopefully other people want to hear those stories. I read a lot of books and I take all those different stories and facts and take them into my own mind, and eventually my own imagination reworks them and I put them down on paper in a different form so other people can read them.

What kind of books did you read as a child?

When I would go to the library, the librarians would try to get me interested in best-selling children's books, and I just couldn't get into them because in all those books every child seemed to have a bicycle and they've always left their front doors unlocked, and since I came from two different ghettos, that just seemed like fantasy to me.

The books I really identified with were fantasy and science fiction, because in those books you have children leaving their world or their land -- their ordinary world -- and going to some faraway place where they have to learn strange new customs and a strange new language. And so science fiction and fantasy talks about adapting, and that's something I did every time I got on and off the bus.

I cut my teeth on the Oz books first. But then I started reading Andre Norton and Robert Heinlein. And from Andre Norton I learned how to write about faraway worlds -- especially worlds right at the point of change. And from Robert Heinlein, I learned how to write about characters; it's why I write a lot of first-person narratives. In the space of two paragraphs, he could create this character that you would want to travel across the galaxy with. One of the things that I enjoyed about science fiction, and which I learned from reading Andre Norton, was how to create a world. You learn how to step into this other place and this other time. In the Kalevala there's a Finnish wizard who sings objects into existence. In Nigeria, there are weavers who use chants as they weave their rugs, so that words and physical creation are intimately tied together. But one of the things you like to do is to be like Dr. Who. And so you not only travel to other places, you travel to other times. Some of the craft that you use in building a faraway world is similar to building another time period.

What made you decide to write Dragon's Gate?

I actually decided to write Dragon's Gate at the same time that I wrote Dragonwings. A lot of my books begin with images. I can see a character doing certain things and it's almost like I'm watching a movie, and all I'm doing is writing down a description. And so at the same time I was writing Dragonwings, I began writing a scene of a boy walking through a tunnel of snow, because when the Chinese worked on the transcontinental railroad, they were caught in the Sierra Nevadas during the worst winter of the 19th century. The snow piled up so high, they actually lived underneath the snow. They would go to work through these tunnels of snow to the mountain and chisel out the granite. I had a vision of this boy just walking through this tunnel of snow with a load of wood for the cabin. But it took about 20 years to explain why he was there and what he was doing.

Part of it was research. I like to deal with primary research resources whenever I can. I found to my dismay that a number of things were just missing from all the libraries in California, including the Bancroft Research Library, which I think of as the repository for California history. And so what I like to do, though, is when I go and give talks in other cities, I usually check out the historical society or the local library to see if they have stuff on Chinese Americans. And in Reno they have this wonderful historical museum and they actually have the newspaper articles there that I needed, except that the newspaper was very fragile, they couldn't Xerox it. I had forgotten to bring my reading glasses, so there I was like this medieval monk, just scrunched up over these newspaper articles with gloves on my hands, writing in pencil, copying down every word, word by word.

You said it took you 20 years to write Dragon's Gate. Why?

Dragon's Gate just took a long time to piece together. I really believe you have to write the story that you want to write. I think of it as a kind of social responsibility. I don't think of myself as the great yellow hope. I don't think you can take on that kind of burden, but I do feel a certain responsibility to the people from that time.

When I had done about seven drafts of Dragon's Gate, I thought I had it all done. The seventh draft had a chapter in which there was a dragon and a pet boy, and they were such vivid characters that they stole the stage. So I literally junked everything that I had done before, because when you get those kinds of characters, you go with them, you just forget about everything else. I did another seven drafts centered around those two characters. At a certain point, though, my characters start taking on a life of their own and they start telling me what they would do. The dragon in that fantasy series said to me, "You know, the flight scenes in my book are too much like the flight scenes in Dragonwings." So I went up in a glider to try and write about the experience of flight in a different way. There's just something so powerful about this small selfish creature that is able to become this powerful creature that can effect all this change.

After the second set of seven drafts, my wife, who is a writer and used to be an editor, commented, "You know, you could do better." So I took it back and worked on it for another year. And I think the results paid off. She was right.

What do you think is the value in making a curriculum more multicultural?

You know, sometimes people talk about multiculturalism and incorporating multiculturalism in the curriculum as if they're doing you a favor, and in fact, it's not. It's a necessity. First of all, in terms of just being purely pragmatic, you need those skills that you learn about other cultures. You need those skills when you grow up and try and get a job in this global economy with all these interdependent jobs. But secondly, multiculturalism is just part of the way of seeing the world. If you can learn to look at your city and your surroundings from the viewpoint of another culture, you're going to see things from a different viewpoint, and that's at the very heart of magic.

After writing more than 40 books, what can you tell teachers to help their students who want to be writers?

I would encourage teachers to do what my English teacher did. He refused to let me set arbitrary limits for myself. I was on a set career path to become a chemist. And he didn't say to me, "How absurd to have a teenager try and sell a story to somebody." He said, "You do it." And I think that's important, especially with adolescents, not to let them set limits for themselves. They should try everything. If they want to write poetry, they should write poetry. They should try to be playwrights. They should try to be artists. They should realize that there's more to life than making a lot of money.

I wrote about Chinese Americans because that's what I know best. When I used to teach creative writing at UC Berkeley, I would try to convince my students that there's a book in everybody. We used to do exercises, writing exercises, where I would just have them write about their desks. There were different things you could do to begin focusing in on paying attention to your desk and writing about all these details. Because a lot of the time, for instance, when we see a desk, we think in an abstract concept category: desk. But in fact, it's this creation of wood -- there's grain, there are patterns, there are patterns of light that go across it, there are maybe markings on it, and you can ask yourself, "How did those markings get there?"

One of the things I would do with schoolchildren was go in and ask them to name an object in the class. So I would get a list of things in the classroom, and from that list I would pick one object, and we would create a whole science fiction or fantasy story based on that object. It doesn't matter where you are, all you have to do is just learn to pay attention to your surroundings. And family history is just so important. I try now, when I visit schools, to get the kids to start asking their parents for family stories, because I thought I had forever to ask my grandmother and my father certain stories about our family and their lives. And now it's too late.

The advice that I usually give to children and to college students is to start writing in their natural voice because everybody usually has at least one or two stories that they like to tell, and that's the natural voice you should use. Then once you get it down on paper, you start adjusting it in terms of literary craft. But the heart of it is the voice that's there on the paper.

Too many people worry about editing themselves. I've know a number of writers who have gotten writer's block because they think it has to be absolutely finished in the first draft, and that's just not so. The first draft is just this kind of skeleton that goes down on the paper. Another thing too is to keep in mind that while it has to have this voice, it also has to have a certain personal input from you.

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