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
Video Summary
Teaching Strategies
Text Sets
'Where I'm From' Poems
Student Work
Interactive Workbook -- Explore two poems using strategies from these workshops. Go.
Channel-Talk -- Share your views on the discussion board. Go.

Teaching Strategies


In Kathryn Mitchell Pierce's classroom, presentations are creative and generative, help students dig deep into a book's meaning, and inspire new thoughts and questions about a common theme. Her structure, detailed below, can be followed or adapted in nearly any classroom.

Presentations in Kathryn Mitchell Pierce's Classroom

Building Community and Group Process
Student presentations in Kathryn Mitchell Pierce's classroom are the culmination of processes developed throughout the school year. Pierce notes, "One of the things that I really focus on over the course of the year is having students be able to collaborate with others, use talk to raise questions and ideas, and use the group process to move beyond their current understanding. I want them to be able to throw out tentative ideas and work them through and sustain their focus when they don't understand something; I want them to be comfortable feeling uncomfortable, not understanding."

Teachers can lay the foundation for strong presentations by creating a supportive classroom environment. For example, teachers should set ground rules for respectful discourse at the beginning of the year, then help the students follow them. The students might practice group norms through activities like a fishbowl or through processing their group interactions as a regular part of a classroom activity. (See Teaching Strategies: Fishbowl.) Pierce establishes ground rules by reading aloud from picture books at the beginning of the year. After reading, she asks her students to talk with partners or small groups about their responses to the book. Pierce listens in on these conversations, often stopping to point out exciting conversations to the rest of the class as a way of highlighting the goals ofthis process.

The Role of Teacher as Facilitator
The teacher must be an effective, but unobtrusive, facilitator for small groups. He or she should drop in on groups to monitor the conversation's content and process. Pierce reports that she asks herself questions as she listens: "Are my students staying at a surface-level retelling of the book? Or are they digging deeper and thinking metaphorically? Are they looking for themes and patterns? Are they connecting books to life experiences and broader cultural experiences, broader contemporary issues? Those are signs to me that they're using the books in sophisticated ways."

Facilitators should look for "teachable moments," but recognize that the conversation is driven by the students -- and that the students might not necessarily pursue the same questions that adults would choose for them. As Pierce expresses it, "I think understanding and valuing other people and diverse points of view is probably my goal. Within that, if there is some misinformation about a culture or a time period in history or an event that took place, I'm okay with it as long as they continue to ask questions -- and as long as they continue to get materials that invite them to rethink a conclusion that they've drawn."

Pierce intervenes to clarify misinformation in a discussion only when she feels the group will not recognize the "error" alone. But before discussion, she provides each small group with online research about authors, books, and the relevant contexts of both. For Laurence Yep's Dragon's Gate, for example, she finds resources about Chinese immigration in the 1800s in the National Archives; for Walter Dean Myers's At Her Majesty's Request, she finds pictures. She also finds Web sites for students to investigate. In general, teachers should build background knowledge to help students connect their topics to the theme they are studying. By finding resources, teachers allow interested students to dig into topics and share information with the group.

To keep discussions moving, teachers might pause the class to "reframe" discussions and take them to a higher level. Pierce models this when she creates lists of themes and ideas with the class. Pierce interrupts group work for reframing when students have veered off course or are ready to make more sophisticated connections. She describes her students' process: "In conversation they move beyond their initial assumptions, stereotypes, and presuppositions about the novels. The surface-level questions come first, but the ones I'm more interested in are the ones that don't come to mind initially. In fact, the most intriguing questions are the ones to which there are no answers, the ones that would keep scientists going for centuries or an entire lifespan, digging in to find an answer to a question."

Moving Students Toward Larger Questions
Through the discussion, students explore questions and theses they want to pursue. Pierce often asks her students to review their journals and reflect on the questions and responses they recorded as they read. She helps them refine "thought-provoking" questions and thesis statements for their presentations. These questions emerge from single texts, but she prompts the students to make the individual questions more universal. Pierce tells them there must be both "a main lesson you want us to learn about your book and one that makes us take a new look at all our books."

Considering Audience
Most teachers preparing students for presentations will need to explain how presentations can intrigue, provoke, and inform an audience. Commenting on the presentations in Pierce's classroom -- and on preparing for presentations in general -- teacher educator Jerome Harste says, "Presentations today have got to be more than just a report. We're living in a multicultural, multimediated, multimodal world, and we have to provide opportunities for kids to lay out ideas in those very powerful visual ways as well... I think we need to bring the need for visual literacy to conscious awareness and invite kids to transform the information that they've got into alternate kinds of messages for alternate audiences... If you ask them to think like this, students become much more sensitive about the kind of messages that are being communicated. They begin to see that you can communicate messages in different ways to different audiences, and that that is what authors do."

To give groups more ownership of their presentations, teachers should allow the students to present some of their content in a skit, poster, game, lesson, structured conversation/discussion, or other form. Pierce waits until her students have gathered their information before providing time to plan the presentation -- helping to ensure that the inquiry process is not unduly influenced by an early decision about the format for the presentation, and that the format fits the information.

The Final Product: A Presentation with Resonance for Their Own Lives
The final presentations in Pierce's class are multimodal. For example, the group reading Danticat's Behind the Mountains performs a skit in which they write and read letters from the perspective of characters in the novel who correspond. They also draw a map and make a compare/contrast chart about Haiti and Brooklyn. They ask, "Does being an immigrant affect your opportunities in life?", then ask their classmates to turn and talk to a partner about how the question applies to the book they are reading. The group studying Esperanza Rising states a similarly broad message: "No matter how hard it is, don't be afraid to start over." Then they ask the class to think about the question, "Does it hurt your character to start over? How?"

Teachers should encourage students to actively link their studies with their lives. As Pierce says, her aim is to "have students take social action, in their own lives in the future... I want them to come away from this year saying about injustice, 'That's not right and I'm going to do something about it.'" Jerome Harste agrees; he believes that the best presentations "start a whole new line of inquiry and open up a whole new range of possibilities. It's important to have culminating activities that can bring an end to a particular topic for those who are finished with it. But you also want your theme to be generative so that when you move on, some kids may decide they want to pursue some dimension of this theme. It shouldn't be a wrapping up or summation of a topic, but ought to be able to generate more for those who want to go further." The presentations allow the presenters and the audience to revisit their books and their inquiries, to reconsider what they've learned.

Teachers can help students to see their theme as generative by asking the students to write or talk about how the unit changed their perspectives on an issue. Teachers might explain that good questions do not have simple answers, but often require a lifetime of study. In future units, teachers can refer to these questions to show the students how they can be applied to all kinds of content. Some of these questions might even become the "essential questions" around which a semester's or year's curriculum revolves; teachers who team-teach with colleagues in other disciplines might address these questions in other areas.

Benefits of Presentations

  • As the culmination of a unit, presentations can motivate students to creatively synthesize what they have learned. For many students, a carefully crafted final presentation is a memorable moment.

  • Presentations invite students to go beyond a unit's content to ask questions that are "essential," or questions that go to the heart of a larger issue. These questions -- the kind Pierce calls "thought-provoking questions" -- are generative: they cannot be neatly "answered," but continue to resonate productively.

  • Presentations can also be a culmination of group activity. Presenting information as a group teaches students a great deal about collaboration.

  • By considering audience, students learn how to make information relevant, interesting, and provocative. They consider how to engage a group and choose modes appropriate to the content, the audience, and the circumstances. These are skills that will serve them forever, whether in oral presentations, writing, artwork, or other forms.

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