Writing About Culturally Diverse Literature

By Carol Booth Olson

"Minh called me on Saturday. I had Minh in 7th grade and she now is a sophomore at Saddleback High School in Santa Ana. Although Minh is Vietnamese, she is just as underprivileged as most of Santa Ana's predominantly Chicano and Latino students....

"Minh said, 'I've been thinking about you so much lately, especially with all the advertisements of The Joy Luck Club at the video stores and all. I just wanted to tell you that lesson we had about the part in The Joy Luck Club where Suyan Woo leaves her children on the road and the essay you made us­no, helped us­write, made me think of you. How are you?' We talked for a while and then Minh said, 'you know, Mrs. Severy, I've had some good teachers since the 7th grade, but none of them helped me....taught me how to look at literature, how to bring my own thoughts into what I wanted to say about that literature as much as you. And, none of my other teachers ever made me agonize as much about an assignment as you did either! Thank you!'"

So writes Esther Severy, now Assistant Principal of McFadden Intermediate School in Santa Ana, of one of her former students who participated in a four-year university-school partnership project to enhance the reading, thinking and writing ability of ethnic and linguistic minority students. This project not only made a lasting impression on Minh, and thousands of other students, it created an intersegmental learning community of teacher researchers that continues to address issues of teaching and learning about cultural diversity.

Funded by a grant from the California Academic Partnership Program (CAPP), the Reading, Thinking and Writing About Culturally Diverse Literature Project brought together Teacher/Consultants from the University of California, Irvine site of the National Writing Project to explore this common question: Given the dramatic changes in the demographics of our service area, how can we, as teachers, be responsive to and responsible about finding ways to recognize, validate and motivate all of the children in our classrooms?

Because literature is the stock in trade of English/Language Arts teachers, it seemed like one of the most natural vehicles to honor the cultural diversity of students in the classroom. Our hope was that by infusing high-interest multicultural literature into the core curriculum­not just as a nod to Martin Luther King Day or Asian Studies Week­students who have normally felt disenfranchised in school would feel more connected to the learning environment. After she selected works of Korean literature and designed lessons to meet the needs of students at Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton, where the Asian student population is 48 percent, Julie Simpson noted, "As I began teaching Korean literature to my mostly Asian students, I could see their self-images improve. They were proud their culture was important enough to study, and were pleased that they and their families took on the roles of experts to whom we turned for cultural information."

The lessons designed by Julie and other Writing Project colleagues (who represented eleven different school districts and seven colleges) were based upon the UCI Writing Project's Thinking/Writing model, which blends learning theory, composing process research and the practical strategies of the National Writing Project in a scaffolded approach to fostering critical thinking through writing. Each lesson identified a key cognitive task to be practiced such as making infeences, speculating, predicting, and so forth, and provided guided activities to help students produce a particular type of writing: autobiographical incident, reflective essay, analytical interpretation, etc.

In two experimental treatment studies designed to assess the impact of the multicultural literature-based lessons created by Writing Project teachers on the students in their classrooms and in the classrooms of teachers receiving UCI/CAPP in-service training, experimental students improved their writing scores the equivalent of one-half of a letter grade from pre-test to post-test and gained anywhere from 22 percent to 39 percent in writing fluency. Further, the studies yielded a wealth of qualitative data about the affective impact of the lessons upon students: "I have learned so much this past year­respect for my fellow classmates, and their cultures, but most of all I sense their respect for my culture," wrote Talline Kojian. "I have found that my race is as valuable as the next," wrote Gabriel Caringal. "I see that my differences are what make me special."

Our experience in the Reading, Thinking and Writing About Culturally Diverse Literature Project not only convinced us of the effectiveness of designing and implementing multicultural literature-based curricula in classrooms with diverse populations, but of the teacher empowerment that can be achieved through collaboration. Perhaps Pat Clark, an English teacher from Century High in Santa Ana, says it best: "Participating as a Writing Project consultant is the best thing I ever did for both myself and my students....We, as a professional learning community, immersed ourselves in multicultural literature, and through this as well as listening to experts of different cultures, increased our understanding of what the diverse students in our individual districts really need in order to achieve success in their new country. What had begun as a research study through the UCI Writing Project and school districts and colleges throughout Orange County continues to impact the lives of thousands of students and teachers. Teachers have reached a higher level of understanding; students have developed pride, self-esteem, tolerance for others, and a renewed inspiration for reading, writing and thinking."


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