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Introducing Multicultural Novels in Ways That Hook Students’ Interest

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

The article: “Launching Lessons: Framing Our Approach to Multicultural, Multivoiced YA Literature” by Danielle Lillge and Diana Dominguez in English Journal, September 2017 (Vol. 107, #1, p. 33-40); the authors can be reached at and
In this article in English Journal, Danielle Lillge (Missouri State University) and Diana Dominguez (a community organizer) suggest ways to successfully launch a young-adult novel with high-school students. Here’s how a teacher handled the opening lesson on the novel Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope. The teacher’s central question was, What does it mean to be heard and understood? “In your writer’s notebooks,” instructed the teacher, “reflect on a time when you felt you were truly heard and understood.”
After students had written a paragraph, the teacher said, “What you wrote is personal. I know that some of you may feel uncomfortable sharing. So, I’d like you to reread what you wrote. Decide how much of what you wrote you could share with classmates.”
Students thought about this and shared (or didn’t) in groups of three. The teacher then pulled the class together and said, “As you think about your triad conversation, what elements seem key to the kinds of situations where people feel heard and understood?” She wrote students’ responses on the board, and they discussed the benefits of being heard and understood. One student asked, “But what about when someone wants their feelings heard, but their beliefs are wrong?” “What do you mean by wrong?” asked the teacher, sparking a debate about a better word than wrong and ways of respecting or rejecting offensive points of view. “Let’s keep these important questions in mind as we get ready to read,” said the teacher.
But before beginning the novel, she played a music video of the Mexican-American Grammy Award-winning song, Hasta La Raiz. “What is being communicated or happening in the video?” she asked. “And how is this message being communicated?” Students read the lyrics in Spanish and English, discussed those questions with a partner, then came together to talk about voice and what gets lost in translation.
Finally, the teacher introduced Out of Darkness, a historical novel about the deadliest school explosion in U.S. history and a love affair between a Mexican-American girl and an African-American boy. “This novel is about many issues and themes relevant today,” explained the teacher, “including segregation, sexual violence, love, family, and trust.” She read the prologue aloud and then asked small groups of students to read excerpts of early chapters and draw inferences about the narrator of each. After groups shared character findings and theories, she said, “Based on these discussions, I want you to generate a list of questions that you are eager to find answers to as we begin reading.” The teacher posted students’ questions and they moved on with the unit.
Lillge and Dominguez believe this teacher was successful in accomplishing several key objectives as she launched the novel:
• Building connections – Linking the topics, themes, characters, and conflicts of a novel to previous literacy learning and events outside the school. The key question: What does this text have to do with what I already know or have experienced?
• Creating space to respectfully name and consider multiple perspectives – Rather than using a gimmicky movie trailer, the teacher got students thinking, writing, and talking about thought-provoking issues linked to the book they were about to read. Key questions: What do we gain when we consider multiple, multicultural perspectives in relation to one another or to our own perspectives? Why will reading this book matter to me?
• Stitching together a line of inquiry – “Too often,” say Lillge and Dominguez, “we fail to share with students a clear vision for where we’re going with a particular text. Or we fail to co-construct that vision with students.” This teacher’s launching activities set a clear purpose and established questions that motivated students to keep reading and discussing. Key questions: What is this book really about? What does it help us contemplate?
• Fostering a sense of community – In this novel launch, say the authors, “students’ development of connections, interpretive readings, theories, and questions were all done in community with classmates… Together classmates discussed and contemplated how insider and outsider status is ascribed or usurped.” Key questions: How does this book help us interact with one another? How does it help us think about the role of community in our own and others’ lives?
• Attending to language – The student’s question about “wrong” beliefs was a teachable moment that made the teacher think on her feet and produced a good discussion about meanings carried by seemingly ordinary words.

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