En la Clase: Talking with Mother Earth/Hablando con Madre Tierra

Talking with Mother Earth | Jorge Argueta | Vamos a LeerIn this week’s En la Clase we’re looking at Jorge Argueta’s children’s book Talking with Mother Earth/Hablando con Madre Tierra.  This bilingual poetry book not only speaks to this month’s theme of  diversity within Latinx identity, but is also an excellent resource for those teaching a critical history of conquest and colonization.  As with last week’s featured book, Argueta’s poetry is simple but powerful.  It elicits both critical thought and personal reflection.  Through these autobiographical poems we learn about Tetl:

“Tetl’s skin is brown, his eyes are black, and his hair is long. He’s different from the other children, whose taunts wound him deeply, leaving him confused and afraid. But Tetl’s grandmother knows the ancient teachings of their Aztec ancestors, and how they viewed the earth as alive with sacred meaning. With her help, he learns to listen to the mountains, wind, corn, and stones. Tetl’s journey from self-doubt to proud acceptance of his Nahuatl heritage is told in a series of powerful poems, beautifully expressed in both English and Spanish” (Goodreads).

In last week’s En la Clase, we discussed the importance of authentic cultural referents in children’s literature.  Argueta’s book demonstrates why this is so powerful.  Too often when we discuss native cultures and Indigenous peoples in our classrooms, it’s done in the past tense, as if they no longer exist.  In Talking with Mother Earth/Hablando con Madre Tierra readers learn about the childhood of Jorge Tetl Argueta who identifies as Pipil Nahua.  Argueta writes his poems in first person present tense.  While this may seem an insignificant choice, it’s not.  The explicit and implicit messages sent through the language in our children’s books are powerful.  The use of third person, past tense, or passive language can perpetuate ideas such as Indigenous peoples no longer exist, they have no agency, or they are to blame for the violence that is/was enacted upon them.  For more on this conversation, see Jean Paine Mendoza’s article “Goodbye, Columbus: Take Two” from A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children October is often the month in which students learn about Columbus, exploration, conquest and colonization.  It’s important to model for our students how to critique the oppressive messages conveyed in both the fiction and non-fiction literature they read on these topics, and to provide them examples of empowering narratives such as Argueta’s.

Discussion Suggestions:Talking with Mother Earth | Jorge Argueta | Vamos a Leer

Written in a child’s voice, Argueta’s poems are not only engaging reads for younger audiences, they are empowering.  It’s heartbreaking to read about the racist bullying that Tetl endured:

“Cracked-foot Indian,”
my schoolmates used to call me
and laugh at my bare feet.

“Flea-bitten Indian,”
they would call me
and pull on my hair
long and dark as the night
“Indian called down from the hill
by the beat of a drum,”
they would tease me and while the teacher
wrote on the blackboard, they would hit my back.

But, when we continue to live in a society that claims to be color-blind or post-racial, there is something powerful about naming this racism and the stereotypes being perpetuated.  Tetl’s words reveal a vulnerability that provides the space to discuss bullying and racism in a very open way.  This type of bullying continues to happen in classrooms and playgrounds across the nation.  While it’s certainly a complex problem, it’s not going to get any better until we’re willing to have the sometimes hard and uncomfortable conversations about racism in our classrooms.  Argueta’s book provides one way in which to do that.  We talk frequently about literature providing mirrors, windows, and doors.  Here, students who have been bullied are provided a protagonist who speaks both to the experience and how he chose to overcome it. We can also hope that those who have acted as bullies will begin to reflect on the causes and consequences of their behavior.

Talking with Mother Earth | Jorge Argueta | Vamos a LeerIn Dr. Laura Harjo’s introduction to the LAII’s recent screening of the film Tambien la Lluvia, she talked about how one of the effects of conquest, colonization, and colonialism can be seen through the deadening of land as it became property that could be owned.  Argueta’s poetry together with Lucía Ángela Pérez’s beautiful illustrations offer a much different view of land.  Here, Mother Earth is something both alive and powerful.  Exposed to a powerful counter narrative through the introduction to Nahua beliefs and spirituality, readers will hopefully develop a greater appreciation for Earth and the many facets of nature that we often take for granted, such as the wind, sun, water, or plants.

Activity Suggestions:

There’s a lot you could do with the book beyond a read aloud.  These ideas are just a start.  It’s certainly an excellent mentor text for poetry writing.  Argueta discusses his own childhood experiences with both openness and vulnerability.  Using this as a model, ask students to think about a hurtful experience they’ve had.  Perhaps they’ve been bullied, or they have bullied another student.  This could become the inspiration for their own poem.  It’s also an excellent text to use to teach nature poetry.  Ask students to think about the ways in which we take different elements of nature for granted.  Then, choosing one of these elements, each student can write their own poem as Argueta did. If time permits, have students illustrate their poems.  Then, create a class book of the poetry for display.

We’re not alone in thinking this is a wonderful book.  It has received both the  International Latino Book Award and Américas Book Award.

As always, I’d love to hear what your students think about the book!

Katrina

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En la Clase: A Perfect Season for Dreaming/Un Tiempo Perfecto Para Soñar

PerfectSeasonforDreaming_cover_72dpiIt’s no secret that we’re huge fans of Benjamin Alire Sáenz at Vamos a Leer.  We love his poetry, adult fiction, young adult novels, and children’s literature.  As we continue to highlight resources and literature that present nuanced interpretations of Latinx identity, this week’s En la Clase is all about Sáenz’s bilingual children’s book A Perfect Season for Dreaming/Un Tiempo Perfecto Para Soñar

Cinco Puntos Press offers the following description of the book: “An old man tells his granddaughter about the nine most beautiful dreams of his lifetime.  So, what exactly is the perfect season for dreaming? For Octavio Rivera, it’s summer, when the sky is so blue and a few lovely clouds come floating along to decorate it. It turns out that Octavio Rivera is a beautiful dreamer. And on these first long days of summer, he is visited by some very interesting dreams. But Octavio doesn’t tell anyone about his dreams, not after the first one, not after the second, not after the next or the next or the next. Finally, though, he can’t stand it anymore and he wants to tell someone so bad that his heart hurts. He decides that the only one he can trust with his dreams, the only one who won’t make fun of him for being too old or eating too much chorizo, the only one who will understand is his young granddaughter Regina because she also has beautiful and fantastic dreams.  And that sets Octavio Rivera free to enjoy one last long and lovely dream.”

At a glance, it may seem like a simple counting book, but it’s so much more, making it appropriate even for children who are long past learning their numbers.  This is a book that is not only beautifully written and illustrated, but provides authentic, engaging, culturally relevant content as well.

Culturally relevant pedagogy (also referred to as culturally responsive teaching or multicultural education) has quickly become one of A Perfect Season for Dreaming | Benjamin Alire Saenzthe new buzz terms in education over the past decade.  Many cite Gloria Ladson Billings as the scholar who brought the concept to the forefront of educational conversation and research.  For Ladson Billings, one of the key pieces to culturally relevant pedagogy is that it “empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes” (The Dreamkeepers).  Woven throughout Octavio Rivera’s dreams are cultural referents that will speak to many Latinx, Mexican, Mexican-American, Chicano, and Hispanic children.  Many will recognize the Spanish guitars, blooming desert cacti, armadillos, and marachi singers as familiar cultural references.  Children from the Southwest will delight in seeing some of their own hometowns mentioned in the story, as Denver, El Paso, Júarez, Lubbock, and Tucson all make appearances in the text.  Esau Andrade Valencia’s illustrations bring the surrealistic dreams to life, offering authentic colorful desert landscapes.  For students who aren’t familiar with any of this, the reading allows them to experience and learn about something new in a way that doesn’t perpetuate damaging cultural stereotypes.

Discussion Suggestions:

While young readers will certainly appreciate the structure and rhythm of the counting book, the simple text provides the opportunity to discuss so much more.  One of the more special elements of the story is Octavio’s relationship with his six-year-old granddaughter.  She is the only one he trusts to share his dreams with.  Their relationship provides the opportunity to introduce students to issues of ageism and breakdown many of the labels and stereotypes applied to the very old or the very young.  Ask students to think about the kinds of stereotypes we have about people who are older or younger. What words or pictures do they associate with those who are very old or very young? Then, ask them if they have a friend who is much older or younger. Does this person fit these stereotypes? What is their relationship like with that person? Ask them to think about why Octavio only chooses to share his dreams with his granddaughter.  Have them imagine that they have an older friend like Octavio.  What kinds of things could they share with that friend that they might not be able to share with someone their own age? Discuss these ideas as a class.

A Perfect Season for Dreaming | Benjamin Alire Saenz

Activity Suggestions:

When asked about the book, Sáenz wrote, “As a boy, I always hoped that when we broke the piñata at a party, that all sorts of beautiful things would come flying out.  Nothing ever came out but candy.  I suppose I wrote this book to set the world right.”  The fantastical, surreal, and magical nature of the book makes it perfect for the beginning of the year.  Often times the first month or two of the school year is focused on the teaching and establishing of routines, procedures, and expectations.  While necessary, all of this does little to encourage or build creativity.  A book like this offers a counterbalance.  It offers a celebration of the power of dreaming, something we don’t often talk about in our classrooms.  It’s also a chance for students to tap into their imaginations and practice a little inspired inventiveness.  Use the book’s text and imagery as a model.  Copying the dreaming premise of the book, ask students to create a counting book using their own cultural referents blended together with other fantastical elements.  If time is short, assign each student one number and have them create a page just for that number.  Then, combine each student’s page to create a class counting book.  If possible, have them visit a younger class and read their book to that class.

We’re not alone in thinking this is a wonderful book.  It has received a number of awards and honors, including the Kids’ Indie Next List (Winter 2008-09); Tejas Star Book Award; Paterson Prize; Best Book for Children; Texas Institute of Letters (TIL); Bank Street’s Best Children’s Books of the Year (2009); and Américas Book Award Honor Book (2009).

As always, if you’ve used the book with your students, we’d love to hear about it.  If your students make their own counting books, we’d love to see their creations! Just post a picture in the comments below.  Children’s art and writing is one of my most favorite things to see!

Until next week,

Katrina

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En la Clase: Super Cilantro Girl/La Superniña del Cilantro

Super Cilantro Girl | Juan Felipe HerreraAs more and more people begin to talk about the need for diversity in our classroom curricula and literature, we must remember that diversity can’t exist just for diversity’s sake.  Conversations in our classrooms around diversity can intentionally or unintentionally lead to the perpetuation of stereotypes and labels.  As Colleen pointed out in last week’s post identity is complex.  She asks an important question: How does one meaningfully capture the range of cultural practices, traditions, languages, religions, geography, race, and ethnicity – just to name a few – of those who identify as Latinx?  While we want to teach about the multitude of cultures, ethnicities, and races that make up our classroom, our nation, and our world, we also want to make sure that we are providing the space for our students to express and identity both their cultural background and their own uniqueness.

One way to accomplish this is to build a strong classroom community.  It won’t happen overnight, but in the long run it’s always worth the time and effort.  Lee and Low Books just shared a free unit on “Building Classroom Community Unit for Kindergarten.”  Based on eight different read-aloud books, the lessons provide in-depth literacy engagement while also encouraging students to connect through sharing about themselves and learning about others.  The lessons can be easily adapted for older children as well.

The LAII also has a curriculum unit on “Educating Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students.”  These lessons focus on teaching younger students about race, culture, difference, acceptance, and respect, all things that can contribute to a stronger classroom community.

The literature we use in our classrooms is such an important tool for ensuring that we provide portrayals of identity that show how complex it really is.  Keira mentioned in her Sobre Septiembre post that as we highlight Hispanic Heritage Month, we’re also looking to diversify and expand beyond the stereotypical or superficial conversations that can be associated with any heritage month.

With this in mind, in today’s En la Clase, I’m sharing some ideas on how to use the Super Cilantro Girl | Juan Felipe Herrerachildren’s book Super Cilantro Girl/La Superniña del Cilantro with your students.  This bilingual book was written by Juan Felipe Herrera, the 2015-2016 US Poet Laureate, and illustrated by Honorio Robledo Tapia.  It was published a number of years ago, but I just came across it a few weeks ago.  In case it’s new to you as well, here’s a short description:

“What happens when a small girl suddenly starts turning green, as green as a cilantro leaf, and grows to be fifty feet tall? She becomes Super Cilantro Girl, and can overcome all obstacles, that’s what! Esmeralda Sinfronteras is the winning super-hero in this effervescent tale about a child who flies huge distances and scales tall walls in order to rescue her mom. Award-winning writer Juan Felipe Herrera taps into the wellsprings of his imagination to address and transform the concerns many first-generation children have about national borders and immigrant status. Honorio Robledo Tapia has created brilliant images and landscapes that will delight all children.”

Not only is it a book that I think students will really enjoy, but it provides a number of opportunities for discussing themes relevant to identity and community.  When we talk about the purpose of diverse literature, we highlight the ways in which literature is like a door, a window, or a mirror.  It can allow students to see a world different than their own, provide them some way to experience it, and/or act as a mirror in which they see their own reflection.  Super Cilantro Girl/La Superniña del Cilantro can provide all of this.  For students who have experienced what it’s like to have families separated by borders and immigration, the book will speak to all of the emotions they’ve felt as they’ve worried about far-away family members.  For those who’ve never experienced this, the book allows them to begin to think about what this may be like, providing the means to understand a different point of view and practice the skill of empathy.

Super Cilantro Girl | Juan Felipe HerreraAll of this is done through the story of a young girl who becomes her own superhero.  Comic books have been critiqued for their largely white, male protagonists, but in this one, our superhero is a young Mexican American girl whose superpower comes from a plant indigenous to Mexico.  This undoes so many stereotypes, and it’s essential that these aspects of the book be discussed with students.

Too often literature portrays children as if they have no agency or power.  Herrera’s Super Cilantro Girl/La Superniña del Cilantro reinforces the idea of student agency and empowerment, and shows how Esmeralda creates something beautiful with her power when she transforms the border.

While the book can obviously be used in a unit exploring immigration or the U.S-Mexico border, I think it’s also a perfect book for exploring identity and diversity. . .and what student doesn’t want to turn themselves into a superhero?

After reading and discussing the book, ask students to think about the kind of superhero they would want to be.  Esmeralda’s transformation is triggered by her mother’s situation.  Encourage students to think about an issue or situation they wish they had a superpower to fix.  In many superhero stories, the superpower comes from a scientific lab or something otherworldly, but Esmeralda’s comes from an everyday plant.  What commonplace item from their own lives could give them a superpower?  Give students time to brainstorm and discuss their ideas with a partner, small group, or the whole class.  Then, have each student create an illustration of himself or herself as a superherSuper Cilantro Girl | Juan Felipe Herrerao.  This could even be a fun twist on the self-portraits we often have students do at the beginning of the year for Open House displays.  Once they’ve created their visual representation, ask them to write their own superhero story based on the theme or problem they brainstormed earlier.  If time allows, students can create their own comic book or graphic novel.

If you get the chance to do this with your students, I would LOVE to see their superheroes! I know I’ve only scratched the surface of what could be done with this book.  If you’ve read the book or used it in your classroom, I’d love to hear your thoughts (and so would our other teacher readers).  Just leave a comment down below.

For other suggestions on great children’s literature that explores identity, check out Colleen’s Reading Roundup of 10 Books with Diverse Latinx Perspectives and Alice’s İMira, Look! posts highlighting Pura Belpré winners.

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En la Clase: Traveling in Cuba

Cuba 4

Keira and I are still traveling in Cuba this week.  In place of today’s En la Clase, I thought I’d share one of my favorite photos of Habana Vieja.  I’ll be back with a new post next week.

Until then,

Katrina


Image: Photo of “Habana Sunset.” Reprinted from Flickr use Jaume Escofet under CC ©.

En la Clase: Using the Film Pelo Malo in the Classroom

Pelo MaloAs part of our spring programming this semester, we held a free screening of the film Pelo Malo/Bad Hair.  The film touches on a number of important themes relevant to this month’s topic of women’s history as we consider the complexity of gender constructs and expectations, and the stereotypes that result from these.   For today’s post, I’ll share our thoughts and reflections on the film, as well as our accompanying educator’s guide.

It’s certainly not an easy film to watch, but one which I highly recommend.  Set in Caracas, Venezuela, Pelo Malo tells the story of nine-year-old Junior who has stubbornly curly hair, or pelo malo.  He desperately wants to have it straightened for his school photo, but his mother, a young widow, can’t understand his obsession.  The more Junior fixates on his appearance in an attempt to make his mother love him, the more angry and hurtful she becomes, ultimately rejecting him.

It deals with heavy content, and is likely most appropriate for older students and adults.  It’s certainly a powerful classroom resource, as it provides the context to discuss gender roles, expectations, and constructs, as well as race and its impact on societal norms of beauty.  Much of Junior’s mother’s rejection comes from her inability to accept the ways in which her son doesn’t fit her own ideas of masculinity.  As a result, she assumes he’s gay, something that is intolerable to her.  The point of the film is not Junior’s sexual identity, but instead his mother’s issues and assumptions that provide the context to analyze the ways in which our gender stereotypes are harmful and superficial.  Interestingly, while Junior’s pelo malo juniormother holds him to stereotypical standards of masculinity, she defies these same standards of femininity in her work as a security guard.  Much of this seems to be the purpose of the director, who writes, “I also wanted to talk about intolerance in a social context that is riddled with dogmas, which don’t embrace otherness, where public affairs extend to the private life of its inhabitants, highlighting their differences, be they social, political, or sexual.”

While reading reviews of the film, I was surprised to see descriptions that seemed to be making excuses for the mother’s behavior, describing her as a worn-out and tired single mother who had no patience with her son’s antics, as if this made her abusive behavior understandable or acceptable.  I think this is an important distinction to discuss with students.  The mother, a young widow struggling to find work, was overwhelmed and exhausted.  But this does not make her psychological or emotional abuse okay.  In past posts I’ve written about how important I think it is to talk about love in the classroom.  Love is relevant here as well.  As much as we want all of our students to be in nurturing, healthy, authentically loving environments, some of them aren’t.  We need to give them the tools to recognize when pelo-malo-review-rondonsomething or someone is unloving.  They need to have the language to discuss this with adults who can help.  In talking about the film, the director writes, “I’m interested in talking about helpless characters, who lack resources for emotional survival. . .Bad Hair is the intimate story of a nine-year-old child’s initiation to life.  A child who still plays, but who plays with everyday horror.”  Perhaps in using the film, we can begin to discuss with our students some of these resources for emotional survival, better preparing them to be successful psychologically and emotionally, in addition to academically.

Of equal importance is the way in which the film engages in a discussion of race and racism.  The title alone invites discussion of how and why certain types of hair are labeled “good hair” or “bad hair.”  Societal notions of beauty as interpreted by Junior and his young female friend clearly demonstrate the damage such stereotypes can do.  Their obsession with beauty pageants and their photographs plays an important and telling role throughout the film.

If you’re interested in reading more about the film, check out our educator’s guide.  It includes general teaching ideas for using film in the classroom, as well as comprehension questions and projects specific to the film.  Please note, the film is unrated, but with sexual scenes and nudity, some parts may need to be omitted for classroom use.  In the guide we have clearly noted the times of these scenes so they can avoided if necessary.

If you’ve seen the film, or decide to watch it, we’d love to hear your thoughts.  There was certainly some interesting conversation after our own screening.

Until next week,

Katrina

En la Clase: Teaching About Frida Kahlo

Frida CanvasAs you’ve read in recent posts, this month we’re celebrating women’s history through sharing resources about strong Latin American and Latina women.  With such a focus, it would be remiss not to highlight Frida Kahlo as part of this month.  Of course, we would advocate for teaching about Kahlo anytime of year, but I think she is of incredible importance when we’re discussing women who have changed the way in which we think about female identity and the role of women in society. We’ve made great strides in gender equality, and it’s important to recognize the multitudes of women (and men) who have helped to make that happen.  I particularly appreciated the discussion in the article “Embracing the Modern Female Heroine–In All Her Forms” by the Children’s Book Cooperative (CBC).  It’s vital that we continue to highlight the ways in which we are challenging and redefining what it means to be a woman in today’s society because it is certainly happening and our students need to be aware of it:

While the challenges of ethnic, racial, and sexual diversity still loom large, I found some comfort this past year in seeing an emergence of strong, complex, and challenging female characters depicted in modern entertainment. Women depicted making morally questionable choices.  Women whose principle dilemmas didn’t revolve around a dashing leading man. Women who took on what society often dictates as standard male personality traits (physical and emotional strength, relentless determination, and even questionable moral conduct) and redefined them as their own. Women who traveled down paths of their own making, shaped by a clear understanding of who they are as people, and holding onto that identity with all they have.” (From Embracing the Modern Female Heroine–In All Her Forms)

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En la Clase: Educator’s Guide for Separate is Never Equal

Pages from 2015-Americas-AwardIn last week’s review of Separate is Never Equal I promised I’d share the educator’s guide for the book this week.  As one of this year’s Américas Award winners, the Consortium of Latin American Studies Programs sponsored the creation of curriculum materials to support using the book in the classroom.  I’m really excited to share them with you today.  In the guide you’ll find a variety of activities to help you implement the book in your classroom, whether on it’s own or part of a larger unit.  The book would be an excellent addition to any unit plan on social justice, activism, children as activists, or Latino/a history.  As we’ve mentioned in the past, there are a number of reasons diverse literature (like this book) is so important to our students and classrooms.  The hope is that through providing students the space to engage with texts like this, we are giving them the opportunity to see themselves reflected in the books they read in school, or to learn about the lived realities of others so that they become more empathetic. Continue reading