Living Literacy:  Giving a Voice to Immigrant Children in a Diverse Community

By Jeanne M. Peloso Lehman College, CUNY, Bronx, NY

Establishing a nurturing academic environment that fosters democratic and socially just relationships between the school, family, and surrounding community is essential to the educational success of immigrant children. These relationships establish the foundation for all learning throughout the course of the school year. By establishing a network of support, we can foster the social, emotional, and cognitive growth of all students, and particularly those who have recently immigrated.

While the importance of establishing this network of community is accepted in the field, the challenge lies in practical implementation. This article introduces a method of building networks of human connection from a foundation of a democratic and socially just pedagogical model for aesthetic education. The classroom described here, situated in the Bronx, New York, includes children who have come from many parts of the world.

Living Literacy
Living literacy stretches the definition of literacy to “include the ways in which . . . people write and read their lives” (Neilsen, 1989, p. 2). Inherent in this notion of living literacy is embodied literacy, a type of corporeal knowing that allows learners to integrate reading and writing in a profound way. It is a recognition of the “powerful interchange between young people’s experiences in the world and what they read. . . . The cycle of experience and reading—a cycle of life to text and text to life—is at the heart of literacy and learning”  (Washor, Mojkowski, & Foster, 2009, p. 521). This approach requires researchers to investigate the lives of individuals, including their social context, to develop an effective pedagogy for literacy development.  

The following activities are structured to build a culture of caring among a diverse group of students. While many different pedagogical theories are incorporated into this unit, Baines and Kunkel’s (2000, 2003) philosophy of establishing a writing environment that nurtures human connection provides the foundation.  

Step One:  Read The Circuit
Students begin by reading The Circuit (1999) by Francisco Jimenez, which describes the migration of a family from Mexico to the United States from a child’s point of view. The family traverses California searching for their next harvesting job. The vivid narrative portrays the profound impact of the migratory life on the development of a child.

The Circuit can be used to introduce older elementary students to the living literacy of the author. The child narrator voices his own journey, giving testimony to where he comes from and where he currently resides. It is a moving portrayal of one child’s struggle to build a home place within a transitory life.  

Step Two: What Is the Color of My Skin?
Borrowing an activity from the Teaching Tolerance Project (1997), students trace their hands on mural paper. On a separate piece of paper, using Colors Like Me® paint, students mix colors to match their individual skin tones. After painting their traced hands, students discuss the similarities and differences they notice. Rather than finding black or white, the students see that the hands are all shades of brown.

The discussion extends to imagine Jimenez’s hand color and an exploration of his culture and ethnicity. The students explore the impact of culture and ethnicity on human development, using examples from the book and their own life stories. The discussion allows students to explore culture and ethnicity through Jimenez’s experience and also share the impact on their developing life story.

Step Three: Create a Map
In a social studies component, students place different push pins on a large world map to designate different locations on the globe that have meaning in their life story. Red push pins could indicate where a student was born, blue push pins indicate locations a student has lived along his/her journey, yellow push pins indicate where a student currently lives. Students also included push pins to trace Jimenez’s life.

Using the completed map, students explore the importance of home in a global society and the impact of geographic location. Jimenez’s story provides a foundation for a discussion of a migrant life and its implications on the idea of home. The students imagine what home means to people from different parts of the globe. They also explore the idea of home for themselves through a variety of questions, such as: Where is home? What languages are spoken at home? Who lives at home?

Step Four: Hometown Poem
Students create an artistic representation of their hometown or a place on the globe that they associate with the word “home.” An artistic representation may be created using a variety of mediums: paint, markers, crayon, collage, etc.  

This artistic activity helps children access the emotions required to complete the poetry writing exercise. Baines and Kunkel (2000) advocate using “off-beat strategies, competitive games, interdisciplinary hooks, art and multimedia, and indirect approaches to teaching some of the difficult lessons of writing” (p. xii).

After discussing their artistic representations, students write a poem using “Performance Art Poetry” (Baines, 2000, p. 33). Students remain in writing groups for the creation and editing process of their poems. Using writing prompts, they write poems about what they consider to be their hometown. Students have free choice in their poem format. Rough drafts are developed through peer critiquing and peer revision in the writing groups and two class periods are devoted to the formation of these drafts.

Hometown Poem Structure

Place where you grew up and a verb (2 words)
The landscape (4 words)
Smell or taste of your hometown (6 words)
Music, song, or sounds that remind you of your hometown (8 words)
Kind of people who live there (10 words)
An important event in your life (12 words)
An important event in your life (12 words – you can repeat the above line or write a new one)
A dream or nightmare (10 words)
An influential person (8 words)
The specific advice or truth someone once gave you (perhaps you heard it from the person mentioned above). Try to write out their advice specifically, then delete the quotation marks (6 words)
The weather (4 words)

The following is a poem from a 6th-grade student:

Dominican Republic
DR beauty
Mountains, dirt roads, beaches
Sancocho smell from my abuelita’s kitchen
Merengue, Salves, Palo, Merenrap, beat, beat in air
People who are still asleep in many ways, walking slowly
Moved away from everyone we knew, watching my mama cry leaving home
Trying not to cry as I walked into NYC school, First Day
My dreams filled with beautiful DR landscapes or NYC nightmares
The first NYC teacher who said Como Esta?
Don’t eat if you can’t pronounce
It rains often, actually
DR beauty

Step Five: Poetry Reading and Bread Celebration
As a final celebration, students organize a poetry reading. Experience indicates that the praise students receive after a public reading has a profound impact (Baines & Kunkel, 2003). This activity can include the surrounding community. A nighttime poetry reading allows different members of the community to attend the performance.  

To enhance the celebration, each student shares a sample of bread they associate with their culture or ethnicity of origin. Students are asked to tell the story of their bread: name of the bread, ingredients in the bread, process of bread preparation, and how the bread is served. This activity incorporates elements of the science curriculum as students explain agricultural practice, chemical change, and food production.

The students are also encouraged to share any memories regarding the importance of bread in their life story. In the Bronx, this is an easy request, as a multitude of cultures and ethnicities are present in most classrooms. Also, many multinational bakeries can be found in the immediate neighborhood.

The bread activity can be a powerful demonstration that one food, with a common set of ingredients, can find a variety of expressions globally. This is a profound model for the children to demonstrate that one species, with a common set of “ingredients,” can also find a variety of expressions globally. This point is also reinforced by the “What Is the Color of My Skin?” activity.  

Ultimately, the poems are published in books that are added to the elementary school library and the local community libraries. Each student brings home a copy of the book signed by each poet in the class.  

Final Thoughts
By validating the living literacy of students, teachers enable all children to develop their own voice. Immigrant children take pride in telling their life stories and begin to build human connections as they hear others’ stories. The life-to-text and text-to-life cycle (Washor, Mojkowski, & Foster, 2009) is embodied and literacy instruction has new meaning for the students.  

To establish a culture of caring in a diverse classroom, it is important to allow all children to be part of the educational process because “[t]he vision of community that the classroom provides can color a child’s ideas and expectations about equity, cooperation and citizenship for a lifetime” (Teaching Tolerance Project, p. v). As children develop the skills to tell their own story, they make meaning of their own developmental journeys and integrate this understanding into their life narratives. These skills provide a foundation for individuals to know the world and “learn to be at home in the worlds they choose” (Neilsen, 1989, p. 123). Doing so within the community of the classroom builds a connection among individuals within the context of a literacy class and creates a culture of caring that embraces diversity.

Colorations® Colors Like Me® paint can be purchased at Discount School Supply.

Starting Small: Teaching Children Tolerance Kit can be ordered for free from Teaching Tolerance Project.

Baines, L. (2000). Performance art poetry. In L. Baines & A. J. Kunkel (Eds.), Going Bohemian: Activities that engage adolescents in the art of writing well (pp. 33-35). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
Baines, L., & Kunkel, A. J. (Eds.). (2000). Going Bohemian: Activities that engage adolescents in the art of writing well. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
Baines, L., & Kunkel, A. J. (2003). Teaching adolescents to write: The unsubtle art of naked teaching. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Jimenez, F. (1999). The circuit. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children.
Levine, D. (2009). Building classroom communities: Strategies for developing a culture of caring. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
Neilsen, L. (1989). Literacy and living: The literate lives of three adults. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Neilsen, L. (1998). Knowing her place: Research literacies and feminist occasions. San Francisco, CA: Caddo Gap Press.
Teaching Tolerance Project. (1997). Starting small: Teaching tolerance in preschool the early grades. Montgomery, AL: Southern Poverty Law Center.
Washor, E., Mojkowski, C. & Foster, D. (2009). Living literacy: A cycle of life to text and text to life. Phi Delta Kappan, 90(70), 521-523.