Archive article #00–02

Understanding Culture in Our Lives and Work:
Teachers’ Literature Study in the Book Club Program

Taffy E. Raphael, CIERA/Oakland University
Karen Damphousse, University Liggett Middle School
Kathy Highfield, Holly Area Schools
Susan Florio-Ruane, CIERA/Michigan State University

Developing the Research Agenda
Merging the Research Lines
New Course Content and Structure: The Book Club Workshop
Concluding Comments

(To appear in P. R. Schmidt & P. B. Mosenthal (Eds.), Literacy in the New Age of Pluralism and Multiculturalism, Volume 9, Advances in Reading/Language Research. Lexington, MA: JAI.)


"Learning to look through multiple perspectives, young people may be helped to build bridges among themselves; attending to a range of human stories, they may be provoked to heal and transform" (Dewey cited in Greene, 1993, p. 17). In the 1930s, John Dewey foreshadowed the construct of multiculturalism in his emphasis on the importance of building bridges and assuming multiple perspectives. The United States is a pluralistic society, perhaps one of the most diverse in the world. One of our key responsibilities as educators is to help our students learn to live, work, and participate in such a diverse society. Fulfilling this responsibility is one of the greatest challenges we face in our profession, both in the education of our youngsters and in the field of teacher education.

The project we describe in this chapter grew out of our interest in the potential of autobiography and autobiographical fiction and their promise for educating both teachers and students to live and work in a diverse society. The project began in 1995 as a collaboration between Susan Florio-Ruane, Ph.D. and Taffy Raphael, Ph.D. Susan and Taffy had worked together on program development and in other roles as colleagues at Michigan State University for several years. Their research collaboration began when they decided to explore how Taffy’s research on Book Club (McMahon & Raphael, 1997;Goatley, Brock & Raphael, 1995; Raphael, Brock, & Wallace, 1998) and Susan’s research on the Future Teachers’ Autobiography Club (Florio-Ruane, 1994; 1997; Florio-Ruane & deTar, 1995) could be combined to address two of the challenges that literacy educators face today, one related to teachers’ teaching and development, the other to the diversity of students in today’s classrooms.

In this chapter, we describe the background for Susan’s and Taffy’s decision to connect their work and the resulting contexts for professional development at Michigan State and Oakland Universities. We then describe the masters level course that grew out of this collaboration, taught by Taffy at Oakland University, with the assistance of Kathy Highfield. In the second and third sections of this chapter, participants Kathy Highfield and Karen Damphousse describe their experiences in and responses to the adult book club course. We conclude with a discussion of the promises that autobiography book clubs hold for us as teacher educators and teachers, as well as for our students.

Developing the Research Agenda
Susan and Taffy worked together, merging their two lines of research to help support teachers in addressing the challenges they face in teaching today. These challenges relate to (a) diversity among students and between teachers and students and (b) teaching and teacher development. We first detail the challenges, then describe merging the two lines of research.

Diversity within the School Population
A major challenge facing teachers today stems from the cultural makeup of our teaching force and student population (see Au & Raphael, 2000). Today’s teaching force can be characterized, on the surface, as being extremely homogenous. Despite attempts to increase the racial, ethnic and linguistic diversity of our teaching force, teachers today are primarily Euro-American, monolingual women from working- and middle-class backgrounds. Many of these teachers work with students whose backgrounds are quite similar to their own, and issues of culture and diversity remain largely transparent. This homogeneity does little to prepare students to live in our pluralistic society. At the other end of the spectrum, many other teachers work with groups of students who do not share their racial, linguistic, ethnic, or socioeconomic backgrounds. Teachers in these environments often view culture as something exotic and completely external, associated only with the unnamed "other," and not a part of their own lives, backgrounds, etc. Maxine Greene, citing poet and literary critic, Toni Morrison, has described this perspective as defining ourselves against some "otherness" which we may "thrust away, to master rather than to understand" (1995, pp.161–-62). Since literacy and schooling are clearly cultural practices, teachers need to be aware of their own culture and the influence it has had on their own lives if they are to be successful in considering how culture influences the lives and the learning of their students.

By considering how culture influences our students’ lives and their literacy development, we, as literacy educators, can make valuable contributions to students’ multicultural education. As Banks (1992, p.23) states, "multicultural education is designed to help unify a deeply divided nation rather than to divide a highly cohesive one." Current practices that emphasize the study of individual cultures may in fact promote stereotyping and division, the very problems that they were designed to erase. Studying cultures as objects tends to frame cultures as static constructs, and ignores the reality that there is as much variation within as across cultures.

Thus, our primary goal was to help teachers come to understand themselves as cultural beings (i.e., as members of one of more cultural groups), to understand literacy as cultural practice, and to extend these understandings to their curriculum development and instructional practices. We grounded teachers’ learning about culture in a variety of contexts in which, through conversation, they could explore the cultural backgrounds of various authors who have written of their own immigrant experiences, and, in doing so, could make connections between the lives of these authors and their own cultural backgrounds. We embedded these experiences within a model of conversation-based curricula as a way of addressing the second challenge facing teachers today, teaching and teacher development.

Teaching and Teacher Development
Teachers today are expected to teach using conversation-based approaches such as process writing (Calkins, 1986; Dyson, 1992), Literature Circles (Daniels, 1994), and Book Club (McMahon & Raphael, 1997), that are grounded in response-oriented literacy education. Yet, neither teachers’ educational history nor their teacher preparation coursework have provided the rich experiences needed to teach within such approaches (Burbules, 1993). At best, this creates challenges for today's teachers; worse, it leads to frustration and even disenchantment for teachers, students, administrators, and parents.

These teaching and teacher development challenges can be traced to innovations in literacy instructional practices in the past decade. First, there have been changes in textual materials, such as moving away from commercially prepared short stories and text excerpts and using original literature as a basis for instruction (see Raphael & Au, 1998). Second, there have been changes in curriculum organization, such as moving from isolated instruction in reading, writing, language, and subject matter to intra- and interdisciplinary teaching (Gavelek, Raphael, Biondo, & Wang, in press). Third, there have been changes in teachers’ roles, such as moving from teacher control over topics and turns to teachers assuming multiple roles—direct teaching, modeling and scaffolding, facilitating and participating—with related changes in students’ roles, where students are asked to assume more responsibilities for selecting books, initiating discussion topics, and evaluating their progress (see Au & Raphael, 1998, 2000).

Thus, our second goal was to create an experience where teachers engaged in conversation-based learning that would parallel the innovative ways of teaching and learning that they were attempting within their classroom literacy instructional practices. In addition to helping prepare teachers to teach using conversation-based approaches, the very nature of the context promotes consideration of alternate positions and points of view as participants make connections between texts, among one another, and between the texts and their own lives. McVee (1999) studied the stories that teachers told as they responded to autobiographical literature. Over the course of a semester, the teachers' stories changed. Teachers positioned and re-positioned themselves with regard to their stance toward race and culture. Similarly, Raphael & Florio-Ruane (1998) studied the conversations among teachers during one evening's discussion of Amy Tan's novel, The Kitchen God’s Wife. Participants used this fictional account of one woman's life to consider issues ranging from the secrets within one’s own family’s histories to those maintained within culture, gender (specifically among women), and society. Using the culture of China in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, teachers explored racial relationships, class struggles, and gender. In short, through conversation in response to autobiographical literature, teachers can examine cultures and multiculturalism, be challenged to face some of their own biases and stereotypes, and make connections across cultures and times. All of these experiences support teachers’ curriculum development in multicultural education with an eye toward supporting their students’ abilities to live in a pluralist society.

Merging the Research Lines
Susan had created a Future Teachers' Autobiography Club in which six young women preparing to become teachers engaged in six monthly discussions, each one centered on one of six autobiographies Susan had selected (Florio-Ruane, 1994, 1997, in press). The autobiographies represented stories of white teachers who chose to work with students from diverse backgrounds (Paley’s White Teacher; Rose’s Lives on the Boundary), of immigrants who left their homelands voluntarily to seek new educational and financial opportunities (Hoffman’s Lives in Translation; Conway’s The Road from Coorain), and of immigrants or descendants of immigrants who were forced to leave their homeland due to slavery or economic deprivation (Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory; Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings) (see Florio-Ruane & De TaR, 1995 and Florio-Ruane, 1996, for detailed description of this project).

Autobiography provides an important means by which teachers can explore the lives of people who are very different from themselves, as well as explore their own cultural histories (Graham, 1991). As Jill Ker Conway (1998) suggests in her recent examination of the autobiographical genre.

Theory can help us read autobiography with more critical awareness. Gender studies can help us pay attention to when and where women autobiographers seem to have trouble with their narrative. But to answer the question of why we like to read it, and why individuals sit down at desk or table and begin to tell their story, lies not in theory but in cultural history. It has to do with where we look when we try to understand our own lives, how we read texts and what largely unexamined cultural assumptions we bring to interpreting them (p. 4).

Through their reading, writing, and discussions, the six student teachers heightened their awareness of themselves as cultural beings, but struggled to talk about race, culture, and gender. Susan began looking for ways to create a context in which she would have a more clearly defined role as instructor to facilitate discussions about hard-to-talk-about topics, while still emphasizing conversation-based learning.

Taffy had collaborated with classroom teachers and university-based colleagues to create the Book Club Program (McMahon &Raphael, 1997; Raphael, Goatley, Woodman, McMahon, 1994; Raphael, McMahon, Goatley, Bentley, Boyd, Pardo, & Woodman, 1992). The Book Club Program is an instructional context centered on student-led discussion groups. Reading, writing, and discussion strategies are taught to students to enable them to become more comfortable and proficient in reading, writing about, and talking about books (see Raphael, Pardo, Highfield, & McMahon, 1997 for extensive description of the program and specific unit examples).

Book Club emphasized dialogic teaching and learning in whole class and small group settings, and several of the teachers indicated their own discomfort stemming from their own lack of experience in book clubs. Taffy had tried different ways of introducing teachers to book clubs, such as reading and discussing children’s literature that they might use in their classrooms. She found that, after a few minutes of talking about the texts, teachers’ focus shifted from the books themselves to how they would teach the books. Thus, Taffy was looking for a substantive set of issues that teachers teaching with Book Club could read, write, and discuss in their own book clubs.

Susan and Taffy merged their work, emphasizing a substantive focus on autobiography and its related themes of living in a pluralist society and understanding ourselves as cultural beings, and adapting the Book Club model for use in a masters level course for practicing teachers. Susan taught the course while Taffy and two research assistants, Susan Wallace and Mary McVee, served as participant observers, audiotaping the classrooms, recording field notes, and interviewing the participants. The structure of the Book Club program, combined with a substantive syllabus of autobiographical texts and selected articles about culture and education, provided the means by which teachers learned about literacy as a cultural practice and themselves as cultural beings (see Florio-Ruane, Raphael, Glazier, McVee, & Wallace, 1997; Florio-Ruane, Raphael & Shellhorn, 1998; Raphael & Florio-Ruane, 1998).

Jerri1, one of the teacher participants from the course taught by Susan, stated in an interview in the summer following her participation, "I was one of those people in the beginning who (thought) I had no culture. There’s nothing to me. I’ve had no experiences." Getting culture "on the table" for discussion was an important first step. Jerri described her reading of autobiographies as providing "experiences, even though I haven’t (had them). It’s given me a better understanding for some of those things." Further, teachers appreciated the opportunity to experience a model of instruction that they planned to use in their own teaching. Hannah, another teacher in Susan’s course, noted in her follow-up interview that "for me it was an excellent, excellent experience because I use book clubs in my classroom. So it was terrific for me to be able to participate in something that I ask my students to participate in."

After the course, the group chose to create the Literary Circle to continue reading, thinking and talking about autobiography and culture using the Book Club model. Over subsequent years (the next two, and continuing today), the meeting locations changed. Initially, the Literary Circle had met in Susan’s home. The second year, we met in a private room at a local coffee shop/book store; members took turns recommending a book read in advance that fit the theme of literacy and culture. We decided to read a selection of texts that included not only autobiography, but also autobiographical fiction such as Amy Tan’s (1991) The Kitchen God’s Wife and Nora Zeale Hurston’s (1937) Their Eyes Were Watching God; and books such as Peggy Orenstein’s (1994) School Girls that explore related issues—in this case, gender examined through a series of case studies. These discussions were also pre-researched by Taffy and Susan, along with the aforementioned research assistants (Mcvee & Wallace) as well as Jocelyn Glazier and Bette Shellhorn (for examples, see Florio-Ruane, Raphael, & Shellhorn, 1998; Florio-Ruane, Raphael, Glazier, Mcvee, & Wallace, 1997; Raphael & Florio-Ruane, 1998).

New Course Content and Structure: The Book Club Workshop
When Taffy moved from Michigan State University to Oakland University, she developed a course for practicing teachers—the Book Club Workshop—that extended the original course which Susan had taught. The course introduced practicing teachers to literature-based reading instruction using the Book Club Program as the primary illustration (Raphael, Pardo, Highfield, & McMahon,1997; McMahon & Raphael, 1997), and promoted teachers exploration of literacy as a cultural practice and themselves as cultural beings as they read autobiographies written by ethnic minorities who focus on the immigrant experiences (for a detailed course description and syllabus, see Raphael, 2000, in press).

Three activities are core. First, continuing the autobiography book club tradition, participants read four autobiographical texts, each one to be discussed over two class meetings. Though selections vary across semesters, in the course that Kathy Highfield and Karen Damphousse—co-authors of this chapter—were participants, these texts were Conway’s The Road from Coorain, Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory, Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and McBride’s The Color of Water. From this experience, teachers reported many of the same responses as did Hannah and Jerri, members of the original course at MSU and the subsequent Literary Circle. Second, drawing on Kathy Au and Jane Hansen’s insights on the importance of uncovering our own literacy histories (Au, 1997; Hansen, 1998), each student developed four entries to create a "literacy history portfolio." Each entry detailed how an aspect of literacy had played a role in their own lives. Third, each teacher created a Book Club unit to use in their own teaching. Some participants not currently teaching created after school literature circles for students in their neighborhood. Most, however, created units to implement with students in first grade through high school classrooms. Thus, teachers in the course drew on their readings of autobiography and their construction of their own literacy history portfolios as important sources for discovering culture in their own lives as teachers and learners. They drew on their experiences reading, writing, and talking about books as they created Book Club units to implement in their own settings

In many ways, Kathy Highfield and Karen Damphousse are typical of the students Susan and Taffy taught in both masters-level autobiography book club courses. Like the majority of the other students in Taffy’s class, each was working full time in her respective school site while pursuing a graduate degree part-time through evening courses. When Kathy took the Book Club Workshop course, she had already completed her masters degree at Michigan State University and had just taken on two new professional challenges—moving from her role as a classroom teacher to working as an Instructional Facilitator (i.e., language arts and technology coordinator) and beginning her doctoral studies at Oakland University. Karen was about to complete her last course in the Oakland University Masters in Reading and Language Arts, while continuing her role as a middle school language arts teacher. Of the students in the class, all spoke English as their first language and Kathy was the only student in the group who spoke a second language fluently. All of the students in the course identified themselves as being from middle- or working-class backgrounds, and most lived in one of the suburban areas surrounding Detroit. Kathy worked in a rural district approximately 75 miles north of the metro area, while Karen worked in a private school quite close to the metro area.

In the next two sections of this chapter, Karen and Kathy describe their experiences in and learning through the Book Club Workshop course. The fact that they have continued to work on the Book Club Plus project makes them, in some ways, unique from their peers in the class. However, their experiences within the course appear to be well within the range of experiences described by other participants in similar course(s) we have taught (see Florio-Ruane et al., 1997, 1999).

Kathy’s Experiences
Taking Taffy’s Book Club class was like hiking a familiar wooded trail. The theory, discussions, and readings were familiar. I have been involved in Book Club first-hand since 1991 when, as a graduate student, I joined a teacher research group that focused on implementing the many aspects and interests that are described in The Book Club Connection: Literacy Learning and Classroom Talk (McMahon & Raphael, 1997) and Book Club: A Literature-Based Curriculum (Raphael et al., 1997). However, as seasons change the landscape on hiking trails, the landscape of Book Club was changing on my professional path. First, this was my first experience in an adult book club. My previous Book Club experiences focused on fifth graders reading contemporary realistic fiction, historical fiction, and later a wide variety of genre. Second, autobiography was not a familiar genre for me, yet there were many similarities to another genre that I enjoy deeply, historical fiction. I have always had a love of the past, an interest in where we have come, for I believe we are a result of our collective and individual pasts. I have also always been interested in culture, being raised in a very open-minded, accepting family where differences were treasured, valued, and respected. Third, my professional role was changing from that of a classroom teacher to becoming an Instructional Facilitator. This job embodies many roles, including curriculum coordination and technology supervision. This meant leaving the classroom and beginning a role that focused on professional and instructional support. Finally, I was making the commitment to begin a course of study toward a doctorate degree at Oakland University where I could continue to work and learn with Taffy.

Adult Book Clubs and My Personal Development
Being involved in my first adult book club affected me personally. There are many stories of my family’s collective childhood that continue to be told at family gatherings. I thought we had always openly discussed our shared experiences and memories. What I came to realize through the discussions I had with my peers in the class, however, is that there are many stories in my family where some of the people involved weren't given voice. They stayed hidden underneath the surface of our collective memories. I was convinced that given the size of our family and the diversity among my brothers and sisters, we each have our own view of the events— sometimes our views are similar, while at other times they may vary greatly. In Taffy’s class, as we read and discussed autobiographies and began to put together our own personal histories, I realized that two of the primary voices I thought I should have heard were my parents. Ironically, these are the voices missing from my family’s stories. This led me to several hours of discussion with my mother about her childhood, her family, and her memories as a child.

I wasn't able to sit down as easily to talk with my father, as he now lives at quite a physical distance from me, in the western part of the United States. However, the physical distance we have today isn’t really the reason why communicating with him has been difficult. Even when we lived in the same area, I had always felt that he was a distant man. For example, I remember that whenever I would ask him how he was or what he was feeling, he invariably answered, "Everything is fine." While I might have wished that things really were fine, I often realized that they weren’t. With my new interest in family stories, I decided to initiate a conversation with my father through letters and do everything I could to bring the conversations deeper than their typical surface level. The letters that we began writing to each other last year have opened a line of communication that I treasure.

In his letters I heard his voice, as he conveyed his stories of travelling as a teen, his first love, and his memories of childhood. I treasure the new stories because they give me insights into who my father is, beyond his role as Dad. I also treasure the stories we both remember from expereiences we have shared. In our letter exchanges I write my version—telling him a story from my childhood as I recall the event, people, and feelings. In his letter responding to me, he shares his memory of the same event. It has been fun to read his version, and more important, to see the same event through his eyes. This duality of memory has always fascinated me, the way in which many people can experience the same event and yet recollect a slightly different version where details blend into one another. To be able to enact my own exploration of how this duality worked within my own family, particularly between my father and me, was a very special experience.

Adult Book Clubs and My Professional Development
In addition to the effect of the adult book clubs on me personally, they’ve also had an effect on me professionally. I have always loved reading and books and I thoroughly enjoyed using Book Club with my fifth-grade students when I was first introduced to the program as a masters student in 1991. I felt that through Book Club, I could model my love of reading. By modeling my own reading, thinking, and talking about books; and by creating a classroom literacy environment that supported students in their literacy engagement, I hoped to encourage many of my students to begin to love their own reading experiences. My classroom management and the structure of my entire instructional day revolved around the constructivist principles and social interactions that are embodied in Book Club. I enjoyed working within my own classroom, but I also found that I loved sharing what I was doing with other teachers. The adult book club experience actually brought together two other professional events in an important way.

The first event stemmed from the huge growth in the community in which I teach. A new school had just been built and a new principal was hired with a reputation for being dynamic, supportive of teachers’ professional development, and interested in classroom innovations. She began to recruit me to assume a position involving curriculum coordination and technology supervision. Initially, I hesitated, since I viewed this as a step away from being directly involved with student book clubs. To return to my metaphor of the hike, I was suddenly faced with a long familiar and much loved trail being changed. A new hiking trail was under construction, transforming the one I both loved, and found comfortable. In one sense, I mistakenly feared that my cherished role as a teacher researcher had ended. Without my own classroom, how could I speak of teaching and learning experiences? Without my students, how could I speak of the role of culture in their learning and living? How could I continue my line of teacher research, which focused on the role of discussion in student learning, when I did not have my own class to study?

My hiking trail was leading up a hill and the direction to come was uncertain. I knew the trail would continue but its direction was beyond my field of vision. When I thought about my own life as a story, I since had been in one that was relatively predictable. But, the offer of a new position happened to come at the same time that I was considering beginning my doctoral studies. I began to move away from my familiar path. At the same time as I started my role of Instructional Facilitator for my school, I began my advanced coursework at Oakland University. As Taffy’s graduate assistant, I enrolled in the Book Club Workshop, partly as a teaching assistant and partly to experience the connecting of adult bookclubs, curriculum development, and an exploration of my own cultural background. I have always been interested in culture, ever since attending powwows at Indian reservations as a child. The new cultural and autobiographical focus to the Book Club work appealed to me on many levels.

My Instructional Facilitator/doctoral student eyes are still developing and are not yet able to focus clearly on the panoramic view from atop this hill that I’m climbing. My work as Taffy’s research assistant involves me directly with the continuation of the work that Susan and Taffy began in 1995, now a part of the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement (CIERA). We are studying exceptional third-grade teachers who are implementing Book Club Plus Autobiography units entitled "Storied Lives." Our focus has extended Book Club to focus on how to help struggling readers. I am involved daily in classroom instruction through observation and discussion with teachers and studying what students learn from participating in these experiences.

Talk of culture and personal histories extend through the elementary students’ projects and the professional discussions that take place in our CIERA meetings. I am continuing to learn about autobiographies as I observe and take field notes in classrooms where students are studying authors who tell their stories in children's literature such as Walter Dean Myers, Patricia Polacco, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jean Craighead George, and Gary Paulsen. I am continuing to read autobiographies, many suggested by members of the Literary Circle. I am continuing to exchange letters with my father and to discuss family history with my mother and siblings as I extend my personal history. I am continuing to hike the trail and enjoying the trip along the way.

Karen’s Experiences
Finally it was fall term, 1997. I was geared up to take the last class in my masters degree graduate program in Reading and Language Arts at Oakland University. I had done my research in the summer. I knew the professor and the expectations for this final course in my program. I was determined to make this a stress-free experience that would not overly distract me from my own middle school classroom. I already had planned my final project and had even begun the assigned readings. What I didn’t know was that a new professor had been hired who was planning to introduce a new elective in the program, Book Club Workshop. And what I really didn’t know was that I’d end up in that class stressed to the max, frustrated, challenged, intrigued, and enthralled by the ideas she would present. Like yesterday, I remember how this came to be...
Phew, Friday! I was glad that "week one" of my last masters course was over, and I was another step closer to the finish line. That morning, however, I received a phone call from my former Oakland University study partner. I hadn’t heard from her in months, so naturally I rushed to the workroom to return her call. She was talking so quickly with excitement that I could hardly understand her. Apparently, she had enrolled in a new class that offered tons of professional reading, a demanding but enthusiastic professor, and a list of adult novels that would be read as part of a book club with the rest of the class. She insisted that this class was "right up my alley." Failing to understand her need to include me in what I thought of as misery (I was nearing the finish line, it was too much reading, and I had my life under control!), I kindly reminded her that I had already completed a week in my "goodbye" class and was quite content to finish the term as planned. I am so glad that my study partner would not give up. She begged me to call the professor before making a final decision, and the rest is history.

After talking with Taffy for a few moments on the phone I began to feel just what my study partner had felt, that I needed to be in her class. The Book Club Workshop combined method training, professional growth and analysis, authentic reading and writing forums, and multicultural awareness—all in one setting. I gave up the safety of my "goodbye" class for what turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences in my career. It continues to influence both my personal and professional life.

In a career such as education it can be difficult to distinguish between personal and professional growth. So much of who I am as an individual plays out daily in the classroom. Until the workshop, I had never really thought of this as my "culture" being expressed to the students. One of the major accomplishments of the course was to enlighten me to a new view of culture. I realized that I am a cultural being—me, a white middle-class teacher and fourth generation American. Along with a curriculum, I bring to my students a unique and important set of customs involving family, religion, and education (especially reading and writing habits). This is what brings life into the classroom and passion to the curriculum. My students also bring their important customs to the classroom table each day. They need to recognize how their cultures add life and passion to the learning circle as well. This very ideology suggests that personal and professional growth interweaves. It is the connection of the two that makes for a unique and life long pattern of learning. As a result I cannot neatly categorize my growth, but I can describe how the course began new patterns for my life both in and out of the classroom.

As I mentioned before, the course included several elements. We were required to read the latest articles and textbooks about book clubbing in schools. We were required to read four autobiographical adult novels, keep journal responses about them, and participate in book club discussions using the notes as springboards for conversation. While exploring the history of authors such as Jill Ker Conway, Maya Angelou, James McBride and Richard Rodriguez through their autobiographies, we were to explore our own pasts especially in terms of our literary development. We needed to find items from our past that identified something unique about our literary history and then write about their significance to our lives. All of this inspired my growth in four key areas. It gave me a reason to read and write about real literature again. It enlightened me to the power of autobiography, and taught me that cultural diversity comes in all shapes and sizes, not limited to skin color or birth origin. Finally, it challenged me to remember my own literacy development, both the good and the bad. These are the threads that began the design.

Undeniably, the book club portion of the class had the most dramatic impact on me. Besides providing me a chance to read adult literature for a change, the book club forum promoted authenticity, ownership, excitement, and social awareness in my response to literature. Sharing my ideas about the literature with a group of peers gave me a reason to do my "homework." I felt empowered and compelled to find and share the authors’ best and worst techniques. People listened and sympathized when I said that I found the first chapter of The Road from Coorain to be painfully slow. I agreed when someone complained that they had to read it twice and didn’t like it either time. I read the section again with new vision after another group member suggested that this section was essential to understanding the seclusion and dryness of the outback. I was encouraged to compare my life with the authors’ lives. Members were shocked when I described my own experiences of week-long camp meetings at church similar to those that Maya Angelou explains in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Angelou,1969), and shared stories of people dancing in the aisles, lifting their hands, and belting out spirituals. No one else in the group had any first hand knowledge of such an emotionally charged atmosphere. I could be their "five senses" for the moment. Later, someone else could be mine. By the time we read the last book, I had began reading with other group members in mind. I anticipated conversations we would have about a certain section, or planned questions about the text that I knew another group member could answer. All of these interactions improved my motivation and communication skills. They built my confidence, and hooked me back into meaningful experiences with literature. Sure, I have a passion for children’s literature, but it had been a long time since I’d had such a rewarding experience at my own level.

Another impact of my experience with the book club, a new cultural awareness, developed in part from the content of the novels. Due to the autobiographical and multicultural focus, the book club experience successfully opened my eyes to culture, the life stories within the literature, and the stories that they evoked from my life and from the lives of my fellow classmates. The genre encouraged us to look at culture as the experiences and stories that make all of us who we are. The selected texts sprung from a variety ofcultures and gave voice to many aspects of the human experience; life on the Australian outback, the African American struggle in the south, interracial conflicts in New York City, and the effect of both displacement and affirmative action on U.S Mexican minorities are just a few of the experiences and issues embedded in these texts. Yes, these topics do seem typical to the "multicultural" themes that have been added to the curriculum in so many schools this past decade. However, autobiography packs a powerful punch. The real human experience cannot be dismissed as some quaint little story that makes us feel good, or some horrifying plot that makes us afraid. Real stories about real people remind us of ourselves. We make connections with the authors as we read about their experiences in the world, and we connect those experiences to our own lives. We try to understand the uniqueness of their experiences, and at the same time find common ground in human emotions.
So there we were, a class of White American females from middle- and working-class backgrounds reading and discussing to decipher culture. We could have thought, "Multiculture is THEM, not us." In fact we did. We all appeared to be so much alike. In other courses about multiculturalism it was always the "other" races that needed to be explored. But autobiography had the power to undo that stereotype. As it connected each of us to our own struggles and stories, it unraveled our unique "cultures," one for each white face around the table. One woman explained the family conflicts that were developing over the last six months of her pregnancy. Her Greek Orthodox customs conflicted with her husband’s Armenian traditions. Another colleague described her recent trip to Lithuania. This was her grandmother’s first homecoming after many years of retreat from the wars. Little did we suspect that a classmate on sabbatical from her high school English teaching career to raise her family had been addicted to drugs in high school. Throughout the course I rediscovered myself as I marveled, sympathized, and connected with the stories of others. This is what I wanted multicultural education to mean in my classroom.

Stimulated by the writing styles of the authors and the open conversation in our book clubs, our own autobiographical sketches about literacy became another important context for cultural awareness. Taffy demonstrated the technique in class. She brought several letters that she had received over the years from various family members. She had one from her father that she received at camp, one from her brother, and a more recent note from her young niece. Of course that one was in picture and scribble form, but reflected communication nonetheless. After sharing the letters, she read her vignette about how the family letters continue to influence her views of reading and writing. Other classmates wrote about teachers who had either inspired or discouraged their reading and writing development. Some brought in books they read as children, such as E.B. White’s classic Charlotte’s Web, and discussed the importance of story in their life. I rediscovered a huge stack of stories that I wrote in first grade, pictures and all. Among the many characters I’d included, I found my dad, my mother, three animals that seemed exactly like my neighborhood friends, and myself. I also detected the beginnings of poetry: metaphor, simile, onomatopoeia, and alliteration. I read my first vignette to the class:

"Writing is Life" boldly proclaims itself from a poster on the wall above my desk. It is no coincidence that these words hang in my classroom. Whether from the poster or my students’ individual stories, I am continually reminded of the truth behind these words. It was in first grade that I personally realized this truth and made my profession of faith. Mrs. Philips boldly proclaimed the gospel, "All writers are created equal, because each one of you has a story to tell." I took her seriously. Embracing her theology, I wrote over 300 stories and poems that year. Looking back at these pieces of history, philosophy, poetry, theology, I understand how truth revealed itself to me and writing became a must, a need, an active voice inside of me. So much a passion in my veins, I never doubted or turned my back on the religious decision I made at age six. Now a missionary myself, I continue my journey of faith, offering these pieces as encouragement and proclamation, "Writing is Life!"

I proceeded to share with my Book Club course colleagues a few handpicked first grade stories that revealed my "culture." Once again this exercise helped me understand others and myself through the context of story. It reinforced my new concept of culture. The time I spent that semester thinking and writing about my own literacy development provided an added benefit for me. It reminded me of my strengths in reading and writing, and it pinpointed some of the reasons why I developed such positive attitudes in these areas. Teachers had confidence in me; they read books out loud and shared their own responses with me. I had plenty of exposure to the arts, especially music. This established a great breeding ground for poetry. Not only did I need to start viewing culture differently in my classroom, I needed to make sure that I was encouraging the same positive attitudes toward reading and writing that had been encouraged in me so many years ago. In other words I needed to share my literary heritage with my students.

Personal and professional growth continues their design. I started to analyze the curriculum and methods in my eighth grade English classes. My students needed the core elements that the Book Club Workshop had provided for me. They needed that sense of ownership and anticipation that comes with authentic conversation about the text. They needed exposure to autobiography, the essential connection between literacy and life. They needed plenty of activities that encouraged the discussion of diversity already present in the classroom and perspectives unknown. In that context, they needed opportunities to contemplate and share their own literacy development. How could I package such demanding elements into the school’s core curriculum and keep my sanity in the middle of the school year? Instead of starting from scratch, I built on a mandated book from the next semester's schedule, Missing May by Cynthia Rylant (1993).

My job was not as difficult as it could have been. Over the last few years, I had already begun to tweak the mandated curriculum. Now I realize it was my own literary "culture" that had prompted me two years ago to rearrange the school’s core literature into thematic units. Thematic units incorporate the kinds of literary exposure that I had been given: good interconnected multi-genre literature, writing in response to reading, and connection to the arts. I identified a broad, meaningful, and classic theme: that different cultures vary in their views of life and death. I had a variety of literary genres to represent the theme and a variety of writing opportunities for student response. I knew which mandated literary terms turned up in Missing May and had accumulated a large assortment of Rylant’s other works to reinforce her style. From the beginning of the school year, I had encouraged class discussions about literature. Although every child did not vocalize his or her opinion, each had a decent understanding of the process of literary discussion. Before the Book Club Workshop, I would have thought this unit was complete. Now I needed a book club book, an autobiography, and classroom activities that encouraged literary and cultural awareness.

Missing May worked perfectly as my first book club attempt. The story was short, but the characters and writing were rich. As Summer and Ob moved painfully through the stages of grief they encouraged students to share loss, to contemplate views of life after death, and to prepare for grief in their own life. Naturally, the issues raised evoked students’ own life stories, their opinions, and their reflections, all of which areso essential to the book club journal and discussion process. Rylant’s writing style also stimulated conversation. As she dressed her characterization techniques in simple, humorous metaphors and similes, the enormity and sadness of the situation were buffered. Her words worked through the pain of the experience with a bit of joy and hope just as the characters did. The story and language of this book fostered a smooth transition into student led clubs in my classroom.

Equally perfect for the new approach to the unit, Rylant’s autobiography, But I’ll Be Back Again, blended the right amount of truth and literary technique to capture my middle school audience. It packed the power to explain Rylant's heritage and to evoke students’ stories about their own "culture.". Once again the autobiography connected literacy and life.

Meaningful activities that encouraged cultural awareness fell into place as I changed my limited focus. Jokingly, a social studies colleague has always claimed that his subject area should rule all others. Ironically, I looked to social studies and developed large philosophical questions to frame the life and death components. After every reading or activity I brought the students back to these questions: How can we celebrate the skills, talents, family, and friends we have been given? How do different cultures celebrate life and cope with death? What are common steps in the grieving process? What are your own views about life and life after death? This framework helped me to develop cultural activities and it opened the door for students to share their individual knowledge and opinions. The questions actually improved the students’ understanding of theme. So it was true all along, social studies should have power in other subject areas. I had found a new material to enhance the weave.

The Book Club Workshop continues to influence my life. I have taken on new challenges in writing. For example, I am part of a team working on describing how Book Club can be used in middle school classrooms, and my Missing May unit has become our model for others. It is currently being piloted on a web site for teachers and students engaged in book clubs ( This chapter grew out of my collaboration with colleagues for a presentation at National Council of Teachers of English. I have worked extensively on revising my school curriculum as well. Since that first Missing May unit I have gone on to develop the entire eighth grade curriculum into book club units. I begin each unit with general but thought provoking questions. I try to balance the classroom time between all the important elements: literature, writing, clubbing, cultural activities, and the arts. In my private reading I cannot seem to get enough of autobiography. I have an unending appetite for the stories of others. As I investigate others’ lives, I understand myself so much more. Yes, I gave up the safety of my last class and the comfort of my "complete" curriculum, but what I have gained is worth so much more. In the new design, the pattern is never complete and the threads are always changing. I find safety in the journey to the unknown and comfort in the story of others. I only hope that my students will do the same.

Concluding Comments
The story of the Autobiography Book Club line of research, including our curriculum innovations for practicing and pre-service teachers and for elementary through middle school students, continues to evolve. Many voices continue to contribute to our understanding of the potential of autobiography and the power of dialogic approaches to teaching and learning.

As we have studied the experiences of teachers in autobiography book clubs, both voluntary clubs and those embedded within courses, we have three initial findings. First, it is clear that teachers find the opportunity to read and talk about autobiographical literature a stimulating form of professional development (see also Florio-Ruane, Raphael & Shellhorn, 1998; Raphael & Florio-Ruane, 1998). Second, we have seen how reading, writing, and talking about literature became authentically meaningful activities in participants’ lives—and that this gave greater meaning and currency to participants’ efforts to help youngsters experience literacy in similarly authentic ways.

Third, to the extent that the autobiographies studied were written by authors of diverse ethnic, linguistic, racial, cultural, and/or socioeconomic backgrounds, participants found them serving as both "mirrors and windows" (Galda, 1998). The stories provided a window into people, places, and events distant from participants’ own lives. However, at the same time, the stories also provided a mirror that reflected participants’ own lives and experiences, leading to greater self-reflection about cultural backgrounds and their contributions to their own learning and teaching. Experiences like these lie at the heart of multicultural education––a system in which learners of all ages can develop a deep, rich, and complex understanding of culture; can understand how cultures meet, interweave, and give rise to new transformations over time; and can appreciate how, ultimately, our society is enriched by the cultural diversity that characterizes its members. Such understandings are reflected in the curriculum that teachers such as Kathy and Karen have created and in the ways they view the texts that their students read and respond to through writing and discussion.

In short, teachers’ learning in these book clubs is, as the above examples illustrate, of three kinds: learning about literature and literacy, learning about instruction, and learning about self and others. This learning is situated within and inseparable from the social context of the peer-led book conversations and the nature and content of the autobiographies. Thus, by means of this experience, participants learned a powerful lesson about literacy and literacy education. Literacy is not merely "reading, writing, speaking, and listening." Nor is it simply a repertoire of skills and strategies for decoding and encoding print. Literacy is situated, meaningful, text-based interaction with others. As such, literacy teaches us about humanity reflected in and seen through the looking glass of our own and others’ stories.


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Autobiographies and Children’s Books Cited

Angelou, Maya. (1969). I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Bantam Books.

Conway, Jill Ker. (1990). The Road from Coorain. New York: Random House.

Hoffman, Eva. (1989). Lost in Translation. New York: Penguin Books.

Hurston, Zora N. (1937). Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper Perennial.

McBride, James. (1996). The Color of Water. New York: Riverhead Books.

Orenstein, Peggy. (1994). School Girls. New York: Doubleday.

Paley, Vivian G. (1979). White Teacher. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Rodriguez, Richard. (1982). Hunger of Memory. New York: Bantam Books.

Rose, Mike. (1989). Lives on the Boundary. New York: The Free Press.

Rylant, Cynthia. Missing May. New York: Orchard Books

Rylant, Cynthia. (1993). But I'll Be Back Again. New York: Beech Tree Books.

Tan, Amy. (1991). The Kitchen God’s Wife. New York: Ballantine Books.

1 Other than the co-authors of this paper or research assistants, all teachers and students names are pseudonyms.

This research was conducted as part of CIERA, the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement, and supported under the Educational Research and Development Centers Program, PR/Award Number R305R70004, as administered by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education. However, the contents of the described report do not necessarily represent the positions or policies of the National Institute on Student Achievement, Curriculum, and Assessment or the National Institute on Early Childhood development, or the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

© 2001 CIERA. All rights reserved.