Some Classroom 

Considerations for Using

Puerto Rican Stories 

in English

 

 


by William Garcia Cardona

Teachers who teach English as a Second Language need to reassess their pedagogical intents to reach new levels of "critical consciousness", to move beyond what Freire (1970) has called a "domesticating education" towards a "liberating education" that encourages risk taking, curiosity, and inquiry (Nieto, 219). Hence, my reasoning for making use of Puerto Rican-themed literature in the ESL classroom is twofold.First, students will ultimately benefit from the opportunities of using more appropriate and culturally sensitive forms of literature that can merge many of the social and cultural experiences of all Puerto Ricans; making English language instruction in Puerto Rico and for Puerto Ricans more meaningful and purposeful in the lives of the children. And, as it pertains to ESL teachers, by making use of more trade books in and out of their classroom settings, teachers will be in a position to break free from a transmission model of education that is more skills-driven towards one that considers transaction, engagement and dialogue as important elements to creating self-consciousness and reflection.›› Let us look at a series of messages that are offered in a few of the children's books on and/or about Puerto Ricans written in English.

 

Family seems to be a major theme in these stories, especially the extended family members. In Arthur Dorros' two books Isla and Abuela, the grandmother character is the protagonist and surrogate teacher. Venerated older female characters are also central in other children's books. Examples include the wise grandmother in Nicholasa Mohr's Felita (1979), the magical Old Letivia who saved the townspeople living near El Yunque from an imminent disaster in Old Letivia and the Mountain of Sorrows (1996), and the deceased but ever-present grandmother in Carmen Santiago Nodar's Abuelita's Paradise (1992). Especially as a means to help children deal with the loss of a dearly departed family member, both Felita and Abuelita's Paradise are useful instruments towards personal healing.

 

The hard working and involved parents in many of these stories also serve to shatter myths regarding what others have stereotyped as lacking in Puerto Rican households.The fathers in Friday Night is Papa Night (1970) and Gracias, the Thanksgiving Turkey (1996) work many hours a day to support their families. We have the successful and encouraging mothers in Ubel Velez- Lawyer (1991) and in aspiring swimmer Jessenia's Mami in Get Set! Swim! (1998).And relationships blossom beyond the Puerto Rican immediate circle as the children in John Steptoe's Creativity (1997) and Pura Belpre's Santiago (1969) share their homes and their possessions with other neighbors and classmates in sincere attempts to form bridges of mutual understanding.

 

And now it is possible to read about other Puerto Rican role models that aren't only sports figures, as evidenced in the many biographies of the legendary Roberto Clemente. Children can now read about other important Puerto Ricans who have made both professional and social contributions to the world, from community activist Evelina LŘpez (in All for the Better: A Story of El Barrio), to public-spirited actor Ral Juli∑ (in Raul Julia: Actor and Humanitarian) and former U.S. Surgeon General Antonia Novello de Cuello (in Antonia Novello, Doctor). These cases give hope to young Puerto Rican children that one person can make a difference in their communities.

 

Some stories, as in all of life, will have happy endings; others won't be as rosy. Struggles such as those faced by newcomer Julio Sanchez, who has to deal with being teased for his accent when speaking English while trying to fit in to his new surroundings in Johanna Hurwitz's Class President (1990), are ones shared by many children. When his qualifications as an American citizen are called into question, Julio vigorously clarifies this question to his classmates to show that he is just as deserving as any other child to aspire for such a leadership opportunity.And many ESL teachers can learn a very valuable lesson by reading a story like Alma Flor Ada's My Name is Maria Isabel (1993) to learn why names are so important to children.

 

More importantly, the issues of belonging and having to deal with conflicting cultural practices between homelands are at the heart of books such as Nicholasa Mohr's Going Home (1986), Piri Thomas' Stories from El Barrio (1978), and most of the work developed for young adults published by Judith Ortiz Cofer and Esmeralda Santiago.As Robert Santiago (1995) writes in his introduction for his worthy anthology Boricuas, these stories "may have talked about defeat, tragedy, and despair, but the underlying message was always that it was the responsibility of every Boricua to rise and triumph, no matter what the world dished out (xvii)". In essence, the real power of these stories rests upon the young readers who become engaged by these familiar settings and experiences. They will come to negotiate what these struggles mean in their own lives, which hopefully will lead them to take the necessary actions towards sound individual decision-making and collective social action.

 

In the act of taking action to effect changes, I have develop a plan in my efforts is to help ESL teachers in Puerto Rico become more acquainted with a series of children's books with English language texts that have been written regarding Puerto Rican themes. These books have been selected after much personal inquiry from the university and town libraries. So step one of my plan deals with becoming personally acquainted and knowledgeable of the different books and stories bout the Puerto Rican experience to be able to share it with others. Although such a literature is still incipient, it is important to make note of what is out there and on which themes are being addressed. Of concern to me early on is that, as a general rule, non-Puerto Rican writers and/or illustrators have written these children's books, which is another issue that also should concern educators.

 

Step two of my plan is directed to facilitate instruments for teachers to move into more critical reading of these books by carefully examining both the framing of the text and of the graphic representations of the players in each story. This also means that special care must be placed into questioning the photography and other illustrations used to construct the story characters and plots. As teachers consider who gets to tell these stories in print and question the storytellers' prior connections or involvement with Puerto Rico, it will contribute to helping them make a more critical determination as to which stories are suitable for each teacher's particular classroom context.Another important factor that teachers will need to scrutinize is the accuracy and fairness in the development of the themes and characterizations within these stories.

 

A critical literacy framework to position these stories as they relate to race, class, ethnicity, gender, age, and power was developed to help teachers ask more critical questions as they select similar stories for their classrooms (click here to see FRAMEWORK). Inspired by Sonia Nieto's (1993) work on the merits of using children's books about Puerto Rico from a critical lens, a series of guide questions have been framed for this purpose. Nieto (1993) has also provided certain guiding principles for the selection and uses of these stories in the classroom. Fundamentally she states that the secret of any literature considered "good" is that it can transcend to a broader audience, with important lessons born from shared life experiences that are "meaningful for all readers (190)".

 

Presently, I have dedicated many hours to the development of this web site to be used as a teacher resource instrument with a substantial listing of some of these Puerto Rican-themed pieces.A summary of each entered story will be provided.Other features on this web site include a showcased authors' section, a sampling of the kinds of illustrations used in these books, other important web links for teachers, and some of the classroom considerations that need to be looked at when teachers decide upon what stories they may use at their school settings. And, in my attempt of making this site as interactive as possible, visitors are encouraged to submit their own comments on any of these books and submit additions to the listings. This will be another avenue available to teachers to bring into their ESL settings good children's literature that is universal in message for all children but that also paints a more sympathetic and equitable picture of the Puerto Rican experience on and off the island.

 

All children need to feel that they belong and not ostracized or belittled due to their individual differences. A vision of multiculturalism that not only occasionally celebrates certain traditions, foods, and "exotic" places, but that also recognizes and values as equally important the diverse cultures, languages and contributions in America of all of its people can achieve this. Diversity as presented in good stories should proclaim it as a strength and virtue, for new and exciting learning experiences, that "can challenge children to become knowledgeable and respectful of others (Nieto, 194)".Above all, any valued children's book should "prepare children for a critical love of reading (Nieto, 194)".

 

Certainly it cannot be negated that truly good literature is one that has a universal ring to it, with an appeal that is broad and engaging. Such a literature is both authentic and revealing of not only the better things of life but of also the hardships we all must face. These are just a few instances that show just how therapeutic good children's stories can be for all readers. And, hopefully, my project will help the teachers back home to understand that some of those usually silent voices or issues never discussed in educational circles for whatever reason can be points of departure for a more democratic, inviting and nurturing setting that truly promotes thinking, learning and social action.

 

Susan Lehr (1997) leaves us with the most important of literacy questions when she asks " (d)o we build classroom community based on a transactional model of learning or do we view learning as a process of transmission?(9)"Since "children use language as a tool for learning about their world ÷ if they don't interact (by asking questions), the classroom may not offer much to them (Hayes, Bahruth and Kessler, 1998)".Although it may well be a risky venture to side towards the "transactional" model, the potential rewards of such a process will be well worth the effort.

 

In conclusion, it is in this simple act of living one's own stories somewhat vicariously through the words of others that can serve multiple and enlightening purposes for English language learners in Puerto Rico and, in the long run, to all students with similar experiences.

 

Needless to say, more Puerto Rican writers are needed for our future generations of Piri Thomas, Sandra Maria Esteves, Rosario Ferre, and Nicholasa Mohr. The seeds have been planted. The choice for a greater use of Puerto Rican stories in English that will help to affirm the importance of our multiple experiences and realities will provide students important language learning and societal gains within our ESL classrooms, should we choose to accept the challenge.

 

LIST OF CHILDREN'S BOOKS MENTIONED

Ada, A. F. (1993). My name is Maria Isabel. New York: Atheneum.

Atkins, J. (1998). Get set! Swim!New York: Lee and Low Books.

Belpre, P. (1971). Santiago. New York: F. Warne

Bryant, J. (1991). Ubel Velez, lawyer. Frederick: Twenty-First Century Books.

Cowley, J. (1996). Gracias: The Thanksgiving turkey. New York: Scholastic.

Cruz, B. C. (1998). Raul Julia: Actor and humanitarian. Springfield: Enslow Publishers.

Dorros, A. (1991). Abuela. New York: MacMillan/McGraw-Hill.

Dorros, A. (1995). Isla. New York: Dutton's Children Books.

Fernandez, M. (1997). Antonia Novello, doctor. Cleveland: Modern Curriculum Press.

Hurwitz, J. (1990). Class president. New York: Morrow Junior Books.

Mohr, N. (1993). All for the better: A story of El Barrio. Austin: Raintree Steck-Vaughn.

Mohr, N. (1979). Felita. New York: Dial Press.

Mohr, N. (1986) Going home. Needham: Silver Burdett Ginn.

Mohr, N. (1996). Old Letivia and the Mountain of Sorrows. New York: Viking.

Ortiz Cofer, J. (1990) Silent dancing: A partial remembrance of a Puerto Rican childhood. Houston: Arte Publico Press.

Santiago Nodar, C. (1992). Abuelita's Paradise. Morton Grove, IL: Albert Whitman & Co.

Santiago, E. (1994). When I was Puerto Rican. New York: Vintage.

Sonneborn, R. A. (1970). Friday night is papa night. New York: Viking.

Steptoe, J. (1997). Creativity. New York: Clarion.

Thomas, P. (1978). Stories from El Barrio. New York: Knoph.