Cartoneras Meet the Common Core

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It all started with a piece of cardboard.

A while back, a co-worker of mine suggested teaching the cartonera movement as a way of engaging learners in my Spanish language arts classroom. Cartoneras are beautiful books made from recycled cardboard and distributed by publishing co-ops. The cartonera movement began in Latin America and has spread to many places in the world. The purpose of cartoneras is to build community, create art and publish literature at an affordable price.

This past summer, while participating in a district-level realignment of our Spanish and English language arts curricula to Common Core State Standards, I discovered that the cartonera would be the perfect vehicle for integrating Spanish and English language arts with social studies and art to build bilingual language proficiency and family engagement in our school.

The title of the unit my co-worker and I developed, Cartoneras: cuentos sobre la comida y la cultura (Cartoneras: Stories About Food and Culture), reflected our classroom focus on learning about the diversity within our school community. Students were also studying narrative writing this quarter. The cartonera project combined both of these topics. Throughout the quarter, students would read and write stories about culture, celebrations and food. Their finished product was their own cartonera, which would be displayed in our school.

To design this unit, the sixth-grade English language arts teachers and I collaborated to discuss our goals. Because SLA and ELA have the same language arts standards (Spanish language arts is a fifth core academic period for students in our bilingual program), we wanted to make sure each of our lessons complemented—rather than duplicated—the others.

We then outlined the theme (culture and food), and chose two mentor texts, available in both English and Spanish, that would support that theme. Both texts were composed of vignettes, short stories that could be taught within a limited time frame. We decided which chapters would be taught in Spanish and which would be taught in English.

The purpose of working with these texts was twofold: (1) to make connections to the cultural celebrations and food discussed in the vignettes, and (2) to teach students how to analyze parts of a story and then use that understanding to write their own narratives about a celebration or cultural event involving food. Everyone had to write a narrative in English; the students in my class also had to write a different narrative in Spanish.

Finally, we planned the progression of the unit:

Weeks 1-3: In my Spanish language arts classroom, students spent the first three weeks working with oral storytelling in Spanish, while the ELA teacher used picture books in English to identify the components of a narrative.

Weeks 4-6: We introduced the chapters from the books we had chosen as mentor texts. In my class, students read three different chapters in Spanish, analyzed them and drafted three short stories about cultural events thematically connected to the ones they read about. In their English class, students read different chapters in English and did the same kind of writing.

Weeks 7-9: Students in each class chose two of their drafts—one story in English and one story in Spanish—to finalize and publish. The students then created cardboard cartoneras to publish and illustrate their stories.

The cartonera was an authentic performance task through which students could present their writing in a creative way. By blending art with this writing assignment, students were able to express themselves visually and linguistically. Their stories were completed with a recipe for the food described in their personal narrative. We are planning to host a family potluck as the culminating event. Families will be able to share their cultures, build community, take pride in their children's work and learn more about our school.

Who could have guessed that a little piece of cardboard would become a unique way of showcasing students’ talents and inviting families to our building?

Editor’s note: Although this unit focused on food, this instructor routinely looks beyond food and celebrations when teaching about culture, in keeping with best practices for multicultural education.

Berg is a middle school bilingual resource teacher in Madison, Wis.