At a time of such deep division, how can teachers help students reflect on their unique cultural identities and their participation in the larger American story? Rather than seeing individual identity and communal engagement as mutually exclusive, we at the Great Books Foundation believe that exploring diverse texts enables all students to learn about themselves and appreciate the perspectives of others.

Rudine Sims Bishop, professor emerita at the Ohio State University, memorably expressed  students’ need for diverse literature. She wrote that students need books that serve as both windows and mirrors. Which books individual students experience as windows into an unfamiliar world and which they experience as mirrors of their own lives will inevitably vary. But when a curriculum includes books from a wide range of perspectives, all students have the opportunity both to reflect on themselves and to develop empathy for others.

As an example, this month we’re offering lesson plans for our exclusive profile of Francisco X. Alarcón, taken from Junior Great Books Nonfiction Inquiry 3. Alarcón was an award-winning Mexican-American writer whose stories and poems for children and adults were frequently published in both Spanish and English. As our biographical profile for young readers highlights, Alarcón also worked extensively with schools to encourage students to express themselves in poetry.

Please use the activities for “Becoming Francisco X. Alarcón” below for classroom sessions that will provide a window for some of your students and a mirror for others. You can download the complete text using the link on this page. We hope you and your students enjoy exploring this selection!

“Becoming Francisco X. Alarcón” Activities



Have students answer the following questions before they read the selection. They can write down their answers and then share them as a class.

  • What do you know?
    What is something that has happened in your life that is very important to you? Why was it important?
  • What do you think?
    Why do you think some writers write poems and stories about their own lives?

Second Reading

Ask students to reread the selection and mark the text according to the following prompts. Have students review their notes prior to Shared Inquiry discussion.

  • Mark an I where you read something about Alarcón’s life that seems important to him.
  • Mark a C where you read something about Alarcón’s life that you feel a personal connection to.

Shared Inquiry Discussion

For Shared Inquiry discussion, seat everyone in a circle. Ask the focus question below, and give students a few minutes to write down their answers. Begin the discussion by asking volunteers to share their answers and evidence. Aim for the discussion to last at least 15 minutes.

Focus Question: Why do you think Alarcón chose to write poems about his life?

Cluster Questions:

  • Why do you think Alarcón chose to write poems in both English and Spanish?
  • What emotions do you feel when you read the end of “My Mother’s Hands”? Why do you think Alarcón wrote this poem?
  • Why do you think Alarcón told children to try writing poetry about family members and memories?

Series 3 Fiction Connection

Every text in Junior Great Books Nonfiction Inquiry is thematically paired with a story from the corresponding grade’s fiction anthologies. “Becoming Francisco X. Alarcón” connects with “The Upside-Down Boy” in Junior Great Books Series 3, Book One.

In “The Upside-Down Boy” by Juan Felipe Herrera, Juanito and his family move from the Mexican countryside to an American city, where Juanito begins school for the first time. Everything about his new life seems strange and new—the city, his school, and especially learning English. Juanito feels “upside down” as he tries to adapt to his surroundings.

Many teachers like to use Junior Great Books Nonfiction Inquiry and fiction together. You can do so easily when you buy Junior Great Books classroom bundles, which include all the classroom materials you need for both fiction and nonfiction, plus teacher training! Please contact your Great Books educational consultant with any questions about Junior Great Books Nonfiction Inquiry for grades 2–5 or Junior Great Books fiction series for grades K–5!