Teaching with Multi-Cultural Texts: Getting to the How

The knowledge that kids should have about the world—from understanding the perspective of kids in Iraq to understanding the Chinese experience—can be overwhelming. It’s obvious that we should be exposing kids to multicultural literature, but the “how” is less explicit.

It’s tempting to fill classroom libraries with diverse titles and let students dive in. But, simply exposing students to multicultural literature without purpose or principles, can lead to indifference or resistance, which undermines the purpose of using the texts in the first place (Louie, 2006, 438).

Belinda Louis (2006) outlines principles for teaching with multicultural text. Here are the four that resonated with me:

Cultural Authenticity

While I agree that we should be looking to increase the number and reach of diverse authors, we should also look for authors who are thoughtful in their writing and research to create authentic experiences. The Breadwinner Series by Deborah Ellis is a good example of this. Ellis was inspired to write the story about Parvana and Shauzia after she read about the Taliban’s treatment of Afghanistan’s women and girls. Ellis’ research, including visiting refugee camps in Pakistan, inspired the characters and informed the authenticity of her stories.

Teach Perspective

The ability to understand different perspectives is key to applying lessons learned from literature to kids’ day-to-day life. Kids (like adults) rely on their own experiences first and use those to influence their understanding of fiction. So, stories are a way to help students understand other kids.

This resonates most when reading about the immigrant experience. Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez and La Linea by Ann Jaramillo are both books that encourage perspective-taking about the Hispanic-American immigrant experience. (And, here are 10 More books about the immigrant experience.)

Teach Values

Conflict sheds light on values. Examining how characters handle conflict, what they value, and how their expression of values may differ, is a huge benefit of using multicultural literature. The most important lesson to draw, though, is not that we’re different, but that humans share many of the same values, even if those values are expressed in different ways.

Respond and Reflect

Reading multicultural texts can be challenging for students, especially if they are encountering ideas that run counter to what they’ve believed in the past. If kids have the opportunity to “talk back” to text with their opinions, attitudes, and judgments, they’ll have the opportunity to process their understandings and develop them in ways that encourage communication.

Citation: Louie, Belinda. (2006) “Guiding Principles for Teaching Multicultural Literature.” International Reading Association, The Reading Teacher, 59(5).

Literature as Cross-Cultural Opportunity

In Julia Alvarez’s Return to Sender, Tyler, raised on a Vermont farm, and Mari, a Mexican immigrant who has been hired to help on Tyler’s family farm, become friends. Mari is worried about being deported, while Tyler worries for his family’s farm, yet their friendship withstands their differences. Return to Sender explores the challenges of building a friendship across cultures, even when it means reconciling your own ideas about a topic, in this case, illegal immigration.

There’s been a lot written about how reading fiction helps kids develop empathy and social skills. It also helps kids make and keep cross-cultural friendships. Jan Lacina and Robin Griffith, in their article, “Making New Friends: Using Literature to Inspire Cross-Cultural Friendships” (from the September/October issue of Reading Today) discuss the importance of being able to navigate cross-cultural friendships.

When kids have friends from different cultural heritages, they develop perspective, communication skills, and problem solving. And, as Lacina and Griffith point out, they demonstrate less prejudice. 

The world that today’s American kids inhabit is at once diverse and segregated. The New York Times reported that there are 5 million more students who are Hispanic or Asian today than there were in the 1990s. And, the diversity index, or the chance that two students, chosen at random, are of different ethnic groups has increased from 52% in 1993 to 61% in 2006 (higher numbers mean a more diverse student body).

But, even as diversity increases in America as a whole, individual schools and neighborhoods remain segregated. Earlier this year, when Brown vs. Board of Education turned 60, The Civil Rights Project assessed school segregation and found a disappointing picture:

  • The South has lost any desegregation progress made after 1967, but, despite this regression, it is still the most integrated region for African American students.
  • Hispanic students, which represent the largest minority group, are going to school in significantly segregated classrooms.

Overall, segregation is still the norm for students across the country. In a time when it’s imperative that students understand diverse perspectives and interact with people from different “worlds” than their own, reading about different cultures seem like an easy, foundational step that we can take. I’d love for kids who have grown up reading about cross-cultural friendships to seek out and make friends with people from different cultural backgrounds, and use that understanding to advocate for more diversity overall. The opportunity that students have when reading about cross-cultural friendships, after all, may be lost if there’s no one to befriend. 

Let’s Prioritize Diversity in Children’s Books

Recently, this School Library Journal post caught my eye. In it, Kathleen Horning discusses why, even though Walter Dean Myers has posed the question “Where are the people of color in children’s books?” twice (in 1986 and again in 2014, both times in the New York Times), there are still few children’s books that feature children of color.

In fact, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, where Horning is the director, found that in 2013, of 1,509 children’s books published, 78.3% featured human characters, and 89.5% of those featured a White protagonist. I found this statistic surprising. First, I would have thought there were more books with animal characters. And, second, I would have thought the percent of non-White characters would have creeped up higher than 10.5%.

Within that 10.5%, though, I wonder how many books are cultural stories, like The Story of Ping by Marjorie Flack and Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe. How many are stories where the character’s ethnicity is a major part of the plot, such as Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez or Duck for Turkey Day by Jacqueline Jules. And, how many are books that just happen to have diverse characters, unrelated to the plot. For example, Corduroy by Don Freeman, The Snowy Day by Jack Keats and Mary Brigid Barrett’s books. (The GoodReads list of books with diverse protagonists currently contains 10 books.)

For young children, reading about a variety of protagonists normalizes diversity. As they grow as readers, children seek out books that reflect their own lives and books that let them into other worlds so they can experience something totally different. To that end, literature legitimizes or marginalizes experiences, making it increasingly important for young readers to experience the diversity that exists across the country through books.

The solution for the lack of diversity in children’s literature, as Horning sees it, is to start buying more books that feature non-White characters. “Buying a book,” she reminds, “is a political act.” Buying books is a campaign I can get behind, and I’ve included additional ways to make diversity in children’s literature a priority.

Corduroy

 

  • Check out The Diverse Books Campaign.
  • Use books lists like this one from NPR and this list from Amazon when shopping for kids books.
  • Teachers can post Donors Choose grants requesting diverse classroom libraries.
  • Teachers and parents can encourage kids to choose one diverse book each time they order from a school book order.
  • When it’s time for holiday and birthday presents, direct people to an Amazon wishlist of diverse books.
  • Teachers can invite diverse authors to participate in classroom conversations through Skype in the Classroom or Scholastic.
  • Use Good Reads to create, maintain, and update reading lists of diverse books, and have students read, share, and discuss diverse reads online.