Monday, August 25, 2008

The Books We Teach...or a rant on multicultural education

When I was in high school my two favorite books were Tale of Two Cities and The Great Gatsby. I know that Gatsby is a teen favorite, something about the disillusionment within the book, the confused characters that aligns with adolescent angst. I might have been on my own with the Dickens classic, but I know that I worked so hard on the class assignments for both books. Why? Am I French? A revolutionary? The answer is decidedly no, but I liked the story. Unfortunately this is not always the case and a new avenue must be sought. 

In a recent Washington Post article, "We're Teaching Books That Don't Stack Up", Nancy Schnog looks at the effect that some books have on the motivation of students. Student's don't connect, they don't want to participate in lively discussion because they don't care, it isn't relevant. At my teacher training I heard a lot of talk about multicultural education, but this isn't your suburban Martin Luther King Day or Black History Month multicultural education, this is every day. Multicultural education might more aptly be called, giving your students books with characters they relate, this doesn't mean every book will have a character that looks just like your students. What it does mean is that students will encounter characters from their own backgrounds and a variety of different backgrounds. This is presumably harder when choosing literature for younger children. 

I was shocked when a teacher told me that it wasn't standard practice to read Lois Lowry's Number The Stars, and I started to wonder about what young kids do read. Two of my favorite books were part of what I would consider, multicultural education, although they were cultures other than my own. In sixth grade my class read Monkey Island by Paula Fox, a book that discusses the issue of homelessness. Another childhood favorite of mine, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. I look back and wonder was this multicultural education?

It's about showing kids different perspectives, and lots of them, but making sure they find those books to connect to for their independent reading. I was recently reading Selma G. Lanes' book Through The Looking Glass, which looks at children's literature through a critical eye. In an essay about Ursula Nordstrom, the star children's literature editor for Harper for more than thirty years, she looks at the correspondence between the editor herself and John Steptoe. Nordstrom urges Steptoe to discuss his background, what he knows, Harlem. The African-American artist brought a new unique voice to children's literature and a real one. His voice was true and unique, as the voices in multicultural education should be.

I think I had a point somewhere in my rant....

Multicultural education is more than just black and white. It is about unique voices that cry out, listen to my story. Does this mean education should abandon the classics, the stories that have been set down in history as excellent What it does mean is that these stories are only part of the picture and that in the classroom children need to hear voices from many different cultures, always including their own. 

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