Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Diversity: read your way to better understanding!

As members of the Diversity Council, second grade teacher Mrs. Palmer and I spent yesterday at a PNAIS conference on Co-Creating Inclusive Communities. We heard amazing speakers and picked up a lot of practical tips and new information to share with our colleagues and students. Inspired by the conference, today I would like to share a few thoughts on diversity and reading, followed by a list of links to get you started.

When it comes to exploring diversity through books, the selection of multicultural English language children’s books available today is richer than at any time in the past, though certain groups are still sadly underrepresented relative to their numbers (for example, Filipino Americans). Even so, if you are a looking for a book that reflects your own family’s background, you are more likely than ever to find high quality materials!

If you are looking to find books to enhance your family’s knowledge of other cultures, it can be difficult to know where to start, as it is often hard to gauge the accuracy of individual books when you are reading about unfamiliar cultures. The main guideline I would offer is that the more widely and deeply you read, the better able you will be to spot information that doesn’t ring true as well as to absorb the nuances of other cultures.

Limited exposure is your greatest enemy! When a child reads a book in which a negative character happens to be a white American, he is not likely to generalize from this character to all white Americans because this is just one portrayal out of thousands this child regularly encounters in books, on television and in the movies. But when a character comes from a group of people a child rarely encounters, there is a risk he will assume that any notable traits are typical of that group in general (“This is what they do in…” or “All people from this place are like this…”).

One way to think about it is to consider all the group affiliations each of us has, through citizenship, ethnicity, religion, profession, generation, neighborhood of residence, civic or extracurricular memberships and activities. We each play multiple roles in our lives, and we each to a greater or lesser extent may represent a “typical” member of each group we belong to. Still, there will be great variations within regions, linguistic groups and individual families so we need to remember that any one book or character should not be accepted as completely representative of an entire group of people. Instead, a body of quality materials will together help form a clearer picture of the mosaic that makes up every culture.

Open Window and Vista students and their families continually impress me with their thoughtfulness and curiosity about the world at large. Have fun as you go forth and explore and remember to take note of and celebrate the great cultural heritage in your very own home!

Here, in no particular order, are a few good places to start looking:

- Lee & Low Books – publishers of multicultural children’s literature
- The Batchelder Award – for children’s & young adult literature in translation
- KCLS children’s multicultural reading list
- Kahani – a South Asian children’s magazine (we subscribe to this in our school library)
- History & culture magazines from Cobblestone
- Intriguing article by South African reviewer Hazel Rochman, author of Against Borders, a guide to multicultural children’s & teen books – read the article & then check out the book from the library!

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