As an educator in a multicultural urban area, I am no doubt a believer in teaching cultural diversity in the classroom. This can be done in many ways such as providing books with story lines about characters who represent many ethnicities and races, or putting up posters depicting people of various backgrounds. This can also mean celebrating more than the dominant social, religious or political holiday or commemoration in the classroom. I believe these practices are important to implement as early as Pre-K for the following reasons.
Children as young as 2 begin to notice gender and racial differences. They may also begin noticing physical disabilities, although so far indications are that this may begin a year or two later. By 2 and a half years of age, children are learning the appropriate use of gender labels and color names which they begin to apply to skin color. By 3 years of age children begin to show signs of being influenced by societal norms and biases and may exhibit “pre-prejudice” toward others on the basis of gender or race or being differently abled (Why an Anti-Bias Curriculum?, Louise Derman-Sparks in Rethinking Early Childhood Education, edited by Ann Pelo, 2008).
What counts as “Diverse”?
Here is one example of how we may think about the complexities of creating a “multicultural” classroom or diverse curriculum. In the pre-school class I currently work in there is a student whose family is from India and they are of a Hindu background.
As with all children in my class, I want to make sure this child has visual representations available of people who look like her in the classroom to empower her and provide her with ways to understand her identity in a white-European majority classroom. I went to my local Leftist/Radical bookstore and found 1 book in the Children’s section by an Indian author with a theme representing (one section of) Indian culture. The book, Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth by Sanjay Patel & Emily Haynes is a child-friendly picture book version of an epic poem of Hindu literature, the Mahabharata. After reading this book, one does not have to have prior knowledge of either India or Hinduism to appreciate the storyline, characters, and vibrant illustrations. There is no doubt that a book like this would both empower any student of a Indian Hindu background and also introduce other students to a culture and faith they may have no other exposure to.
On the other hand, this may provide a limited scope of what we can call Indian culture since the book only depicts a tradition from one faith, which happens to be the dominant faith of the subcontinent. Had I chosen a book depicting Sikh children or tradition, Jainism or Islam in the Indian context I would have provided a vastly different view of what may be seen by other non-Indian students as “Indian Culture.” All in all, I think Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth is a great book which all pre-schools should carry, regardless of whether or not the center has any students of Indian background. I just hope educators will take the time to reflect critically on deeper meanings of providing any one history or representation of a non-dominant culture in their classrooms.
Exploring Complex Social Issues With Young Children
If I wanted to add a book which depicts another aspect of Indian “culture” for slightly older children, I would suggest the text Trash! On Ragpicker Children and Recycling (Gita Wolf, Anushka Ravishkankar, Orijit Sen). I bought this book in New Dehli while searching for texts to bring back and read to the many children I babysat and nannied at the time. This book is meant for children ages nine to thirteen, the authors explain in a note that the text evolved from a series of workshops they conducted with ragpicker children. The book focuses on complex issues of child labor and the environment because the authors feel that,
“problematic themes have a place in children’s literature. Books can deal openly and honestly with the harsher realities of life, which children see around them everyday.”
Upon reading this note, I thought back to a friend of mine I met in Mumbai who writes children’s books. She told me that she often sees upper-class families walking past impoverished children on the streets begging for food or money and when the wealthy children ask their mothers, “why is this child dirty? why does she not have food or a home?” and the mothers will often shield their children’s eyes and tell them to look away. She believes, as I do, that families of middle and upper-class backgrounds have an obligation to explain complex issues to their children such as poverty, homelessness, hunger, why some children live in slums/favelas/public housing while others live in single-family houses, nice apartment complexes, etc. Her words stayed in my mind for over 2 years and I am only now beginning to understand my role as an educator and a caregiver to so many young children to fill that gap of understanding.
How often do we walk with our students and children in the streets of Chicago past someone who is begging for money on the street or listen to a veteran or homeless person make an announcement on the CTA that they need food in order to survive the harsh winter. What do we say to our children at these moments? If you are a caretaker, such as a babysitter or nanny, how do you find opportunity to discuss issues of class and poverty with the children you take care of? These are critical questions I hope more educators, families and caretakers can think about.
Trash! not only provides an insight into the lives of young children in Chennai, India whose daily routines include digging through other people’s garbage but also gives valuable lessons for children on recycling, global consumption, and human rights of children. These lessons can be applied to any group of young children in the world, regardless of class, race, or geography. In fact, I would argue that seeing these facts in the same book that discussing issues of class struggle in a country which is “foreign” to non-Indian children in the West would assist young children to make connections of globalization and exploitation of children in various contexts. The goal here is for children to understand that poverty, hunger and homelessness are global issues that exist worldwide due to oppressive hierarchal institutions and are not due to any one culture, faith, or geography.
Buzzwords such as multicultural or diverse in the context of early childhood and elementary education tend to only mean surface level practices such as celebrating Chinese New Year or Dia de Los Muertos and other tokenizing or exoticizing ways of presenting “diversity”. For ideas of how to break this mold I would suggest Beyond Heroes and Holidays: A Practical Guide to K-12 Anti-Racist, Multicultural Education and Staff Development (Editors: Enid Lee, Deborah Menkart, Margo Okazawa-Rey). As well as Rethinking Early Childhood Education (Ann Pelo) for ideas to implement in Pre-K classrooms.
Most importantly, educators need to remember that diversity and multicultural education belongs in every classroom regardless of the ethnic and racial make up of the students. For example, many educators would ask What if all the kids are white? This question is discussed by Louise Derman-Sparks and Patricia Ramsey in their essay with the same title. They write,
Three misconceptions about the role of anti-bias education for white children underlie the confusion reflected in that question. One is that racial, ethnic and cultural diversity refers only to people who are “different from” whites. A second misconception is that we can only teach white children about diversity if they are in a group with children of color. A third is that an anti-bias curriculum only needs to focus on white children’s attitudes towards children of color, not on their own identity development.
For more on these questions I suggest you read the essay which can be found here and is also in chapter format in Rethinking Early Childhood Education which has been instrumental for me as a pre-school educator and someone who works primarily with children between the ages of 6 weeks and 8 years old. One framework which is currently missing in many of the conversations on multicultural curriculum is including differently abled children in representations of diversity. Discussions of including children with disabilities is only recently being explored in conjunction with multiculturalism since children with disabilities come in all ethnic and racial backgrounds. I have not read enough literature on the topic to include it into this post but my hope is to find more resources in the coming weeks and re-visit this topic again once I learn more. As always, please feel free to email me suggested readings at firstname.lastname@example.org or provide them in the comment section.