Lessons on Diversity Get Diverse Reviews
Many say thoughtful programs can lower barriers, while weak efforts may encourage stereotyping
BATON ROUGE, LA.
Five years ago at Audubon Elementary school in Baton Rouge, La., the third-grade classes "studied" Thanksgiving by splitting into two groups: One group made feathered headbands and the other made pilgrim hats.Skip to next paragraph
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"The main focus was on the feast, and that was pretty much it," says third-grade teacher Toni Teepell.
This year, Ms. Teepell's class is taking a different tack.
As the children research native American shelters, customs, and jobs within different tribes, Teepell helps them draw comparisons to their communities and their own shelters and customs. The children will discuss native American life with a visiting speaker.
Audubon's program represents a conscious attempt to improve upon past models of multicultural education that some label the tourism approach: eating squash, painting teepees, then closing the book until next year.
"Eight, nine, 10 years ago, what you got were food festivals with ethnic dancing," says Caryl Stern LaRosa, director of the Education and the World of Difference Institute for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of B'nai B'rith in Washington, D.C.
Today proponents of multicultural education espouse an integrated approach that acknowledges the nation's diversity in every class, all year. Many prefer labels like antibias over multicultural, believing it better describes a mission of helping children to confront and combat bigotry.
But the jury is still out on the impact of multicultural education. First introduced roughly two decades ago, the effort aimed to broaden a curriculum centered largely on European history and culture and encourage greater understanding of America's diverse population.
But as it has reached in a variety of forms into the majority of American classrooms, proponents and critics have raised a number of red flags. Some complain the lessons can actually encourage stereotyping. Others say a week's study of teepees, for example, will do little to enhance understanding of native American heritage. And some charge that it can create divisiveness as varied groups vie for influence.
There is little doubt that teachers have never before had such an arsenal of multicultural materials at their fingertips. Smelling profits, everyone from textbook suppliers to software programmers has offered up materials that detail the lives and customs of the diverse group that enters American classrooms each day. But the quality of this material varies widely.
First-grade teacher Margot Fox is constantly searching for good literature "just about kids" - African-American kids, Latino kids, Asian kids. "If we have native American culture represented in our teaching, that's the way to make a group feel part of instead of 'other than,'" says Ms. Fox, who teaches at Heath Elementary School in Brookline, Mass.
According to Fox, many of these books serve as useful tools for teaching tolerance and building self-esteem. But whether all teachers are using these new tools thoughtfully is open to debate.
"With all these textbooks calling themselves multicultural, children learn 'This is what Chinese are like; this is what blacks are like; this is what Europeans are like,'" says Diane Ravitch, a senior scholar at New York University.
Jo Boutte, a fourth-fifth grade teacher at Audubon Elementary, cringes at short-term celebrations. "I have a concern about the one-month thing - it's February; let's do black history. I don't see that as respect for a culture," she states.
In the context of the Thanksgiving holiday, Barbara Shin, principal of Anderson Elementary Community School of Many Voices in Minneapolis, describes examples of teachers portraying native Americans only historically. "They have overlooked the contemporary population and the transition to current generations," says Ms. Shin. "What have we done when we teach that certain people lived only during a certain time? The people become invisible."