Striking a balance between new works, classics

Multicultural literature can be a tremendous tool in education, but it rarely comes with an instruction manual.

That may explain why an estimated 150 students at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., were turned away from Julie Landsman's course, "Reading, Writing, and Teaching for Social Change." To the veteran Minneapolis public schools teacher it's a sign "that there is a burning interest."

Like many of her colleagues in urban settings, Ms. Landsman learned by trial and error in her early efforts to create a more multicultural approach. She has taught for more than 25 years, for the most part in schools where the majority of students were "not of European-American descent." She recounts her experiences in her recent book, "A White Teacher Talks about Race" (Scarecrow Press).

In literature and writing courses, she found it was important to strike a balance between contemporary works by authors from a range of racial and cultural backgrounds with "classics" such as Shakespearean plays. For students of color, "to see themselves reflected was important, because they won't connect to school if they see it as a white game," she says. But at the same time, "kids want the tough, what they consider the real, curriculum – what they're going to have to understand if they want to go to college."

Schools and districts are increasingly bringing in people like Landsman to guide teachers' attempts to weave multicultural lessons into the fabric of their classes, rather than relying on a "culture of the month" approach.

Landsman starts by encouraging teachers to examine their own perspectives on race, and she tells them not to be afraid to use the words black or white, or to refer to themselves as white teachers.

"Kids know about race and how they've been treated.... If you recognize your place in that, that's the beginning."

In her own classrooms, for instance, she told students that it was all right to say the word "nigger" when talking about books such as "To Kill a Mockingbird," but they were not allowed to address each other with the word. In explaining her rule, she shared how she became aware of the hurtful nature of the word after using it as a child.

Groups such as the National Association for Multicultural Education assist teachers of all racial backgrounds as they look for literature to use in diverse classrooms. But often it takes local support to tailor lesson plans to particular community needs.

In Philadelphia, for instance, community pressure led the public schools to hire Deborah Wei as an Asian/Pacific-American curriculum specialist in the early 1990s. The heavily minority district already had specialists in African-American and Latino studies.

Ms. Wei, who had taught in both Philadelphia and Hong Kong, worked with a committee of teachers and university professors to add a number of Asian-American selections to the required reading lists.

This year, she has been developing a resource guide for the teaching of "Bone," a novel by Fae Myenne Ng about a first-generation Chinese-American family in San Francisco. "Bone" will be required reading for Philadelphia's 11th-graders starting this fall.

"Literature is a great way to pull people into a sensibility of human commonality," Wei says, "but it's important to acknowledge that history has impacted our experiences." Many ethnic writers tell stories that "reflect histories not taught in schools." For instance, one of the characters in "Bone" is a man who is a "paper son": He had to fake documents to get into the United States. The phrase is common knowledge in Chinese-American circles, but "invisible to most Americans."

In addition to the resource guides, Wei's office has published a children's book and is developing a list of recommended readings.

Teachers can't be expected to represent the cultural background of every child in a school or city. But the point, says Wei, is to look at themes such as exclusion and resistance. "It's about how we uncover a history of movements for justice – locally, nationally, globally ... [and] using multicultural studies as a framework for critical understanding."

In their eagerness to fill in the blanks, though, white teachers sometimes forget to do "their own whiteness homework," says Emily Style, herself a white former teacher and now codirector of The SEED (Seeking Education Equity and Diversity) Project on Inclusive Curriculum.

"Often white teachers will rush first to study 'the other,' so they've been busy just being fascinated and nourished [by looking through] all these 'windows.' " But they need to also spend time thinking about what it meant to be a white person where they grew up. "There are as many ways to be white as there are white people."

SEED holds seminars each summer. The teachers who attend agree to hold monthly conversations with 10 to 20 of their colleagues during the following year. In these meetings, teachers can get advice about about the problems they're facing and share the "aha" moments that give them fresh ideas for their next class.

One of the "rigors" of this work, Ms. Style says, is to keep a balance between personal stories and an examination of systems.

"All of us have stories.... It's not that people of color have much more interesting stories, and if we stopped reading so many boring white stories then the curriculum would be more interesting.... At the same time, all of us are born into systems that distribute power in an inequitable way, so you can't just have a circle where everyone tells their stories in a kind of benign way ... as if it were a level playing field."

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