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.
"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."
Designated a model laboratory for multicultural education by the Minneapolis school board, Shin's school infuses multiculturalism throughout the curriculum. "We don't pit multiculturalism against reading, writing, and math," Shin explains. "We are going to purchase math and reading materials anyway. Multicultural materials don't require extra money - it's how you spend that money," she states.
Shin says that the school spent an additional $50,000 on curriculum development, staff salaries, and community collaboration to make the transition to a model multicultural site. She acknowledges that schools will face stiff costs for staff development.
But without that antibias training for teachers, other investments in multicultural education may be lost. "Teachers will teach with the biases they have," says Fox. "If someone is prejudiced against Latinos, how are they going to successfully teach a curriculum about Latinos?"
But in the current political climate, funds for this kind of training are not easy to come by, says David Koyama, director of programs for the REACH Center for Multicultural and Global Education.
"With the elections in 1994 and the federal budgets in 1996, we saw a backwards step for multicultural education," he says, pointing to Texas as one of several states that elected a conservative governor and school board with education platforms opposed to a multicultural curriculum.
One problem has been the widely varied quality of programs. "A lot of junk goes under the label," Ms. Ravitch says. "If we give kids a picture of the pluralism of American society, then that's an accurate picture. If it means building up ethnic pride, saying that color defines who we are - that's old-fashioned racism." She adds that it will be difficult to measure the merits of these programs until there's some agreement on their definition.
But the positive feedback Marilyn Strelau gets every day convinces her that multicultural education should be a required course in American schools. "We need to educate kids for the 21st century; we don't have a choice," says Ms. Strelau, who teaches high school seniors at Simsbury High School in Simsbury, Conn.
This year Strelau added an interdisciplinary project, studying four regions of the world through art, literature, music, and history. Students explore dot technique while studying Aborigines, use math skills to create mirror images common in Arabic art, and work with symbols to create masks as part of a focus on African art.
"We're not throwing away the classics; the kids still have to learn how to outline a good paper and write a personal essay," she says. "But we're also teaching the attitudes at a young age that make people receptive to respecting others."
*Previous articles in this series ran Aug. 27, Sept. 23, and Oct. 18.
STUDENTS OFFER THEIR PERSPECTIVES
While the debate on the merits of multicultural education continues, many children testify that the curriculum helps them feel good about themselves and others.
For Megan Zucasozich, a change of schools has meant she no longer spends classroom time learning about people with cultures distinct from her own - something she says she misses.
"I like to learn about languages and the dances people do in the places they live," she said. "It's fun to learn about what it is like in their world."
For Camille Mitchell, Anthony Lawrence, and Shadia El-Said, fifth- and sixth-graders at Anderson Elementary School of Many Voices in Minneapolis, multicultural education means learning about Sequoias' contribution to the Cherokee language, reading poetry by Langston Hughes, and playing the Turkish probability game Coffee Cups.
The group explains why a multicultural perspective is important to them: "You wouldn't disrespect your own culture and other cultures. You learn about the good people are doing in their cultures," they agreed.
Owen Amsler meets kids from a variety of cultures as a third-grader at Heath Elementary in Brookline, Mass. From class discussions, Owen has learned that when people are different, "you shouldn't make fun of them or think you're better than them. I think of everybody equally."