September 25 — 1:31 pm, 2002

Multiculturalism has triggered change across the curriculum

Demands for diversity have fostered development of new resources, organizations

Multiculturalism is changing the face of publishing as parents, students and educators demand that the curriculum embrace an increasing diversity of perspectives.

Teachers seek out a wide cultural range of settings, authors, and characters when choosing books for their classrooms; school districts favor anthologies that include stories from around the world; editors look for cultural diversity when soliciting manuscripts from authors.

This trend represents an acknowledgment that a white, middle-class, male point of view has traditionally dominated the curriculum. It is an attempt to include other views while encouraging thoughtful analysis of the ways in which class, gender, ethnicity, and other factors influence one’s perspective.

Educators attest and studies confirm that children perform better academically when provided with materials that reflect their own experiences. At the same time, all children benefit from the opportunity to see the world through multiple lenses and to think critically about who decides which views will be highlighted and why.

Efforts to increase cultural diversity in the curriculum have been criticized on one side as irresponsible political correctness – overlooking objective merit in order to appease various “special interests” – and on the other as mere tokenism – inserting a few faces of color while leaving the fundamental structure of the curriculum intact.

Such criticisms underscore the challenges of communicating the intentions and goals of multicultural education. While this will take some time, there is no question that schools are already rethinking their curricula and teaching strategies in response to multiculturalism’s growing influence.

Changes across the curriculum

Multiculturalism is not only about literature. It means that all disciplines – including math, science, history and the arts – are approached in ways that challenge dominant world views, assumptions and habits.

Willa Cofield, teacher and civil rights activist, writes, “Good teachers will challenge the myths that students bring into the classroom. They will give students critical tools for dissecting media, texts, and other representational forms.”

For example, the American Social History Project provides resources and training in a “bottom-up” interpretation of history that demonstrates how working men and women have shaped American society.

In contrast to the traditional emphasis on the lives of a few influential actors, the project integrates “the history of community, family, gender roles, race, and ethnicity into the more familiar history of politics and economic development.”

The program encourages students to become active historians by analyzing primary sources, examining evidence through critical eyes, and making connections between events of the past and the realities of their own lives.

Mathematical literacy and civil rights

The Algebra Project is a grassroots, community-led program designed to increase access to higher math concepts for low-income youth and students of color.

Initiated by civil rights leader Bob Moses, the project empowers students to think algebraically and to connect mathematical concepts to their everyday lives. It promotes systemic change in mathematics education through curriculum materials, teacher training, and community organizing.

The project recruits math tutors for younger students and encourages whole communities to become involved in the struggle for high-quality education, especially for underserved urban and rural students.

Moses views the project as part of the larger struggle of oppressed peoples to bring about social change through political organizing and local, grassroots control of education.

Moses writes, “Everyone said sharecroppers didn’t want to vote. It wasn’t until we got them demanding to vote that we got attention. Today, when kids are falling wholesale through the cracks, people say they don’t want to learn. We have to get the kids themselves to demand what everyone says they don’t want.”

Resources for educators

Many organizations provide resources and training to help teachers promote equity, justice, and critical thinking in their classrooms.

Here in Philadelphia, The Multicultural Resource Center (TMRC) is dedicated to transforming child-nurturing policy and practice to ensure that all children receive the skills they need for full and satisfying participation in society. Established by Francenia Emery, TMRC operates on the belief that literature is a powerful vehicle for reducing prejudice, inspiring empathy, and teaching content and skills in all subject areas.

Emery has recently published the fifth edition of an annotated bibliography of multicultural literature entitled That’s Me! That’s You! That’s Us! TMRC maintains a library, provides workshops, and organizes cultural events.

Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center based in Montgomery, Alabama, produces multicultural curriculum materials and serves as a clearinghouse of information for teachers working against bias. The organization publishes a quarterly magazine which contains articles, lesson plans, and other resources. The magazine is free for educators.

Rethinking Schools, a Milwaukee-based organization founded and run by teachers, is committed to democratic, grassroots school reform and focuses particularly on issues of race and urban education. It publishes many curricular and professional materials for teachers and education activists, including the curriculum guide Rethinking Columbus and a quarterly journal, Rethinking Schools.

The mission of Teaching for Change, based in Washington, D.C., is to “work with school communities to develop and promote pedagogies, resources, and cross-cultural understanding for social and economic justice in the Americas.” Their extensive catalog contains valuable resources for educators, including Beyond Heroes and Holidays, which examines the complexities of multicultural education, and Caribbean Connections, a five-volume series exploring Caribbean heritage and culture.

A Zulu expression proclaims, “If the future doesn’t come toward you, you have to go and fetch it.”

Multicultural education empowers students to go out and fetch a better future by exposing them to the diversity of human wisdom, teaching them to question dominant assumptions, and preparing them to be active participants in a constantly shrinking global community.

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