January 9 — 4:51 pm, 2019

The Reading Quilt: Books that promote multicultural thinking in the classroom

Rachel Slaughter

lockereading (Photo: Bill Hangley Jr.)

Schools in America are experiencing a surge in ethnic and racial diversity, making the classroom fertile ground for multicultural materials. While young people are especially curious about race and race relations and often chat about these issues among themselves, they rush to bury their heads in the metaphorical sand if the topic comes up in the classroom. But with appropriate texts, teachers can coax reluctant students to celebrate other cultures while discussing race without fear or shame.

So-called “colorblind” ideology, which prevails in most American classrooms, allows a single cultural narrative to dominate. Six million non-white school children almost never see themselves or encounter their own cultural backgrounds in books they are assigned to read in school.

This ideology affects how teachers perceive their students, families, and communities of color. The goal is for a multicultural approach to become “characteristic of American mentality” to help with the quest of eliminating discrimination, inequality, and oppression, according to the Center for Community Health and Development at the University of Kansas.

The research is clear that high-quality multicultural literature can be a powerful catalyst for conversation and understanding in classrooms. But teachers may not trust themselves to find the right books to engage students, and a multicultural program that is deficient can do more harm than good. Not all young people’s literature that includes people of color has merit, and some may even include racist ideas and images. Teachers can turn for help to online resources, like this one from Ithaca College, and databases such as Diverse Book Finder and The Cooperative Children’s Book Center.   

Each month, “The Reading Quilt” provides a short review of a book that a teacher may use to spark conversations about culture and race, along with a learning activity that may help students understand the complexity of the human experience.  It uses the acronym QUILT, which stands for Quality of writing, Universal theme, Imaginative plot, mini Lesson plan, and Talking points.

The first recommended book is Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson (HarperCollins, 2016).

Woodson, a native of Ohio, spent much of her childhood in Brooklyn, New York, and is the author of more than a dozen award-winning novels. Four of her books have won Newbery Honors, awarded annually by the American Library Association, to the authors of distinguished contributions to American literature for children.

At 55, Woodson still gives off the air of youth and vitality. Often spotted sporting her signature natural twists, she celebrates the African American experience in many of her books. Her many fans savor tidbits about the elusive Woodson. On her newly updated website, fans can learn, for instance, that Woodson, who writes with her right hand, “can only write with the notebook turned sideways” and that when she was a kid, she wrote with her notebook turned upside down.

On a more personal side, Woodson, an LGBTQ supporter, struggled with the Jehovah’s Witnesses faith her family practiced when she was a child. No longer a practicing member, Woodson and her partner Juliet Widoff, a physician, reside in Brooklyn.

Quality: In Another Brooklyn, Woodson reveals her fandom for Brooklyn. Through a cast of characters named August, Sylvia, Gigi, and Angela and rich descriptions of 1970s Brooklyn, Woodson details the milieu of her old stomping grounds. The fun and drama that the four inner-city girls experienced through many trials and tribulations make you wish you were a tag-along, turning the clothesline that moonlighted as a Double Dutch rope.

Universal theme: Woodson is no stranger to the coming-of-age story. Told in a first-person point of view, Another Brooklyn shows its perfection through authentic dialogue and stunning imagery that help the reader share the “weight of growing up Girl in Brooklyn.”  Woodson describes Brooklyn with words that sparkle: “longer nails and sharper blades.” Her technique of using a personal, down-to-earth tone helps the book read like a personal journal. Each of the girls has her own idiosyncrasy. Like in the original Destiny’s Child girl group, these four girls are a mixed bag of personalities. Angela, with her “high-yellow skin,” is a nail-biter who tends to her Afro come hell or high water. Gigi, whose grandmother came to South Carolina “by way of a Chinaman daddy and mulatto mama,” is gifted with eyes from her Chinese ancestors and heavy thick braids. In the novel, Woodson stirs the story of each girl with colorful additives of pop or historical references. For example, Woodson gives a nod to the Ibo people, a tribe “someplace off the coast of South Carolina brought over by slave catchers who tossed themselves into the water” believing that “since the water had brought them here, the water would take them home. They believed going home to the water was far better than living their lives enslaved.”

Imaginative plot: In this book, August, Sylvia, Gigi, and Angela are teenage “supergirls” who escape the pitfalls of the inner city while grappling with the hands of rogue and lascivious men. In the midst of many daily storms, the four girls dazzle the readers with their lives wrapped in jazz music, bell bottoms, Afros, and a Southern buffet featuring iconic dishes like chitterlings, pickled pigs’ feet, and pork rinds. With tenacious spirits, these girls fight the world.

Lesson plan: This book is ideal to teach the literary term milieu, which is defined as surroundings, especially of a social or cultural nature. Another Brooklyn brings this term to lifeA teacher can use the book as the platform for student writing about the milieu of their own neighborhoods, cities, or towns.

Talking points: Woodson’s novel is a great conversation-starter for high school students. Listed below are four possible talking points or writing prompts:

  1. The struggles of inner-city life
  2. Teenage struggles
  3. The African American experience
  4. The power of friendship

Rachel Slaughter, a doctoral candidate at Widener University, is working on her dissertation about multicultural literacy. The books she has written include one for fathers and sons that provides fun activities to promote reading: “Daddy, REAd to Me (DREAM): The Virtual Trophy Abecedarium and Journal for Fathers and Sons.” To contact her, email literacyuniversity@gmail.com. For other multicultural literary suggestions, follow her on Google Plus or go to literacyuniversity.org.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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