Multiculturalism Versus Unity and Commonality

Social Studies is a natural medium for teaching cross-cultural understanding and making education more meaningful for students from different ethnic, social, or cultural backgrounds. Rather than focusing only on separate ethnic studies and recognizing special holidays and heroes, approaches to multiculturalism today can teach events as interconnected and inclusive history. The lives of the individuals in every ethnic group contributed to and were affected by that history, so instead of treating each ethnic group separately, elements from all of their histories are woven into discussions of particular topics.

This column will review resources which enable teachers to strengthen their own knowledge of the many ethnic groups in our society. Both general multicultural resource materials and unique resources for children highlighted below can be effectively used to enhance an understanding of our unity and commonality.

Multicultural Resources

One of the most comprehensive multicultural books for teachers of young children is Cultural Awareness for Children (Allen, McNeill, & Schmidt, 1992). Filled with activites for the exploration of the customs of other cultures, this practical guidebook also contains a wealth of annotated lists of books, records, tapes, and films. It is divided into eight units which include African and African American cultures, American Indian cultures, Chinese and Chinese American cultures, Japanese and Japanese American cultures, Korean and Korean American cultures, Mexican and Mexican American cultures, Thai culture, and Southeast Asian cultures. Each unit has been reviewed by a native of that culture to make sure that the material is as authentic as possible and does not promote stereotypes.

To make the best use of the activities in the book, a teacher will want first to assemble materials for use in studying a culture. In the Chinese and Chinese American Culture section, twenty different items are recommended for creative, dramatic play alone. These include items such as Chinese kites, chopsticks, a low table with cushions for a tea party, paper fans, and clothing. Directions are given to make a wrap-like garment, called a Mai Tai, used by mothers to carry their babies while working or shopping. Recipes such as Chinese rice balls and spring rolls are included. Background information is provided for many cultural topics such as traditional rural Chinese homes, flower arranging, and using chopsticks. To give an idea of just what a wealth of information is provided, the section on decorative arts includes scrolls, brush painting, calligraphy, flags, Chinese knots, jade, paper making, block printing, fans, lanterns, kites, paper cutting, paper folding, plum blossoms, farmer’s hat, junks, pottery, porcelain, red envelopes, and Chinese play dough.

Interdisciplinary activities are included for each culture. For example, the China unit focuses on science and nature and includes information on silkworms, fish, pandas, bean sprouts, bamboo, and flowers. Each of these sections also provides activities for young children to do such as making panda masks or puppets, brush painting flowers, and raising silkworms if you have mulberry leaves available. For language development, lists of literature are included along with a variety of Chinese words and symbols for writing Chinese characters and numbers. Ideas for integrating music, dance, and drama are provided in addition to information on special celebrations. The resource section for the China unit provides six pages of annotated listings of books for children and adults, audio visual materials such as videotapes and records, and unique items such as dolls, posters, and catalogs of companies that carry Chinese and Chinese American materials.

Each unit contains enough information to be a book in itself. It is extremely useful to have so many practical suggestions for young children compiled into one resource. Ideas in the book originated with the Learning Tree School in Dallas where they have been used and refined over a 20-year period. The Learning Tree School provides an informal learning atmosphere through the use of learning centers where students can move about independently to follow individual interests. However, the activities are useful in a variety of educational contexts.

The Guide to Multicultural Resources 1993-94 (Taylor, 1993) is a comprehensive directory of current information on over 3,000 African American, Asian American, Hispanic American, and Native American organizations, agencies, services, and resources. A unique mediagraphy contains a selected list of video titles, major ethnic newspapers, magazines, and publishers, together with radio and television stations. Chapters are introduced by leaders in each cultural group and contain almanac information on demographic trends. Mostly a compendium of names and addresses, this resource is a valuable asset for library or media centers and for teachers who wish their students to be actively involved in writing to organizations for information. The editor, Dr. Charles A. Taylor, is the executive director and founder of the Multicultural Publishers Exchange (MPE, Box 9869, Madison, WI 53715, 1-800-558-2110), a consortium of over 250 independent publishers of color. MPE’s annual catalog contains an array of multicultural materials, especially children’s books.

For Kids, By Kids

Kids Explore America’s African-American Heritage (Westridge young Writers Workshop, 1993) is a book researched, written, and illustrated by 86 children in grades 3 through 8. Under the guidance of 27 teachers and 14 high school mentors, the students, all from Jefferson County, Colorado, participated in a two-week summer exploration into African American culture. They experienced sweet potato pie and mint tea, jazz and ragtime, folktales and history in their effort to provide a written resource to teach respect and understanding for one cultural heritage in our country.

The articles, which are informative and easy to read, are written from a child’s perspective. Many of the illustrations in the book are reproductions of student art.

Before the project began, five teachers assembled some 700 books for research. Topics were divided into History; Famous Firsts and Heroes; Art, Music and Dance; Fun, Food, and Celebrations; Stories, Language, and Literature; and Real People. Children could write on topics they chose. Interviews of African Americans in contemporary American life give a personal touch to this kid’s-eye view of African American culture. The non-fiction writing serves as an excellent model for other children to follow.

Kids Explore America’s African-American Heritage is not the first book of its kind. Also available from John Muir Publications is Kids Explore America’s Hispanic Heritage (Westridge Young Writers Workshop, 1992). It follows the same readable and informative format. Under the direction of Westridge Elementary School teacher Judith Cozzens, more book-writing workshops on different cultures are underway.

American Girls Collection

Meet Addy, Addy Learns a Lesson, and Addy’s Surprise (Porter, 1993) are the newest books in the American Girls Collection (Pleasant Company, 8400 Fairway Place, Middleton, WI 53562-0991, 608-836-4848). Historically accurate novels for girls ages 7 and older, the Addy books help children understand what life was like growing up in the midst of the Civil War. They provide a compelling portrait of a young girl who escapes slavery in North Carolina and begins a life of freedom in Philadelphia, experiencing both the joys and responsibilities of freedom. Three more Addy books will follow during 1994. Each one has been carefully developed under the guidance of an advisory board made up of African American historians, educators, and museum curators who helped ensure the authenticity of the books.

Books in the American Girls Collection are historical fiction which allow girls to compare and contrast common girlhood experiences including family, school, Christmas, birthday, and summer and winter adventures in various periods of American history. Girls other than Addy in the series include Felicity, a 1774 colonial girl who lives in Williamsburg, Virginia; Kirsten, the 1854 frontier girl whose family immigrated to the Midwest from Sweden; Samantha, a 1904 girl who grew up as an orphan living with her wealthy grandmother during the Industrial Revolution era; and Molly, the 1944 girl whose adventures focus attention on the home front during World War II. Each girl has six books in their series available in paperback for $5.95 or library bound hardcover for $12.95. Each book concludes with a non-fiction picture essay, called Looking Back, that explores the background of the historical period and enriches the reader’s understanding of the novel and the time period.

While the American Girls Collection books are available in bookstores, the complete items in the collection are available only by direct mail catalogue. To bring the stories to life, a doll has been developed for each character along with an array of historically accurate clothing and accessories. Miniature historical reproductions of everyday items found in the stories are also available. For example, the miniature accessories that go with the Kirsten’s birthday book include a trestle table and matching chairs (handcrafted of solid pine depicting the sturdy furniture made by early Swedish settlers for their simple cabins); handmade stoneware plates and wooden bowls; a friendship quilt; a little patchwork quilt kit (including a hoop, appliques, needle, thread, and patchwork pieces already sewn together); a mama cat with her kitten; and party treats such as a hand-carved wooden salt box (filled with field flowers and strawberries) and a heart-shaped cake on a wooden platter. The $205 collection also includes an apron dress and daisy wreath that you can use to dress the doll, which is sold separately.

Most schools will not be able to afford the many accessories which accompany each book in the collection. There are, however, special resources available just for schools. A free Doll Lending Program provides a one-week visitation of all five American Girl 18” dolls along with stands and accessories; 125 American Girls bookmarks; a set of posters to display; a set of author videotapes; and assorted balloons and buttons. Available in early 1994 is a special unit, Schooling in America, which provides language arts and social studies activities comparing and contrasting schooling in America’s past using the five school stories in the collection. Student books, A Teacher’s Resource Book, activity cards, posters, and maps will be included.

Unity and Commonality

Within a pluralistic society, it is important to open the curriculum to the histories and perspectives of the many diverse groups that form America. Multicultural education needs to work towards building bridges, not burning them. The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, Arthur M. Schlesinger (1992), provides food for thought in Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society. He acknowledges the long-overdue need to recognize the achievements of women, African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, and Asians among others, yet he is concerned that the “cult of ethnicity” if pressed too far, may pose a danger of the fragmentation of American society.

With many multicultural resources dealing with separate ethnic, social, or cultural groups there is a concern that this will lead to further separatism rather than unity — that it will foster a subgroup culture, eroding our commonalities. The goal, however, is to create an authentic unity — one that reflects all people’s experiences. Rather than merely adding on units of study about different cultures then, the curriculum must be transformed to affirm diversity and honor multiple perspectives. New textbooks and classroom instruction are reflecting a move toward a more inclusive history, yet there is still a great need for additional resources in this area.

Allen, J., McNeill, E., & Schmidt, V. (1992). Cultural awareness for children. Menlo Park, CA: Addison Wesley. ISBN 0-201-28731-5. Softcover, $32.
Porter, C. (1993). Addy learns a lesson. Middelton, WI: Pleasant Co. ISBN 1-56247-077-9. Softcover. $5.95. (Library Binding $12.95.)
Porter, C. (1993). Addy’s surprise. Middleton, WI: Pleasant Co. ISBN 1-56247-079-5. Softcover. $5.95 (Library Binding $12.95.)
Porter, C. (1993). Meet Addy. Middleton, WI: Pleasant Co. ISBN 1-56247-075-2. Softcover. $5.95 (Library Binding $12.95.)
Schlesinger, A. M. (1992). Disuniting of America: Reflections on a multicultural society. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. ISBN 0-393-03380-5. Hardcover. $15.95.
Taylor, C. A. (Ed.). (1993). Guide to multicultural resources 1993-94. Fort Atkinson, WI: Highsmith Press. ISBN 0-917846-18-4. Softcover. $49. 474 pages.
Westridge Young Writers Workshop. (1993). Kids explore America’s African-American heritage. Santa Fe, NM: John Muir Pub. ISBN 1-56261-090-2. Softcover. $8.95.
Westridge Young Writers Workshop. (1993). Kids explore America’s Hispanic heritage. Santa Fe, NM: John Muir Pub. ISBN 1-56261-034-1. Softcover. $7.95.

About the Author
Dr. Priscilla Porter, Assistant Professor Education at California State University, teaches courses in social studies education and is co-director of the Dominguez Hills site of the California History-Social Science Project.

This regular feature of Social Studies and the Young Learner provides descriptions of effective resources for use by teachers. Suggestions on materials to review and descriptions from teachers of their experiences using materials reviewed in this column are invited. Please send correspondence to Dr. Priscilla Porter, School of Education, California State University, Dominguez Hills, Carson, CA 90747.