Multiculturalism and
Critical Thinking

Omiunota Nelly Ukpodoku

Recently, I had the privilege of being a frequent guest at two elementary classrooms. The third and sixth grade teachers had invited me to their classrooms to observe their ěinnovative literature-based social studies approach,î which involved using trade books to integrate language arts and social studies through integrated thematic units. The teachers said that they were ěbig on multiculturalism,î and believed that using a literature-based approach would help them promote studentsí multicultural literacy and competency.

For a semester, I was ěprofessor Uî in these third and sixth grade classrooms. As I sat in the classrooms week after week, observing this ěliterature-based social studies instruction,î I could not help feeling disappointed by the superficial treatment of social studies content and trivialization of social issues in the lessons.


A Riverís Recovery

The nonfiction trade book A River Ran Wild tells the history of life along the Nashua River Valley in New Hampshire.1 The story in brief: Before the arrival of Europeans, a group of Algonquin-speaking American Indians lived on the banks of the beautiful river. Because of their respect for nature, the Indians took great care of the river and used only the resources they needed for survival. They valued the river and the forest and were thankful for what was provided. When the Europeans came, they cut down the trees and shot and trapped much of the wildlife for subsistence and trade. They began to use the river for industry: damming the flow and building factories along the shore. They also forced the Indians off the land. Soon the river became polluted, and fish could no longer survive. Everything had changed.

Then one night, two Native American children had an identical dream. Oweana, a descendant of Chief Oweana, and his friend, Marion, dreamed that the Chiefís spirit returned to the river. As he looked down, he mourned for the dirty river and his tears fell into it, cleansing the waters. Oweana and his friend discussed the dream and decided they must take some action to save the river. They talked to the people in the community, wrote a petition, and campaigned to get laws passed to stop the pollution. Eventually, they were successful. The cleanliness of the water and much of the natural beauty of the Nashua River was restored.

The following is a sample of unit activities that the sixth grade teachers developed to use with this book:

• Students, divided into cooperative learning groups, will choose a Native American tribe to research and then present a report. Students will use the Internet and library for their research (to promote research and social skills).

ď Students will bring an object that was used or invented by Native Americans that is still used today. A Native American exhibit in the classroom will be made from these objects. Students should be able to explain their artifacts and their uses.

ď Students will create an ěauthentic Native American objectî such as a beaded necklace, a Native American Dream Catcher, or whatever they want to create. This will also be a part of the Native American exhibit.

ď Students will learn what a legend is and explore other legends in our society. The teacher will explain the meaning of a legend, and engage students in discussing some Native American legends.


A Missed Opportunity

An observer in this classroom may see students who are busy and actively engaged, but how meaningful are the activities? How do they foster studentsí understanding of multiple perspectives, self-reflection, and multicultural literacy? Do the activities help students develop critical thinking skills? Are they relevant and compelling enough to excite students to engage in service-learning or social activism themselves? How do these activities help students deconstruct the obstructions, omissions, and stereotypes that they may have learned earlier from watching television or listening to misinformed adults? Most important, how do these activities prepare students for making reasoned and informed decisions as they participate in a democratic society?

For instance, a teacher could find within the book A River Ran Wild critical social studies knowledge, moral issues, and multicultural perspectives that could be addressed in the classroom, such as the differences between Native Americans and the English settlersí concept of land ownership and use; Native Americansí respect for the harmony and interrelationships between humans and their environment; the illegal encroachment of Europeans on the land of Native Americans; the destruction of the subsistence economy of the Native American society; and the social and environmental consequences of industrial activities. But most critically, the teachers missed a great opportunity to introduce students to the importance of social activism. Collective responsibility and citizen empowerment are portrayed in the book through the actions of the two young Native Americans, and of other members of the community who got involved. These ideas, concepts, and issues did not make their way into the lessons. Instead, students were engaged in arts, crafts, and celebratory activities, which were maybe fun, but lacked significant educational value relevant to the development of citizenship.


A Critical Edge

There seems to be little doubt about the potential of trade books to enrich lessons and serve as a main resource in elementary social studies curricula.2 The issue I would like to raise is whether teachers use trade books in a literature-based social studies lesson effectively to accomplish desired goals. If students are only presented with superficial knowledge and trivial activities, how can they learn to analyze, question, reflect, and take action? Students should be challenged to read and write critically, to reflect on multiple and even contradictory perspectives, to face reality in its full complexity, and to consider doing work themselves for the common good.3 Without a critical perspective, events are presented to students as a given, and underlying conflicts and problems are barely mentioned. The possibility of reform, improvement, and change is not considered.

Failure to provide opportunities for students to experience critical multicultural perspectives does not allow them to gain insight into the full scope of historical knowledge, and the problems and realities of society past or present, particularly those inherent in a culturally diverse, democratic society. Teaching ěwithout a critical edge gives students little insight into the problems facing different people in their cultureís history and how the problems affect history in general.î4 Such teaching does not induce students to ask questions of the teacher, of history, or of themselves.


Teacher/Professor Collaboration

If students are to be enabled to develop an understanding of multiple perspectives, multicultural competency, reflective thinking, and critical consciousness, they should be provided with critical perspectives and meaningful content. How could I get the teachers I was observing to recognize the superficiality embedded in their ěinnovativeî approach? This was very troubling for me. For one thing, I was resolved to help the teachers recognize how superficial instruction was shortchanging their attempts to promote student multicultural competency, yet I did not want to discourage the teachers from using literature and ěthinking outside of the box.î

I decided to invite the teachers to collaborate with me on developing a conference proposal to present their literature-based social studies approach. This would allow me to constructively critique their work and to raise their awareness and understanding of what critical multicultural perspectives means. Writing the conference proposal forced the teachers to ask questions about what ěcritical multicultural perspectivesî is about. The teachers and I tackled this question by reviewing the units they had developed and implemented. Through dialog and questioning, the teachers discovered examples of superficiality and triviality embedded in the instructional plans they had developed. Following the critique, the teachers and I worked to revise the plans. The teachers themselves could see that the revised lesson plans were markedly different from the initial plans. (Table 1, page 22).


Beyond the Textbook

Using literature is an opportunity to go beyond the information usually provided in a textbook. Textbook presentation of the encounter and relationship between Native Americans and the English often omits the perspective of Native Americans, and instead, presents them as the aggressors, savages, and blood-thirsty warriors. Were such character traits the underlying reasons for conflict? Or were different views of land ownership, land use, and the inter-relationships between humans and the environments better explanations for the tension and conflict that arose in many encounters between Native Americans and the Europeans?

Textbooks often exclude the contributions and experiences of children. Only actions and initiatives taken by adults seem to count. The perspective that children can make a difference by taking action is vividly portrayed in A River Ran Wild. The revised lesson plan suggestions make use of this aspect of the story.


Critical Strategies

In reviewing the original and revised lesson plans, the teachers observed both qualitative and quantitative differences. The teachers observed that the activities reflected in the revised unit plans were more sophisticated, challenging, relevant, connected, in-depth, critical, and multicultural. And there were more things to do.

How can teachers more effectively implement literature-based social studies instruction? The following are suggested strategies for selecting activities and resources and for infusing critical multicultural perspectives into integrated language arts and social studies instruction:

ď Good Literature: Begin by selecting interesting and well-written books. (I think A River Ran Wild was a good choice.) If one goal is to foster studentsí understanding of multicultural perspectives about the human experience, it is critical to select appropriate trade books that help accomplish that goal. There is a proliferation of diverse trade books in the market today that meet this criterion. (See the lists of Notable Trade Books for Youth at the NCSS website,

ď Meaningful Theme: Select a broad instructional theme that can lend to meaningful learning experiences. This book was about more than just cleaning up a river. What are the historical events, social concepts, current issues, and moral questions that are reflected in the trade book?

ď Challenging Academics: In an integrated language arts/social studies lesson, there is ample opportunity for students to learn social studies content, practice language arts expression, and think critically. Students can discuss, write, dramatize, debate, read aloud, or get involved in community service. The essential focus is the content, which the social studies provides.

ď Multiple Perspectives: Encourage students to analyze a book for examples of social relationships and social action (making a difference by getting involved somehow in positive change). Does the book reveal inequities, dehumanization, injustice, stereotyping, sexism, or economic exclusion? Most important, how does this book reflect our common humanity and our diversity? What cultural and social groups are portrayed in the book? What are their experiences? Do they have any relevance for studentsí lives and for society as a whole today?

ď Social Activism: Will classroom discussion of this book provide teachable moments for empowering students to become agents of social change? Are there examples in the book of individuals or groups shouldering responsibility and taking action? What meaningful activities could be promoted? For every unit planned and taught, provide activities for students to engage in a social action if they wish, or ask them to think about how they could express their opinion or work for change. Sometimes, a book inspires a child to try out new behaviors with his or her peers. Or there may be a problem in the school or the neighborhood that students will want to discuss and connect to aspects of the book.

ď Critical Multiculturalism: Celebratory activities, like enjoying the foods and arts of another culture, are important, but there is more to multiculturalism. Do my lessons inform students about the core beliefs and traditions of another culture? Do I promote critical thinking and encourage students to talk about and challenge prejudices and injustices? What are the substantive issues that matter for people today, including people who are different from me?

ď Collaboration: Get together with other teachers within and across grade levels. Ask for input from colleagues, especially those who are culturally and socially different from you. They may be more able to point out concepts, issues, and questions that you did not think about. For example, I heard a speaker explain the African concept and practice of ělibationî (pouring drink on the ground). The presenter explained that the practical use of libation is to moisten the dry ground for planting. The act of libation has a greater meaning, however: to honor and ěcommuneî with the ancestors that are part of our heritage, and part of the Earth. The textbook on hand didnít tell me that.



The importance of teaching from a critical multicultural perspective cannot be overstated. Critical multiculturalism provides a fresh statement about our world, which is growing smaller in so many ways.5 Educators must provide tomorrow’s citizens with the tools that they need to make and define their era, to construct a more just society for all people. Using children’s literature or trade books provides an excellent vehicle for accomplishing this goal. However, unless teachers move beyond superficial information and activities, we will shortchange our students. When teachers do not help students examine critical issues embedded in trade books, they lead them to believe that society is perfect, all is well, and that there is no need to get involved in civic life. On the other hand, when we assist students in seeing how injustices come about, how they can be understood, and how we can work to overcome them, then we prepare them to be effective citizens in a culturally diverse, democratic society.



1. Lynne Cherry, A River Ran Wild (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace, 1992).

2. Amy McClure and Connie Zitlow, ěNot Just the Facts,î Language Arts 68 (1991): 33-37; Arlene Gallagher, ěChildrenís Literature and the Ethics Dimension,î Social Studies and the Young Learner 6, no.1 (1988): 25-27; National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, DC: NCSS, 1994): 163-170.

3. Samuel Berman, ěEducating for Social Responsibility,î Educational Leadership 48, no. 3 (1990): 78-80; Ira Shor, Empowering Education: Critical Teaching for Social Change (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1992); Henry A. Giroux and Roger Simon, ěIntroduction: Schooling, Cultural Politics, and Struggle for Democracy,î in H. A. Giroux and P. McLaren, ed. Critical Pedagogy, the State, and Cultural Struggle (Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1995).

4. Joseph Kincheloe and Shirley R. Steinberg, Changing Multiculturalism (Buckingham, UK: Open University Press, 1997): 234.

5. David Sehr, Education for Public Democracy (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1997): 55.


Omiunota Nelly Ukpokodu is a professor in the School of Education at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Table 1. Suggestions for Lesson Plans on the Trade Book: A River Ran Wild

(For Upper Elementary or Middle School)

Lesson Suggestions BEFORE Critical Revision


Unit Objectives

By the end of this lesson, students should be able to:

> Predict what will happen in the story

> Write new ending to the story

> Use the words from the story for spelling list

> Create a script for role-playing

> Listen to the sounds of the river tapes

> Use their artistic ability to retell the story



Critical Questions

> What are the belief systems of Native Americans?

> What are the customs of Native Americans?

> Why did the Indians not value the change that the English brought?

> What was the importance of the Nashua River to the Indians?

> What was the Indians’ lifestyle like before the English came?



> Students will read the title of the book and make predictions of what might happen in the story

> Students will rewrite the story in their own words

> Students will identify on the map the location of the Nashua River

> Students will take a dictation on selected words from the story (Nashua, pollution, descendant, forest, land, river, industrial revolution, invention, and valley)

> Students will write a script for role-playing the Indians fighting the English

Lesson Suggestions AFTER Critical Revision


Unit Objectives

> Discuss the concepts of land ownership, invasion, legend, industrialization, pollution, collective responsibility, common good, and social activism.

> Compare traditional Native American and English perspectives of land ownership, land use, and the interrelationships between humans and their environments.

> Locate the Nashua River on the map as it existed in the 1800s and in contemporary times.

> Create a timeline of the historical events depicted in the book.

> Discuss the industrial revolution and its effect on the Native Americans and the environment along the Nashua River.

> Create a diagram showing the Nashua River before the arrival of Europeans, during the height of industrialization, and after cleanup.

> Describe the relationship between Native Americans and the English in the late 1800s.


Critical Questions

> How does the Native American concept of the land compare with that of the English?

> How would you describe the relationship between Native Americans and the English?

> If you were a Native American in the 1800s, how might you feel about the coming of the English to the Nashua River territory?

> If you were the English, how might you justify your encroachment on Native land and removal of Native people to reservations?

> If you were a Native American, how might you describe the effect of the Industrial Revolution on the Nashua River?

> What if the English never came to the Nashua River valley? How would life have been different for Native Americans today?

> Oweana and his friend, Marion, worked together as citizens. They engaged in a social action that restored purity to the Nashua River. What are some problems in our community that need to be solved? Where would you go to learn about a problem? What social action plan could you develop for resolving such a problem?

> How are a society’s spiritual beliefs reflected in its action?



> Have students discuss the concepts: land ownership, legend, industrialization, harmony, pollution, collective responsibility, common good, social activism, and beliefs.

> Have students construct a timeline depicting the historical event presented in the book

> Have students create a flip book with four equal sections to represent the historical periods presented in the story: (1) the Nashua River valley inhabited only by Native Americans; (2) the English settling the area and beginning to change the landscape; (3) the river polluted by industry, (4) the cleanup, and (5) the restored river.

> Divide students into two teams to debate the pros and cons of the Industrial Revolution, taking the perspectives of the English and original Native American inhabitants, respectively.

> Have students write a reflective summary on what they learned about the Nashua River, its territory and people.

> Have students brainstorm a social problem in their class, school, or community and develop a social action plan to solve the problem. Have them write about the importance of social action and cooperative efforts.