Expanding Multicultural Curriculum
Helping Children Discover Cultural Similarities

Pamela G. Fry, Linda J. McKinney, Kathy B. Phillips

During a field trip to a museum located in a large city, a five-year-old from a predominantly Caucasian, suburban kindergarten remarked, “I don’t like those kids. One of them kept pushing in the water line.” This generalization made about African American children supports research findings that attitudes toward culturally different others are formed at an early age. While ethnicity typically refers to one’s biological heritage, culture is a more expansive term including gender, socio-economic status, and physical condition. Much needed attention has been given to the celebration of cultural diversity, that is, an appreciation and understanding of differences among cultures. An additional vantage point, often overlooked, is appreciating how cultures are alike. Recommendations made by the 1988 Task force on Early Childhood/Elementary Social Studies in Social Studies for Early Childhood and Elementary School Children: Preparing for the 21st Century, sponsored by the National Council for the Social Studies support this notion:
Although not uniquely in social studies, children can achieve a positive self-concept within the context of understanding the similarities and differences of people. Children need to understand that they are unique in themselves but share many similar feelings and concerns with other children (p. 3).

By focusing on cultural similarities as well as differences, negative, stereotypical attitudes toward others can be less polarized and hopefully lead to a more harmonious, just society.

The task force report summarized much research on the development of children’s social attitudes. The following is germane to this discussion:
• Elementary-aged children are more accepting of diversity than in later years (Stone, 1986).
• Cultural attitudes are developed by ages nine to ten. Once established, these attitudes are highly resistant to change (Joyce, 1970).
• “Early, planned, and structured” experiences can help children develop positive attitudes toward different racial and ethnic groups (Katz, 1976).
• Based on these findings, an approach was developed to promote young children’s understanding of cultural similarities by using quality children’s literature. The ability of literature to provoke attitudinal change cannot be understated. Among the reasons to use literature with children, Lukens (1990) suggests:
• Literature provides understanding. “This understanding comes from the exploration of the ‘human condition,’ the revelation of human nature, the discovery of humankind.” (p. 4);
• Literature “shows human motives for what they are, inviting the reader to identify with or to react to a fictional character.” (p. 5);
• Literature reveals “the institutions of society.” (p. 7); and
• Literature “provides vicarious experience.”

Perhaps the last suggestion is the most powerful one for shifting attitudes toward others. Few people can read stirring books such as Rose Blanche by Roberto Innocenti (1985), the story of a young Jewish girl during the Holocaust, or Hiroshima, No Pika by Toshi Maruki (1980), an account of the atomic bomb through the eyes of a child, without emotional involvement and increased sensitivity to the characters and their situations. In fact, it is this increased sensitivity that may go beyond the first two of the four levels of integrating multicultural content into the curriculum as described by Banks (1989):
Level 1 – The Contributions Approach Focus: Students learn about the customs, heroes, holidays, and similar information related to various cultures.

Level 2 – The Additive Approach Focus: The structure of the curriculum remains relatively unchanged except more information about various cultures is added.

Level 3 – The Transformation Approach Focus: The goals of curriculum are changed to provoke attitudinal change, that is, students “view concepts, issues, themes, and problems from several ethnic perspectives and points of view” (p. 196).

Level 4 – The Social Action Approach Focus: This approach builds on the transformation approach by encouraging students to make decisions and take social action.

A transformation of attitudes occurs as sensitivity increases through school and other life experiences which may lead to the highest level on Banks’ model, decision making. At this point, students are willing to act on beliefs, for example, identify racism and react to it in constructive ways. The challenge to educators is to provide meaningful experiences that go beyond well-intentioned, yet superficial approaches, to multicultural education to help all students gain a sense of personal efficacy and empathy for others.

A Cultural Similarities Experience in the Classroom

The purpose of this experience with eighteen second graders in a suburban school was to use literature and response activities to promote attitudinal shifts at the higher levels of Banks’ hierarchy. The teachers introduced the concept that commonalities exist among all cultures by reading the picture book, Bread, Bread, Bread by Ann Morris (1989). The children enjoyed the colorful photographs of people from various cultures eating bread that is associated with each culture. During the discussion that followed, the students expressed intrigue with the book’s theme: People from many cultures eat bread. A list of other commonalities among cultures was generated by the class including:
• People live in houses.
• All types of people have families.
• We all need food.
• Children like to play no matter where they live.

Next, the children were divided into three rotating groups of six, each with a lead teacher to explore writing about commonalities, locating countries on maps, and reading other books with the theme that all cultures have similarities.

The Writing Group

The second graders eagerly drew pictures of what was alike about all people and then wrote a descriptive narrative below the picture on large sheets of paper as illustrated by the photographs. Members of the groups shared stories and discussed the accuracy of their thoughts. For example, “Do all children go to school?”

The Map Group

Using several of the countries represented in Bread, Bread, Bread (A list of countries matched with photographs of the bread seen in the book is provided as an appendix), groups members located countries on a large map and individual maps. The children investigated the distance between their reference point, Oklahoma, and the respective countries while discussing how the terrains, weather, and technologies would be alike and different.

The Literature Group

The group’s teacher read and led taped discussions with additional books which expanded the theme of Bread, Bread, Bread. These books are listed as an annotated bibliography accompanying this article. For example, in A Country Far Away by Nigel Gray (1988), the ordinary day of a child in the United States is contrasted with that of a child in a village by an ocean.

Children’s responses ranged from “That’s dumb that the boy kicks a rag covered thing instead of a soccer bal#148; to “I never thought about how much alike everybody in the world is.”


The experience concluded with the children forming a large group to summarize the day’s events and to taste a variety of breads, many of which were found in Morris’ book. At this point, no data was systematically collected to attempt to measure a shift in sensitivity toward others. This remains as a recommendation for future research. However, based on observations, analysis of taped book discussions, and interviews with individual children, the teachers agreed that the children expressed increased awareness of how all people are alike in some ways yet unique in others.

Meeting the challenge of the rapidly changing demographics of our society is an awesome task. We must continue to rethink our current approach to multicultural education, to develop ways to increase sensitivity, understanding, and compassion for all cultures, and to prevent many of the mistakes of the past from reoccurring. The goal of multicultural education for the coming century can be conceptualized as building an equitable society by helping children of all cultures develop visions for the future and learn ways to work together constructively toward those visions.

Annotated Bibliography of Books Reflecting Cultural Similarities
Baer, E. (1984). This is the way
we go to school. New York: Scholastic.
Written in a simple rhyming pattern, this book depicts various modes of transportation that children around the world use to get to school.
Brandenberg, A. (1984). Feelings. New York: Greenwillow Books.
Text and illustration present children in everyday situations. Different feelings are portrayed in a universal manner with which all children can identify.
Friedman, I. R. (1984). How my parents learned to eat. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
A young girl tells the story of how her parents, a Japanese school girl and an American sailor, met and fell in love. The intermingling and acceptance of customs from two cultures are exemplified as one parent learns to eat with chopsticks while the other learns to eat with silverware. This is an excellent example of how customs so different are really very similar.
Gray, N. (1988). A country far away. New York: Orchard Books.
In dual settings of an American suburb and a village by the ocean, A Country Far Away depicts the similar experiences that two young boys have, although in very different contexts. Through commonality of text and dual illustration, this book contrasts the similarities
of growing up in two different cultures of today’s world.
Heide, F. P., & Gilliland, J. H. (1990). The day of Ahmed’s secret. New York: Lothrop, Lee, & Shepard.
Told in first person, this story tells of one day in the life of a young boy named Ahmed. Set in the Middle Eastern city where he lives, Ahmed works all day keeping a very special secret until he arrives home to share it with his family. Ahmed has learned to write his name!
Kandoian, E. (1989). Is anybody up? New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
As Molly awakes and starts to prepare her breakfast, many people in other parts of the world are doing the same. Various locations in the Eastern Time Zone are illustrated, showing that though they are in different locations, similar activities are taking place.
Morris, A. (1989). Bread, bread, bread. New York: Lothrop, Lee, & Shepard.
Through beautiful photographs, people from all over the world are shown eating one food that is similar to al#151;bread. An index of the countries associated with the bread is included.
Musgrove, M. (1976). Ashanti to Zulu. New York: Dial.
Organized in an alphabetical format, this Caldecott award-winning selection portrays twenty-six African cultures by illustrating a custom important to each. The diversity of the individual groups is described while creating a parallel of similarities to all humankind.
Polalcco, P. (1990). Thunder cake. New York: Philomel Books.
Through ingenuity and love, a little gir#146;s Babuska, grandmother, teaches her to overcome her fear of thunderstorms. Together they gather the ingredients and make a Thunder Cake, which they enjoy eating during the peak of the storm. Soft, three-dimensional charcoal drawings are combined with a flat, folk art painting style of design and color, uniting bits of Russian heritage in an American farm setting.
Rogers, P. (1989). What will the weather be like today? New York: Greenwillow Books.
A collage technique is employed to illustrate this selection of simple rhyming verse about a day’s weather in different parts of the world. Different climates, countries, and weather situations can be easily identified by even very young children.
Spier, P. (1980). People. New York: Doubleday.
This nonfiction work describes appearance, customs, food, traditions, and people from all areas of the world. Through illustration and text, the differences of cultures are presented in a manner which accentuates similarities in people.
Williams, K. L. (1990). Galimoto. New York: Lothrop, Lee, & Shepard.
In an African village, a young boy named Kondi gathers supplies throughout the day to make himself a toy car.

Banks, J. A. (1989). Integrating the curriculum with ethnic content: Approaches and guidelines. In J. A. Banks & C. A. McGee Banks (Eds.), Multicultural education: Issues and perspectives (pp. 189-207). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Innocenti, R. (1985). Rose Blanche. Mankato, MN: Creative Education, Inc.
Joyce, B. R. (1970). Social action for primary schools. Childhood Education, 46(5), 254-258.
Katz, P. A. (1976). Toward the elimination of racism. New York: Pergamon Press.
Lukens, R. (1990). A critical handbook of children’s literature (4th ed.). Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman/Little Brown Higher Education.
Maruki, T. (1980). Hiroshima, No pika. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepherd.
National Council for the Social Studies Task Force on Early Childhood/Elementary Social Studies. (1988). Social studies for early childhood and elementary school children: Preparing for the 21st century. Washington, DC: Author.
Stone, L. C. (1986). International and multicultural education. In V. C. Atwood (Ed.), Elementary social studies: Research as a guide to practice (pp.34-54). Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies.

About the Authors
Pamela G. Fry is an Assistant Professor at the University of Oklahoma. She teaches teacher education courses such as advanced language arts, cooperative learning, multicultural children’s literature, and action research. Dr. Fry’s research areas include multicultural education and the use of metaphor in education.

Linda J. McKinney is an Assistant Professor at the University of Oklahoma. She teaches teacher education courses such as language arts, models of teaching, cooperative learning, and multicultural children’s literature. Her research interests include using children’s literature to promote cultural literacy and special issues concerning rural education.

Kathy B. Phillips is a first grade teacher at Cleveland Elementary School in Norman, Oklahoma. In addition, she is completing her doctoral degree in elementary education at the University of Oklahoma. Her research interests include the use of children’s literature to promote cultural sensitivity.