There's No Excuse Not to Read Multicultural Books in School

It is a source of great delight to me that my children are growing up in a neighborhood where they have friends whose families come from Belgium, India, China, Turkey, and Japan, among other countries.

As our personal, educational, and professional lives are increasingly intertwined with people from all over the world, it benefits us all to ensure that our children experience diverse lifestyles and ways of thinking. Multinational corporations continue to expand, and workforces are composed of professionals with rich and varied backgrounds. Indeed, our kids are likely to grow up with opportunities to work nearly anywhere around the globe. Importantly, a multicultural education is likely to help our kids lead tolerant, harmonious lives, no matter their race, ethnicity, or culture.

The P21 Partnership Efforts

Nineteen states — including those as varied as California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Louisiana, and Wisconsin — are partners in the P21 Partnership for 21st-Century Learning, a nationwide coalition that brings together representatives of the business community, education leaders, and policymakers to set goals and seed initiatives that foster learning aligned with the needs of this century’s economy. P21 includes global awareness as a key component of its Framework for 21st-Century Learning, a set of overarching goals for K–12 education that each state and school district may decide how best to incorporate into its curriculum.

One aim of the P21 program is to increase connections and understanding among international communities, which can be achieved creatively in the classroom. In an exercise called “mystery hangouts,” for instance, my son’s fifth grade class uses Google Hangouts or Skype to connect with same-aged peers in classes around the world. The kids talk with their partners in other classes and attempt to guess where each child lives by asking questions about the climate, the trees, and other geographical and cultural clues. It is a social studies lesson that also serves to foster a direct connection with a child in another country.

A Parent’s Role

As a parent, there are a number of steps you can take to ensure that your child’s education includes multicultural experiences.

Multicultural Reading Lists

Stories that feature multiracial and diverse characters are a great way for children to identify with other cultures. Kids learn about the rich traditions and customs of other communities, and have a chance to compare a foreign culture and their own. The recognition that, beneath visible differences, people are fundamentally similar and seek many of the same goals is vital for helping children develop tolerance. For children of color, multicultural books are even more important. Every child looks for role models to emulate in the books she reads. Kids need heroes who look like them, have names like theirs, and reflect the reality of their lives so that they feel their experiences are as valued by the larger culture as other children’s.

Sadly, the publishing industry has been slow to embrace multiracial authors and stories. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that approximately 38 percent of the country’s population was non-white in 2014. In the same year, less than 20 percent of children’s books were either written by authors of color or featured characters of color, according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center of the University of Wisconsin.

If you find that the books your child brings home from school do not have sufficiently diverse voices, you can follow these three steps to remedy the situation:

1. Supplement her reading list.

Your local library is likely to have a range of multicultural books, and you can ask the librarian for recommendations if you don’t initially find what you’re looking for. Or get started now with these book recommendations by Noodle Expert (and English professor) Colleen Clemens.

2. Make suggestions to your child’s school librarian and teachers.

For a comprehensive list of multicultural titles, check the Diverse Books and Resources for Parents and Educators, a collection organized by country and world regions. The list also includes links to blogs that contain detailed book reviews, and many of these bloggers post regularly; following them can be a great source of information.

3. Donate diverse books to your child’s school or class library.

Celebrate your child’s birthday or a special occasion like a kindergarten graduation with a donation of multicultural books in her name. These gifts will be appreciated and used by teachers and kids for many years going forward, and this is a fun way for your child to stay connected to her former class or school.

Volunteer in Your Child’s Classroom

You can volunteer in your child’s classroom to bring about increased awareness of other cultures — and you can have the added satisfaction of making a difference to a larger community of children. For example, try one of these ideas:

1. Volunteer to read a multicultural story aloud to the class.

Sharing a beloved story and including a few minutes for Q&A at the end is a way to impart an aspect of your family’s culture — and you’ll be amazed at the children’s questions. Shubha Sathish, mom of a third-grader shares her experience:

My daughter’s teacher requested parent volunteers to bring a book of our choice and read aloud to the children in the classroom. I was nervous about it, hoping that the kids would be able to understand my Indian accent. I also hoped they wouldn’t get bored by the Indian folk tale I was planning to read. I was surprised and delighted by how attentively they listened to me, as well as their comments and observations after listening. They had so many questions that we ran out of time!

2. Volunteer to make a class presentation about an ethnic holiday your family celebrates.

My son has carefully saved the Chinese coin he received in a shiny red envelope from a classmate’s mother when she came to his class to share her family’s traditions for celebrating Chinese New Year. Several years later, he still remembers the dumplings she brought in for the kids to sample.

3.Work with your child’s teacher to incorporate celebrations from other cultures into regular annual school parties.

Beth Mitchell is the class parent in her son’s classroom, and her responsibilities include organizing class events for the kids. She remembers that one of her most successful holiday parties involved activities based on the different ways various cultures celebrate winter festivals. For example, the class created an edible snowman for Christmas, wove a paper mat for Kwanzaa, painted clay lamps for the Indian festival of Diwali, and played dreidel for Hannukah.

In today’s world of easy international travel, globalized companies, and diverse communities in many parts of the world, it is important for parents to help their children appreciate the richness that a multitude of racial, ethnic, and national heritages impart. Through multicultural books, we can broaden our kids’ educational experiences — and prepare them for the diverse workplaces they will inhabit in the future.

Additional Resources:

Sources:

Children's books by and about people of color and first/native nations published in the United States. (n.d.). Retrieved October 18, 2015, from Cooperative Children's book Center, School of Education University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Framework for 21st century learning. (n.d.). Retrieved October 18, 2015, from P21 Partnership for 21st Century Learning.

USA people quick facts. Retrieved October 18, 2015 from United States Census Bureau.