Literature Discussion in the Elementary School Classroom

Article excerpt

Most children enter our schools with notions, preconceptions, and attitudes about cultural differences that are based on the beliefs of their families, peers, and community (Banks & Banks, 1989; Ovando & Collier, 1998). What they understand about life and their place in it is predicated on their experiences within these groups. This is not necessarily problematic, unless preference for one's own cultural group leads to feelings of superiority that are based solely on membership in that particular group (Sleeter & Grant, 1994).

It is at this point, when children's views of their culture become the lens through which they judge all other cultural groups, that classroom teachers and parents must intervene (Gollnick & Chinn, 1994). Further, educators at all levels have an obligation to their students to help them recognize that the United States is a culturally diverse nation and that there are no rational reasons for prejudicial behavior and preconceived notions about any group that are based on color or ethnicity.

Many teachers attempt to address cultural understanding by planning annual culture-specific events. These isolated activities may include celebrations such as Cinco de Mayo (a Mexican-American holiday in May), discussions of famous African Americans during African-American History Month, or an afternoon devoted to learning about and tasting "food from many cultures."

Such culture-specific celebrations can be acceptable activities when they are introduced as part of a curricular approach that provides students throughout the year with opportunities to engage in authentic learning activities that reveal the unique histories of the various cultural groups they are encouraged to celebrate during the year. Otherwise, these isolated visits to other cultures do little to develop an understanding or appreciation for the cultural diversity in our society. Events that focus on food, traditional clothing, tools, and folklore in isolation become trivial exercises. What usually occurs is that children "visit" non-white cultures and then "go home" to their daily classrooms, which reflect only the dominant culture (Derman-- Sparks, 1989, cited in Sleeter & Grant, 1994). Moreover, there is the impression that the programs or activities in which they participated, or they observed, represented what other people-usually people of color- do. Any connections with the students, as members of a multicultural society, are rarely communicated. However, culture-specific celebrations can be acceptable activities when they are introduced as part of a curricular approach that provides students throughout the year with opportunities to engage in authentic learning activities that reveal the unique histories of the various cultural groups they are encouraged to celebrate.

One effective instructional technique to promote cultural awareness and understanding is literature discussion. Literature discussion functions to help children explore multicultural ideas and issues in literature. It provides opportunities for small groups of children to read a single work of culturally relevant literature on their own and then come together to discuss their personal responses and reactions to the work (Goforth, 1998). In recognition of the value of literature discussion as a vehicle for integrating multicultural literature into the curriculum, the purpose ofthis article is to provide educators with specific guidelines for successfully implementing culturally responsive literature discussion groups in their classrooms.

Selecting Culturally Relevant Books

Reading and discussing books that address a variety of culturally relevant personal and social issues will help children understand why we must strive to make positive multicultural connections in our society (Sleeter & Grant, 1994). Imagine for a moment, classrooms in which children are offered literature in varying cultural contexts that inform, clarify, explain, or educate them about the diversity of our remarkable human family. …