Multicultural Literature as a Context for Problem Solving: Children and Parents Learning Together

Article excerpt

In recent years, the mathematics community has given more attention to the role that mathematics plays in our cultural society and the contributions of different cultures to mathematics (Bishop 1988; D'Ambrosio 1985; NCTM 1989; Frankenstein 1990; Joseph 1993). Teachers are encouraged to include culture in a variety of ways in the mathematics classroom. Students can be encouraged to use mathematics as a tool to examine their cultural and social environments, traditions, and artifacts. In addition, mathematics learned by students outside the classroom can be used as a bridge to learning school mathematics.

Because mathematical situations are often embedded in the social and cultural contexts provided by literature, children's multicultural literature is the perfect medium for including culture-related activities in mathematics lessons. Further, multicultural literature offers a context in which readers can celebrate their personal cultures and learn about those of others. Banks (1993) contends that education in a diverse society should affirm and help students understand their home and community cultures and free them from cultural boundaries.

Children's multicultural literature provides the context for the modules in a program titled Multicultural Literature as a Context for Mathematical Problem Solving: Children and Parents Learning Together (Literature/Mathematics Program). The Literature/Mathematics Program is a part of the parent-and-community component of a broader project called Mathematics: Application and Reasoning Skills (MARS). MARS addresses systemic reform in the elementary mathematics program of the Baltimore City Public School System (BCPSS). The project encompasses administrative policy discussions, instructional support, professional development, selection of materials, instructional supervision, curriculum, and community involvement. Most of the elementary schools in the BCPSS have predominantly African American student populations, with a few schools that are predominantly white. About 68 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, and less than 1 percent of the enrolled students are classified as hav ing limited English proficiency.

The Literature/Mathematics Program is one of the MARS project's mechanisms to help parents become aware of the changes that are occurring in mathematics education. Parents and their children are invited to participate in an exciting approach to learning mathematics. Through the literature of different cultures, adult-child pairs or families solve mathematical problems. These sessions are conducted for ninety minutes once a week for six weeks. Each session is run by two teachers who have attended a professional development workshop especially for the Literature/Mathematics Program. During the workshop, the teachers receive modules designed to help them facilitate the process of the parents and children learning together.

Selecting Books for the Modules

The books chosen for the program were written by authors from various cultures or were deemed to authentically represent certain cultures on the basis of reviews in major journals of children's literature. Moreover, the books used in the program represent several ethnic or racial and socioeconomic groups and are appropriate for multiple grade levels. Further, some of the books have mathematical content naturally embedded in the text, whereas others provide avenues for creating nonroutine problems. See table 1 for the names of the books, the cultures represented, and the mathematics reinforced in the modules that focus on each book. Teachers can select to use modules on the basis of mathematical concepts, particular cultural groups, or both. Teachers are encouraged to focus on a variety of cultures throughout the six weeks to attain the goals of the program.

Components of the Program

The program has two major components: a read-aloud portion and a problem-solving portion. …