Trial and Error: A Framework for Teaching Multicultural Literature to Aspiring Teachers

Article excerpt

Multicultural education is widely accepted in schools in the United States (Banks, 1993; Sleeter & Grant, 1999). Though there are various philosophical debates within the field of multicultural education (Banks, 1993; Sleeter & Grant, 1999; Rothenberg, 2000), scholars all seem to agree that one of the key tools of multiculturalists is literature. As a result, the importance of the use of multicultural literature has been acknowledged by many researchers, teachers, and critics (see, for example, Bishop, 1992, 1994, 1997, 1998; Harris, 1996; Rogers & Soter, 1997).

The literature reveals that over the last few decades, a large number of teachers have embraced multicultural literature and committed to its inclusion in their classrooms (Rogers & Soter, 1997; Fang, Fu, & Lamme, 1999). However, there is some disagreement and/or confusion concerning the definition of multicultural literature (e.g., Cai & Bishop, 1994; Harris, 1996; Shannon, 1994; Schwartz, 1995).

In an effort to clarify what is meant by the term in this article, I rely on Bishop's (1997) definition. Bishop, an authority on children's literature, defines multicultural literature as works "that reflect the racial, ethnic, and social diversity that is characteristic of our pluralistic society and of the world" (p.3).

While many research efforts have been undertaken to advocate the use of multi-cultural literature in the classroom, there is not a great deal of talk about how teachers, preservice and inservice, are actually being taught how to use this literature in their classrooms. As a novice teacher educator offered the opportunity to design a multicultural literature course, I found few models on which to build. From personal experience (see, for example, Hinton-Johnson, 2002), I know all too well that even with the best intentions, a course on multicultural literature can be "counter productive."

By this, I mean the teacher's goal might be too inclusive and while offering opportunities for both the teacher and the students to read and learn about diverse groups of people, this effort could be misconstrued, and students could become resistant and/or resentful. For example, Beach's (1997) study illuminated some of the ways in which (and reasons why) white students resist multicultural literature (i.e., guilt, anger, and discomfort with discussing racism). Further, Beach (1997) offers some suggestions for "helping students move beyond resistance to engagement" by asking students to participate in activities that require them to

1. empathize with characters' perceptions and analyze how these perceptions are shaped by institutional forces;

2. begin to examine how their own perceptions are related to institutional perspectives;

3. examine portrayals of discrimination in literature... as manifestations of institutional power;

4. and question whether...curriculum decisions are ...a reflection of institutional racism, (p. 90-91)

Since my first encounter with students who seemed to resist studying multicultural literature, I have spent time thinking about and experimenting with strategies that might help students move beyond resistance and guilt to more transformative ways of reading multicultural literature and learning about teaching it. The strategies I use help make it possible for me to move toward utilizing the strategies suggested by Beach (1997).

I offer the following suggested framework as a way to contribute to the discussion about learning to teach multicultural literature in ways that exceed the additive and contribution approaches to including multicultural materials into the curriculum that Banks and Banks (1989) discuss. Instead, I have found that this framework helps me begin to have conversations with students around multicultural literature that could possibly lead to the social action and transformative approaches to teaching multicultural literature.

Starting with the Students

First, I start with the students. …