Deepening Teacher Knowledge of Multiculural Literature through a University-Schools Partnership

By Athanases, Steven Z. | Multicultural Education, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Deepening Teacher Knowledge of Multiculural Literature through a University-Schools Partnership


Athanases, Steven Z., Multicultural Education


How can professional development help teachers tune up subject matter knowledge to better reach their culturally and linguistically diverse students? When teachers evaluate such work as effective, what do they learn, and what makes the work possible? These questions guide this examination of a group of educators involved in a summer institute and follow-up activity. The work was part of a university-schools partnership designed to better prepare underrepresented youth for college. The specific institute goal was to strengthen knowledge of multicultural literature for use with high school students in a highly diverse, high needs urban school district.

The teachers' goal was one among several common to multicultural education-that of content integration, infusion of cultural content in curricula (Banks, 1993). This work can occur in all subject areas but is particularly important and possible in social studies and English, where students encounter stories of challenges and conflicts in building cultures and civilizations and of how humans narrate and reflect on life journeys. Texts taught send strong messages about "official knowledge" and what schools are for (Apple, 1993), about power and social relationships and whose stories and perspectives warrant curricular space (Apple, 1992).

For literature study, multicultural resources include bibliographies and critiques of literature by and about people of color (Duff & Tongchinsub, 1990; Sasse, 1988) and specific groups such as African Americans (Sims, 1982; Trousdale, 1990), Latino/as and Chicano/as (Morales, 2001; Schon, 2005), and interracial children (Lee & Johnson, 2000). Other resources are literature selection guidelines (Sims Bishop, 1992; Yokota, 1993) and critical treatment of curriculum on culture and diversity in K-8 (Harris, 1992) and high school (Willis, 1997).

It is possible, maybe likely, that literature curricula in United States schools have diversified since the last national study found works selected for classrooms remained primarily those authored by White men (Applebee, 1993). However, given the stability of the literary canon between a prior study (Squire & Applebee, 1968) and the more recent one, and despite major U.S. social changes, such a claim is still speculation.

Impediments to diversifying curricula persist. Beyond the larger sociopolitical context that often has marginalized contributions of people of color are other factors. These include teachers' lack of familiarity with works by non-White authors and lack of time to read them (Applebee, 1993). Anthologies often limit works by women and authors of color to short sections at the backs of these books, or present women as weak and people of color as victims (Apple, 1992; Applebee, 1993; Pace, 1992).

Narrow guidelines of testing agencies and state and district organizations limit teachers' selections. A conservative political climate has engendered defense of the traditional literary canon and attacks on including multicultural literature as no more than politically correct advocacy (Taxel, 1997). Some teachers also resist confronting their own narrow knowledge base or issues of social privilege highlighted by perspectives such as critical race theory (e.g., Ladson-Billings, 1999), issues raised in some literature by women, authors of color, and religious and sexual minorities.

Consider, however, a diverse group of teachers working with mostly students of color, in a district where cultural inclusion was on the agenda for several years. Consider, also, support from a university-schools partnership. Three impediments remained: lack of familiarity with works outside the canon, lack of time and structure to read and discuss works and to prepare units, and lack of books and support materials.

My colleagues and I removed the impediments with a partnership-sponsored summer institute to enable teaching of more multicultural texts. We examined institute products and processes and schoolyear follow-up activity, asking two research questions: (1) What themes emerged in teachers' engagements with diverse literary works? …

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