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Incorporating Diversity into the Elementary Curriculum: Suggested Teaching Strategies

This blog article is part of the Global Education Faculty PLC Professional Development Series, sponsored by the Longview Foundation. The writing series aims to elevate the perspectives of international scholars — including teacher educators, graduate students, and alike — to offer insights into how Educator Preparation Programs (EPPs) can integrate intercultural understanding within their programs. AACTE members interested in participating in the series should contact AACTE’s Brooke Evans.

Incorporating diversity into the curriculum has never been more relevant or necessary.

Culturally competent teaching begins with acknowledging and embracing the considerable diversity students bring to the classroom and it builds on the culturally relevant literature utilized in teaching. However, teachers with minimum or no prior diversity experience are less likely to make informed decisions in their book selection. Failure to properly design inclusive lesson plans could create and maintain misunderstanding between teachers and students, further contributing to the cultural gap between them.

Most teachers welcome all students but feel concerned at times to work with the diverse range of needs among their students. As a result of these fears and concerns, they might show less interest in incorporating diversity in their teaching. It is important to acknowledge that preparation to teach diversity, inclusion, and social justice is an all-encompassing endeavor. Incorporating books featuring people of color into the curriculum is a conscious decision and therefore reading a random diverse book in class is not enough. Students need to understand the concepts that underpin cultural representations in their reading, alongside engaging with the characters and making sense of the characters’ different experiences. Also, at the same time, it is essential to recognize that efforts to promote equity and inclusion will sometimes fall short of what should be. However, it is crucial to continuously improve, to seek honest consultation, even—and especially—when it’s difficult, to engage in critical teaching assessment, and most importantly, to listen to different voices. Thus, the concept of being culturally competent/not competent should no longer be understood as one homogenous perspective but as a continuum of approaches. The underlying idea is that rather than perceiving culturally competent/not-competent as a strictly binary characteristic –a feature that a teacher either has or doesn’t have—allowing variable degrees of membership.

To move along the continuum and enhance culturally competent teaching, in particular when teachers are culturally different from their students it is critical to choose diverse stories that are culturally accurate, authentic, and free from stereotypes. However, one frequently asked question is “How do I teach a diverse book free of stereotypes when I do not know much about other cultures?” To answer this question and to undergird learning about culturally responsive teaching, the following discussion introduces strategies that may enhance or expedite the practice. 

Strategy One

Cultural competence is the ability to relate to and with people across different cultures. Before reading children’s books featuring people of color to students, teachers need to deeply and authentically understand different aspects of the characters in a story, their experiences, emotions, and transformations throughout the story. They start building strong friendships with the fictional or nonfictional individuals in the stories, experiencing first-hand concerns about the characters’ conflicts, and wanting the character to overcome those conflicts. Toward this end, one teaching approach is to combine reading diverse books with the classics. When selecting a pair of classics and diverse books, teachers do not have to exactly match characters, plot, theme, point of view, and setting. Pairing can start with a simple compare and contrast of the central ideas in the stories. Matching classics with the contemporary afford teachers an opportunity to explore how their familiar ideas intersect with the unfamiliar. It also helps teachers bridge the gap between different cultures with their own pace. For example, Benji, the Bad Day and Me (2018) written by Sally J. Pla, and illustrated by Ken Min will be a good pair with Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day (1972) by Judith Viorst and illustrated by Ray Cruz.

 What is your choice of classic picture book paired with a contemporary diverse book?

Strategy Two

Although many teachers tend to rely on traditional methods of teaching, the possibilities that technology offers are endless. Some teachers may find the use of technology in their curriculum overwhelming and frustrating but they must overcome their fear. Technology has profoundly changed different aspects of education, and teaching about diversity is no exception. Traditionally, print books were the only class resources but through the use of technology, many other forms of instructional materials including multimodal learning tools have become available. Multimodality refers to teaching a lesson using more than one mode, or different types of media and teaching tools. These different modes are visual, auditory, reading and writing, physical and kinesthetic.

Using different educational apps to help teach diversity fits properly in the current technological era. To start the process, teachers may set up a technology day once a week and add a lesson plan that has one or more technology components. This can be a choice from varieties of digital games, creating a class YouTube channel, use of Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality, and more. One simple example is to incorporate online and free Google My Maps tool into the reading. With the use of Google My Maps, it is possible to create and share custom maps of any size and for any purpose. First, read aloud Last Stop on Market Street (2015) written by Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Christian Robinson. With your students, identify all the locations the characters in the book refer to. Then, create those locations on Google My Maps. Through this process, you can add a new layer of spatial thinking to your students’ diverse reading.

What is your choice of a diverse picture book that can be spatially represented on Google My Maps?

Strategy Three

It is a common teaching behavior to put different content areas into separate categories, without having these categories communicate with each other. Therefore, it is likely that teaching about diversity will be limited to English language arts or social studies and excluded from mathematics and science. One possible solution is to design diverse literature-based science lessons in which students are invited to develop critical understandings of scientific concepts, combined with diversity-conscious discussion questions and activities. For instance, adding read-aloud sessions in the science and math classroom to introduce more complex concepts sparks students’ sense of wonder. It is immensely valuable to continuously reflect on and celebrate our diverse world in all content areas. The use of diverse literature as a supplement to STEM curriculum is twofold: one, representation of people of color, and individuals with different levels of ability, gender, and sexual orientation as role models in STEM careers is essential. Two, regardless of what science class you teach, science-related picture books offer student engagement. The story, the basic sequence of events, and the characters make the science concept more accessible to learners. For example, read aloud Look, Grandma! Ni, Elisi! by Art Coulson and illustrated by Madelyn Goodnight. This math-inspired Cherokee story invites students to think about size, volume, area, and capacity while becoming familiar with a Cherokee tradition. 

What is your choice of a diverse science inspired picture book?

Taraneh M Haghanikar is associate professor of children’s literature at the University of Northern Iowa.

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