Let me give you an example. The first day of my first year of teaching (outside the home) I walked into a classroom and looked around and saw twenty five students, no two of which had a similar skin tone. I asked the first question that came to my mind, "How many of you speak another language other than English at home?" Twenty of the twenty five students raised their hands. There were eighteen different first languages in that class and so began my education. Struggling with ESL issues in writing was the more manageable problem that year. The larger problems arose from dealing with assumptions we all make based on our traditions, views of history, religion, and other prior knowledge.
I found that you could not assume that history is perceived in a chronological way with important dates marking the way. I found that courtesy in discussion could be enforced but ingrained hatred - hatred of which I have no experience does exist and is taught from birth - cannot be overcome in a semester. I found that I could not expect girls from some cultures to take a stand against a man even if it was just in a class and just about literature. The reality of leading a class of so diverse a population was that I could assume nothing and I had a lot to learn. I never had another class that culturally diverse, but the lessons I learned that year and in subsequent years have never left me. The literature, history, theology, and anthropology I studied to bring understanding is not necessarily appropriate for young children, but I do attempt to add culturally diverse reality to our classical home studies with other resources.
Jokes run rampant about the attempts of government, schools, and individuals to become "Politically Correct." Political correctness is not what I wish to teach my children. What I seek to do is to show my children that what we believe to be written in stone based on our traditions is water writing in other cultures. I want to teach true respect for individuals. Teaching true respect comes from modeling the behavior yourself, but I also find it helpful to introduce literature, art, cultural study, and religion of different peoples without reducing the studies to stereotypes.
Here are a few suggestions:
- Geographical study - By knowing the terrain, political boundaries, and seasons much can be understood about the development of cultures. If flood and drought periods dictate the lives of a people, then culture and religion will be established based on the cyclical nature of their lives. If mountains, swamps, or deserts isolate a group for long periods of time, those cultures will have developed based on those restrictions. Geography is essential to understanding.
- Religion - Religion, in many ways, defines a culture and the actions of the peoples. By studying world religions we can gain a greater understanding and respect for the people practicing those religions. We have used The Usbourne Book of World Religions for a base study and have enjoyed the concise explanations of the basics of the six major religions. Mentions of subgroups are included, but defining differences are not necessarily given. This book is a good starting place and enough information for young children.
- Literature - I believe that much can be learned about people through reading literature. In fiction you get insight into daily routines, religious practice, and social traditions that is more informative than fact lists because you are privy to the emotion and the conflict. Finding appropriate material for young children is not difficult.
If you are reading about India do a library search for that area and narrow the search by eliminating adult material and non fiction. I prefer stories written by a member of the cultural group that have been translated or folk tales that may have several versions.
- In a Circle Long Ago by Nancy Van Laan is a compilation of Native American Lore.
- Only Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth by Anne Rockwell is a picture book that combines the reality of African American Art and the story of Sojourner Truth.
- Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon by Dhan Gopal Mukerji is a pigeon story but also a story that gives great insight into the life of a boy in India.
- The Cinderella stories - Variations of the Cinderella stories have amused and challenged my children. We have read ten or more. Side by side comparisons are wonderful for highlighting differences. There are several Internet sites with information on Cinderella story variations. I think this one is the most straightforward and informative.
- The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros is a wonderful verbal picture of Mexican American life. Be forewarned, while the reading level and vignette format makes the book accessible for younger readers some of the content is more adult. Pick and choose stories.
- Poetry - is a great way to introduce varying cultures. Think of the power of Langston Hughes poetry and the stark beauty and sparseness of haiku and other Japanese poetry.
- The Asante and Native American Trickster Tales in which animals teach the lessons that are important to be passed along.
- Art - Looking at the art of various cultures can illustrate the stories without words, what materials are available, and which things are sacred or of high importance. The quilts of Faith Ringgold, Choctaw baskets and needlework, Guatemalan textiles, origami, African drums, masks, and Kente cloth, Inuit carving, and Japanese gardens are just a few.
- Music - Listening to and appreciating music of various cultures can be more challenging because of language barriers, but experiencing the tabla of India, the various African drums, the Latin rhythms, and the energy of the polka can open communication.
While true respect for individuals and their beliefs can never be taught in school, an understanding of those beliefs, an appreciation of the contributions of the various peoples, and an insight into the realities of other cultures, which don't include stereotypes, can only serve to open a dialog between peoples that will lead to greater understanding and acceptance of the differences and similarities of people in our multi-cultural world.