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There has been a long history in the United States of gradually becoming aware of the great cultural diversity that exists across the country and even more gradually realizing the implications of this for teaching in schools. In the new millennium there has been a very clear focus on closing the gap between those who navigate the school system easily, and those who stumble at the first hurdles in kindergarten and elementary school. The statistics show that achievement levels are stratified along ethnic and cultural lines, and government interventions such as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 are intended to remedy this inequality. A very good introduction to the issues involved in multicultural literacy is provided by Carol D. Lee in her book Culture, Literacy and Learning: Taking Bloom in the Midst of the Whirlwind (Lee, 2007). The second part of the title is taken from a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks which advocates living and flourishing in a maelstrom of contradictory forces and this metaphor is used to illuminate the many pressures that children in some ethnic groups, and especially African Americans, experience when they are growing up. Lee argues for definitions that go beyond simple categorizations: "To analyse group membership in ways that take history and cultural practices into account, ethnicity is a more powerful and universal concept than race. Ethnicity takes into account history, identity, practices and beliefs." (Lee, 2007, 11) This implies that educators must have a deep knowledge of their subject but also of the routine practices that go on outside the school gates, in families and among peer groups. If the experiences that the learner has in school are unrelated to the outside experiences, then many opportunities for learning are lost. Prior knowledge cannot be tapped into, and students are likely to have poor recollection of what they learn, and be unable to apply it in any realistic context. There is also likely to be a lack of motivation because the relevance of school learning will be perceived as low. This means that a fundamental task of the teacher is to make sure that there is overlap between the world outside and the world of classroom learning. Programs like "Funds of knowledge" which bring in a diverse range of adults from the community, or the "Cultural Modeling Framework" which adds a focus on youth behaviour and "the very different demands of subject matter learning." (Lee, 2007,11)
Lee homes in on the type of assessments used, and describes interventions in a school with a high proportion of African American learners. Factors like time limiting reading tasks are found to be counter-productive, and exercises such as reading and then talking are suggested as a better way of establishing how the reader engages with a text and makes sense of it than formal writing. Dialogue with the teacher is important, in order to bridge the gap between everyday language and reasoning, and the styles and standards expected in the academic setting. The book concludes that "displays of competence depend a lot on how competence is both defined and assessed â€¦ we privilege particular kinds of displays as evidence of processes of internalizationâ€¦" The implications of these insights for literacy are that teachers must seek a variety of ways of linking academic reasoning with everyday experiences, and must appreciate different learner styles, for example valuing the quiet learner who may be "inwardly attentive in ways that are difficult to assess." (Lee, 2007, 174)
Flores-Dueñas (2004) discusses similar issues and presents a case study of four Latina(o) students illustrating the need to provide reading materials and discussion opportunities which validate the experience of a wide range of students and not just white European American students. The article is prefaced with a very interesting first person narrative regarding the author's experience growing up and being faced with this strong European American bias in the literature she was offered to read: "All stories that I recall reading in elementary school sounded like and dealt with issues that I imagined were part of my classmates' daily lives. They weren't the kinds of stories that my dad and my tío Noé used to tell about La Llorona or Las Malinchitas at our ranch in Mexico." (Flores-Dueñas, 2004, 181) The gap between reading materials and actual experience continued right through High School and even though this learner had no issues of poverty or social problems, and grew up to be a teacher herself, the effect of this mismatch was harmful: "I must have internalized my disinterest as something wrong with meâ€¦ I seemed always to be ashamed that I had not read more â€¦ I knew that this insecurity had to be affecting my comprehension of even "good" literature in a negative way, and would later show up in my college entrance examsâ€¦" (Flores-Dueñas, 2004, 181) This narrative shows how young people are disadvantaged by a reading curriculum that is alien to their family background. The story has a positive ending when the author discovered Maya Angelou and James Baldwin in teacher training practice: "With those two volumes, something wonderful had begun. The struggles of identity, justice and equality were all topics I was required to know at my family's dinner table. I could relate to these books, finally." ((Flores-Dueñas, 2004, 182) In this case the teacher was able to apply her own experience when teaching students herself, and prevent the same thing from happening to the next generation of Latina(o) readers. An interesting factor in this chain of events is the fact that the books which encouraged identification and deep engagement in the reader did not originate in the same ethnic group. The point is not to match the cultural features familiar to each student exactly but to provide texts that provide relevant themes and topics which can easily cross over cultural boundaries and which do not privilege white European culture and practices over all others.
Hirai et al. (2010) provide a practical handbook for practitioners who are dealing with adolescent learners. This group can present many challenges and the authors deal with fundamental topic areas such as background, motivation, attributes of academic language, vocabulary, reading skills development, grammar and writing. The concept of "academic language" is presented as a key to wider educational success: "Students who are taught strategies to comprehend and effectively use academic language in core subject areas will score higher on achievement tests and will function better in school and college." (Hirai et al., 2010, 1) The book argues for a consistent focus on literacy, even with adolescent age groups, because of an alarming downward trend in achievement levels for reading: "In 2005 only 31% of the fifth and ninth grade students scored at or above proficiency level in reading, placing nearly 70% below proficiency." (Hirai et al., 2010, 9) In the light of this very worrying statistic, the authors recommend that reading academic language be taught in the upper grades in all subject areas. The use of multi-media texts has become crucial, and the ability to negotiate meaning across different cultural boundaries. Literacy at this level is a requirement to "comprehend textâ€¦ interpret textâ€¦ evaluate information from text" (Hirai et al., 2010, 78) Concepts such scaffolding prior knowledge and graphic organizing of content on paper are used, to help students deal with more advanced materials, and many useful ideas for classroom activities are suggested.
A similar range of topics is covered by Au (2011) with the addition also of some school wide perspectives which show that both individual teacher strategies and overarching school systems are needed if multicultural literacy is to be meaningfully embedded in the whole curriculum. Her work in Hawai'i stresses the importance of the "community of learners" or, from a teacher's perspective, a "professional learning community." (Au, 2011, 134)
Many children operate in more than one language because of their ethnic backgrounds and this creates particular challenges and opportunities in the classroom. Botelho et al. (2010) describe some approaches used in Canada including small teams of learners who share the same non-English first language and the use of dual language projects to encourage literacy in both languages but also, most importantly, to value and respect the literacy skills that children have in the language of home. There are, of course, costs involved in providing materials in many languages, but innovative approaches such as asking parents to write stories, if possible in collaboration with school learners, for the benefit of future learners as well as the student herself: "With her dual language book, she leaves a legacy of pride in her l linguistic and cultural heritage and ensures that Telugu-speaking newcomers â€¦ will feel welcomed." (Botehlho et al., 2010, 238). Similar suggestions are made by Pattnaik (2004) to enlist the support of parents in fostering multicultural awareness at home, and even to encourage parents to become advocates for multicultural education in the community. The involvement of older people in reading activities is recommended by Gregory and Williams (2000), in the context of urban environments in England, where many children do not have the "cultural capital" of bedtime reading and habits supportive to literacy at home. The effect of siblings, parents, grandparents and others can be transformative when families learn the habits and protocols of literacy from school. An article by Alexander and Morton (2007) reports on an interesting literacy project based on a special weekly "exploration class" based on folk tales from around the world which encouraged learners to use literacy, including visual learning and discussion at home and at school to broaden their awareness of other cultures.
Powell et al. (2001) explore the social and political functions of literacy and advocate a teaching style that encourages questioning, group activity and "confronts societal issues of power and dominance head on. (page 773). They call this "critical literacy" and highlight the importance of literacy in an incisive way, for example when they write "We can either teach literacy as a series of skills, or we can teach it as if words matter." (Powell et al., 2001, 780).
There is a very good collection of articles on some of the theoretical issues which underpin multicultural literacy in the collection by Garcia et al. (2003). The discussions range over different grade levels and local contexts, but there is a common focus on finding how effective different theories and practices have been in improving literacy. Often there is a gap between recommendations and actual practice and many authors stress the importance of locally tailored solutions which take account of the needs of particular individual learners. This book provides many avenues for further exploration and excellent notes and bibliographies covering a wide range of topics.