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Are you breaking cultural barriers in your classroom?

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‘Tis the season for cultural holidays like Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa, and if you're like most teachers, you probably have a class full of students who all celebrate the holidays a little differently. But no matter where your students are from or what language they speak at home, they come together in your classroom every day, so creating a community and breaking cultural barriers is a must. How do you do it? With books, of course.

‘Tis the season for cultural holidays like Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa, and if you're like most teachers, you probably have a class full of students who all celebrate the holidays a little differently. But no matter where your students are from or what language they speak at home, they come together in your classroom every day, so creating a community and breaking cultural barriers is a must.

How do you do it? With books, of course.

Researchers agree that the right kinds of books can break down barriers of prejudice and help teachers build a community in the classroom. "Books can make a difference in dispelling prejudice and building community . . . with enthralling stories that make us imagine the lives of others," writes Hazel Rochman in Against Borders.

If you work with English learners, you already know that creating a culturally inclusive classroom is vital to your students' success. You also know that culture plays a huge role in language and literacy learning. Even if you don't work with English learners, your students still need to develop an appreciation for a variety of cultures--if only to prepare them to thrive in a diverse society and a global economy.

In other words, helping your students learn about and appreciate cultures, including their own, is a vital part of their education. And helping them develop that appreciation can be as easy as reading the right story out loud or putting a certain book on your library shelves.

But what exactly is the right kind of book?

In an article on choosing authentic multicultural literature, Jennifer Johnson Higgins provides a helpful guide for choosing the kinds of books that provide accurate and insightful depictions of other cultures. Her checklist includes criteria like high literary quality, lack of stereotypes and loaded words, and authentic portrayals of lifestyles and families within the culture. Find the complete list of her criteria here.

To get you started, here’s a list of five authentic multicultural books that you can share with your students.

  1. In My Momma’s Kitchen – Jerdine Nolen, 1999. This book follows the successes and celebrations of an African American family—all of which seem to occur in the narrator’s momma’s kitchen.
  2. In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson – Bette Bao Lord, 1984. When Shirley immigrates from China to the United States, she deals with issues like learning the language and traditions of her new country, eventually developing a love of baseball and becoming a Jackie Robinson fan.
  3. Jingle Dancer – Cynthia Leitich Smith, 2000. A simple story with warm illustrations, this book follows Jenna, a Musscogee and Ojibway Indian girl who longs to become a jingle dancer like her grandmother. An author’s note at the end of the book gives background information on jingle dancing and the Muscogee and Ojibway Nations.
  4. En Mi Familia – Carmen Lomas Garza, 1996. With text in both English and Spanish, this book describes traditions, events, and memories from the author’s life with her family.
  5. Señor Cat’s Romance – Lucía González, 1997. A collection of six Latin American-folktales, this book brings engaging characters and best-loved stories to life with colorful illustrations. An informative introduction and illustrator’s note provide excellent background information for readers.
For more books, check out Higgins's complete list of authentic multicultural children's literature here.

What have you done to acquaint your students with new cultures? How do you create a culturally inclusive community in your classroom? Please share your ideas in the comments below--we'd love to hear them.

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