Compiled by: Kylie Milosevic
The cultural diversity in our schools is consistently increasing with each passing school year. The need for culturally competent schools is stronger now than ever before. As teachers of diverse classrooms, it is imperative that we are culturally competent and take the time to consider the differences, struggles, and challenges that our culturally diverse students may be facing. It is also important that all of students are provided with plentiful opportunities in which they are able to relate to the literature we surround them with in our classrooms and our schools. In order for our students to better relate and learn from literature they need to see kids just like them in the stories that they read. Providing a culturally rich library of literature for our students can be one step forward toward a culturally competent classroom.
According to the National Education Association’s “Diversity Toolkit”, cultural competency is defined as the following,
“Cultural competence is the ability to successfully teach students who come from a culture or cultures other than our own. It entails developing certain personal and interpersonal awareness and sensitivities, understanding certain bodies of cultural knowledge, and mastering a set of skills that, taken together, underlie effective cross-cultural teaching and culturally responsive teaching.”
NEA also states that becoming culturally competent doesn’t happen within the course of a day or a training, rather, it takes time to build cultural competence. Being culturally competent involves much than recognizing cultural holidays and important people in history. It is the act of valuing cultural, recognizing cultural differences and addressing them, understanding your student’s cultures, as well as, being self aware of one’s own culture. (“Diversity Toolkit,” n.d.) Being culturally competent supports our culturally diverse learners in their learning processes. It also helps them to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance by their teachers, their peers, and their communities in which they live. Setting the environment of a classroom filled with culturally diverse students is the first step to supporting student success. It is also important to consider the experiences that some of our culturally diverse students have been through.
In the article “Border Kids in the Home of the Brave” Zimmerman Orozco (2015) explains how more and more of our students are coming from situations in which they had to cross the border into the U. S. and experienced situations along their journey that are emotionally draining, especially for very young children. Once these students reach their new schools in the U. S. they long for a sense of belonging. They are also adjusting their pre-perceived visions of what America would be like, as most deal with poverty and other struggles of becoming adapted to a new culture. From the article “The Changing Face of Diversity” Reis and Mendez (2009) state that past experiences not only impact opportunity for academic success, sense of belonging, and self-esteem, but can also turn-off a student’s motivation to learn altogether. By striving to be more culturally competent teachers and incorporating culturally diverse literature into our classrooms we can support these students’ academic success, and better yet motivate them!
Being an ESL teacher to young children, I hear a lot of stories about the hardships my students are facing and have faced in their past. All of my students have different backstories that affect their everyday lives, as well as, their performance in school. As their teacher it is important that I take into consideration the experiences they have been through. It is also important that I strive to understand the atmosphere of their current home lives. Transitioning from one culture to another, whether it be a smooth transition or a rather difficult one, is an immensely impacting experience in anyone’s life.
A few of the students that I work with are “border kids” like mentioned in the Educational Leadership article. Some of my students have had a much easier transition entering the U. S., while others were born in the U. S. and hold the responsibility of being the translator for the family. There are so many things that our students from other cultures and countries are trying to juggle and make sense of. Some have a difficult time finding their identity and question who they are as they learn and grow in an American school setting, but go home to a setting that is culturally different.
As teachers of culturally diverse students it is so important that we strive for ways to help them feel a sense of belonging, self-worth, and self-confidence. These attributes can sadly become lost or diminished throughout a culturally diverse student’s schooling experience depending upon many factors. This is not to say that white American students do not have culture. We all have culture and one way that we can mend the gaps, and mix as a community, is to provide literature that is culturally diverse; literature that has characters in which our students can relate to. Kids build their understanding of the world through their life experiences, but also from what they read. I truly feel that providing a culturally diverse library that has characters and real people who have stories of struggle and triumph, that come from the cultures of our students and of many others, can help to strengthen their understanding that diversity is good, normal, and accepted. And that they are just as capable as anyone else, despite what they’ve have been through, what they are going through, and everything they are trying to balance. These stories not only have the potential to motivate our students, but can also aid them in constructing their outlook on life and the world around them.
Book List (intended for grades 3-5):
Ada, A. F., & Savadier, E. (2013). I love Saturdays y domingos. Columbus, OH: Zaner-Bloser. (Latino/American)
Love Saturdays y domingos is a light hearted story about a young girl who spends Saturdays with her English-speaking grandparents and Sundays with her Spanish-speaking grandparents. She shares with us how her time spent with both sets of grandparents looks and sounds different, but at the same time how she cherishes them both. In the end the family comes together to celebrate her birthday with a combination of traditions from both sides of the family.
This Latino-American story provides heartwarming insight on a culturally diverse family’s lifestyle that many will appreciate and be able to connect with. This piece of literature would be a great way to start conversations about family traditions, where they originated, and how they compare. Students will enjoy the opportunity to relate to the story, share about their own families, and connect with each other on the topic.
Ada, A. F., & Thompson, K. D. (2013). My Name is María Isabel. Columbus, OH: Zaner-Bloser. (Puerto Rican Immigrant)
My name is Maria Isabel is the story of a Puerto Rican girl who moves to a new school in the U. S. and faces a challenge when her new teacher decides to change her name and call her Mary instead. Maria struggles with finding her voice and making adaptations to her new home, but in the end Maria strives to show her teacher that if she loses her name she loses the most important part of herself.
This story touches on the important issue of identity in a way that makes sense to children. This story also shows the reader insight to some of the challenges that immigrants today may face, one being Maria’s name change but another being the fact that Maria’s mother has to work long hours and can’t be home for Maria when she arrives home from school each day. This is a powerful story in which some may be able to connect with directly, while others will gain a deeper understanding of the struggles many immigrants face. It is also a great text to show how struggles can be overcome with strength and perseverance.
A., & Tobia, L. (2013). Anna Hibiscus. Tulsa, OK: Kane Miller. (Multicultural)
Anna Hibiscus is a collection of stories about a girl who lives in Africa with her very big family. Her father is black-African and her mother is white-Canadian. Anna lives with her large family in a compound where cars, internet, and cell phones are a way of life, however they still hold many traditional African customs.
These stories of Anna do a wonderful job depicting a way of life in Africa that may be different than what most expect. The chaos of Anna’s big family is entertaining and relatable to many. Anna’s stories also show how she learns that there are many people who are less fortunate than she is, an important lesson for the readers of this text, as well. This piece of literature is enlightening and fun. At the same time it opens a window of insight for children to see that life in other countries may not be exactly how they originally imagined and that children in other countries may be more like them than they are different.
Bunting, E., & Lewin, T. (2006). One Green Apple. New York: Houghton Mifflin. (Muslim Immigrant)
One Green Apple is the story of Farrah, a young Muslim immigrant, who is the new girl at school. She struggles with finding a sense of belonging as she doesn’t speak the language and doesn’t quit fit in with her new classmates. Then one day Farrah and her classmates head out on a field trip to an apple orchard where Farrah finally finds similarities between back home and her new country. She makes connections to the sounds and sights and soon connects with her classmates as she helps them to make apple cider.
This story touches on the important theme of belonging and puts the reader in the shoes of Farrah. The beautifully articulated illustrations and simple storyline make this powerful story relatable and easy to connect with for all readers. The wonderful insight that this piece of literature provides can show students what newcomers may experience. They can connect with the feelings and thoughts of Farrah and work to resolve solutions to how we can all better welcome new friends into our classrooms and communities, whether they come from other countries or just a few towns over.
Catledge, T. (2013). Mixed Me: A Tale of a Girl Who is Both Black and White. S.I.: Createspace.
Mixed Me is the story of a girl named Mixie who questions why everyone wants to know what she is. Being the daughter of a father who is black and a mother who is white, Mixie thinks that having parents of different races makes her extra special and different, but different is good. Mixie is determined to show others that who you are is more important than what you are.
This story sends a powerful message that is relatable for many, even to those that are not biracial. Many students that come from countries outside of the U. S. may able to relate to this story, too, as they are asked often the same question that Mixie was asked, “What are you?”. This is a great text to discuss that what makes us each unique is not just what we are, but who we are. It also teaches children to embrace the differences within ourselves, as well as, others.
Fleischman, P., & Ibatoulline, B. (2016). The Matchbox Diary. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press. (Italian-American)
The Matchbox Diary is uniquely an American story of a young girl and her Italian immigrant grandfather who kept a “diary” filled with memorable objects as a way to remember his journey to America when he could not read or write. The story is told in dialogue as the grandfather shares his memories of hardship, resilience and simple joys that led him to be who he is today.
This text does a beautiful job sending the message that we all have a story and that our stories are what make us who we are. It also shows how small simple things can become treasures. I think that students will be able to connect with this story greatly, as most children have objects that they treasure because they hold special memories. This text would be a great way to build community within a classroom by allowing opportunity for students to make connections to the grandfather’s stories and by having them bring in their own treasured objects to tell their personal stories. These activities can lead to discussions about theme theme of identity and what makes us each unique.
Lai, T. (2017). Inside Out and Back Again. S.l.: Harpercollins. (Vietnamese Refugee)
Inside Out and Back Again is the story of Ha and her Vietnamese family who are forced by war to move from their beloved home in Saigon, Vietnam to the American South state of Alabama. Ha struggles to not only adapt to the new food and language, but also to the attitudes around her. Although some are accepting and kind, not all of the new faces she meets greet her with the same warm welcome. As the story progresses, and the foreign land starts to feel like home, there is a sense of hope that builds for the future.
This is another story that provides insight to life of many immigrant families and the challenges that some face when adapting to a new culture. The story is raw and really allows for the reader to feel what Ha and her family felt. The sense of hope that the text reveals is motivating. This would a be great read aloud to discuss the challenges of immigration and build understanding around why people immigrate. This story provides opportunity for discussion about the challenges of immigration in a way that is appropriate, and relatable, for children.
Lo, G., & Lo, B. (2012). Auntie Yang’s Great Soybean Picnic. New York: Lee & Low Books. (Chinese-American)
Auntie Yang’s Great Soybean Picnic is a Chinese-American story about family, culture, and community. When a Sunday drive through their Northern Illinois town leads them to the discovery of a soybean farm, Auntie Yang shares the importance that soybeans have in their Chinese culture, while the farmer makes the connection of the importance that the soybeans have in America. Following this day they start a new tradition with a soybean meal that soon expands into their Chicago Chinese community, who travel out to the countryside to get a little taste of home.
This lively story and vivid illustrations are sure to enlighten its readers. It does wonderful job showing how cultures can intertwine. This is great text to discuss the idea that everyone has culture by comparing what the soybeans symbolize to the American farmer and what they mean to the Chinese heritage. It also provides great insight to the various cultural communities within our country.
Martin, R., & Shannon, D. (2011). The Rough Face Girl. New York: Puffin. (Native American version of Cinderella)
The Rough Face Girl is an adaption to the classic story of Cinderella, in which a young, rough faced Algonquin girl wins the love of an invisible being. Scarred from tending fires, the rough face girl lives a troubled life judged by her physical features. She proves her village, and the spoiled daughters of a poor man, wrong when she wins the heart of the invisible being, as she is the only one who sees him.
This story sends an important message about the importance of inner beauty and kindness. It also puts a cultural twist on a well-known fairy tale and allows the reader to think through a different lense. There are many different cultural versions to the story of Cinderella that allow some of the morals and values of the various cultures to shine through one common story line. This version of Cinderella allows the reader to see the value of kindness and nature the Native American culture holds. This would be a great segway to conversations and studies about common values between cultures.
Myers, C. (2002). Wings. New York, NY: Scholastic Press.
Wings is a fantasy about being true to yourself despite differences. When a new boy, Ikarus Jackson, shows up to school with wings that allow him to fly, all of the other kids make fun of him for being different, except for one little girl. She identifies with Ikarus because she is made fun of for be different, too; different because she is shy.
Myers does a beautiful job sending the message that different is beautiful in an indirect way that all children can relate to, no matter their race or culture. The diversity in this story is that Ikarus has wings and although wings on humans are fictional, this allows the story to be relatable to all. This text would be a fantastic introduction to the study of diversity, as it introduces the central message that differences are what make us who we are and that being different is good.
Myers, W. D., & Myers, C. (2014). Looking Like Me. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books. (African-American)
Looking Like Me is a story about self-esteem and identity, set to a rhythmic, urban beat. The young boy, Jeremy, takes a look in the mirror and confidently says, “I’m Jeremy. That’s who I am.” Jeremy continues to define his identity by going around to all of the people in his life. The people that surround him help him to define who he is. To his father he is a son and to his teacher he is a writer. Jeremy ends up to defining himself as many, many things and along the way sends a message that there are many things that make us who we are, race not being one of the many things mentioned.
Author Walter Dean Myers collaborated his words with his son’s illustrations to tell an energizing story of identity. The idea that what makes us who we are is more than just what we look like is clear. This is a great mentor text for students to create their own “I am” list and share it with their peers. Jeremy’s voice is confident and encouraging. It will inspire your students to want to define who they are based on what makes each of them unique. This piece of literature addresses diversity indirectly, yet still possesses a powerful message.
Perkins, M., & Hogan, J. (2010). Rickshaw Girl. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge. (Bangladeshian)
The Rickshaw Girl is the story of 10 year-old, Naima, who lives in Bangladesh with her family, including her father who makes a living as a rickshaw driver. Despite being a girl, and going against her cultural traditions, Naima believes that she is capable of working hard and earning a living just like any boy can do. Naima eventually proves herself through determination and triumph.
This story, filled with positivity, introduces parts of the Bengali culture and customs, and highlights how time is changing views and attitudes. The story shows a peek into the window of another culture in a way that children can relate to and connect with. It also touches on the topic of gender roles, how they may be perceived in other countries, and how they have evolved. There are not many children’s stories on the Bengali culture, however, the Bengali population is growing within our American schools. Students of the Bengali culture, as well as many others, will appreciate this story of determination and family love.
Polacco, P. (2013). The Keeping Quilt. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. (Multicultural American Heritage)
The Keeping Quilt is the story of four generations of a Jewish immigrant family from Russia who create and pass along family traditions in a quilt made from a great-great grandmother’s old babushka. The family uses the quilt for many traditions, some being: to welcome new grandchildren into the family, set the table for holiday meals, and bless new marriages.
This true story of Patricia Polacco’s family teaches about the Jewish culture and shows the reader how culture itself can migrate, too. This is a great text to again discuss how we all have culture, whether it be strong passed down traditions like in Patricia’s family or new traditions, and ways of life, that we all hold within our families. This story can also show newly immigrated students how their cultures can stay with them even when they have moved location. Discussions of family roots and heritage, and themes of family tradition and love could all derive from a read aloud of this text.
Ryan, P. M. (2010). Esperanza Rising. Dubuque: Kendall Hunt. (Mexican Refugee)
Esperanza Rising is the story of a girl who is forced by tragedy to flee her home country of Mexico with her mother to move to California during the Great Depression. Esperanza is faced with many challenges as her and her mother adjust to their new home at a camp for Mexican farm workers. Despite her education and wealthy upbringing in Mexico, Esperanza and her mother work hard labor jobs and face financial struggles. Esperanza finds the courage to rise above her difficult circumstances.
Based on the life of the author’s grandmother, this story shows the realistic battles that many have faced. The strong protagonist exudes passion and perseverance. This novel alludes to many topics of discussion, some being: race, rights, family, and pride. This is a heavy text as far as the story line and topics discussed, but read together as a whole class it can provide a deep understanding of the above themes. It also allows the readers to put themselves in the shoes of Esperanza and build empathy for those who have faced similar challenges. This a great text to foster a culturally competent classroom.
Say, A. (2013). Tea with Milk. Columbus, OH: Zaner-Bloser. (Japanese-American)
Tea with Milk is the story of May who lives with her Japanese family in San Francisco. She enjoys her mixed cultural lifestyle where she eats traditional Japanese food at home and American style food with her friends, until one day she and her family move back to Japan. May is faced with many challenges as she tries to adjust and find herself again in her new Japanese city of Osaka. May struggles to feel at home in her family’s country of origin and sets off on a journey to find what home really is.
This modern story of identity shows how culture and tradition can evolve over time. The strong female character in this story gives light to themes of independence and true identity. I feel that many will be able to relate to the struggles that May faces with finding her identity within a mixed cultural lifestyle. This story is contradictory to most as it is a story of an immigrant family that moves back to their home country and the young Japanese-American character is faced with opposing challenges as she tries to makes sense of the world again in her family’s home town. This a great piece of literature to show a different perspective on culture and discuss the theme of “home”.
Several of the above listed texts can be used together to teach a literature unit on the theme of personal identity. Looking Like Me, Wings, Mixed Me, The Matchbox Diary, The Keeping Quilt, and I Love Saturdays y domingos are all texts that address the idea that we are all unique. These stories provide opportunities for discussion about what makes each of us who we are, and that who we are is much more than what meets the eye. Looking Like Me and Wings both have characters that exude confidence. They show students examples of how different is good and that we should be proud of who we are. Mixed Me and I Love Saturdays y domingos provide great examples of diverse families, both culturally and racially. Again there is a sense of pride and confidence that flow from these texts that will inspire children to want to share about their own families. The Keeping Quilt will help students to connect with their own family traditions and celebrations that are special and important to each of their unique families. Finally, The Matchbox Diary shows students how memories can be connected to objects, as it provides them with plentiful opportunities to make text-to-self connections.
Various writing activities can be derived from the use of these texts. With the use of Looking Like Me as a mentor text, students can create their own “I am“ list about what makes them who they are based on their families, what they love, and what they do. Another project idea that could be derived using the story The Matchbox Diary is an activity in which students bring in their own object that means something special to them, or reminds them of certain time in their life. Students can then simply share verbally what their object means to them, or this could be used spark a fun writing piece. Students will be able to learn about each other and grow closer as a classroom community from connecting over great culturally diverse stories such as these. Students will also build their self esteem as they understand more deeply that different is good and being unique is what makes each us who we are.
Mendoza Reis, N., & Mendez, S. (2009). The Changing Face of Diversity. Principal, 89(2), 10-13. Retrieved April 12, 2017, from https://www.naesp.org/resources/1/Pdfs/Principal-ND09-Diversity-in-the-Classroom.pdf.
S., Zimmerman Orozco. (2015). Border Kids in the Home of the Brave. Educational Leadership, 72(6), 48-53. Retrieved April 12, 2017, from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/mar15/vol72/num06/BorderKids-in-the-Home-of-the-Brave.aspx
Diversity Toolkit: Cultural Competence for Educators. (n.d.). Retrieved April 12, 2017, from http://www.nea.org/tools/30402.htm
Goodreads. (n.d.). Retrieved April 12, 2017, from https://www.goodreads.com/