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Study seeks reasons why teachers are hesitant to teach multicultural literature

IOWA CITY, Iowa ­- Racially, ethnically and linguistically diverse students living in rural Midwestern communities rarely see their own cultural experiences or experience cross-cultural commonalties, two literacy researchers say.

Cynthia Lewis, a University of Iowa College of Education Curriculum assistant professor, and Jean Ketter, an assistant professor at Grinnell College, have received a $10,000 grant to continue their research of how and what factors prevent 5th through 9th grade teachers from using multicultural literature in classrooms. The grant is from the National Council of Teachers of English.

In the study the researchers also will focus on the sociopolitical contexts that shape literature discussions and literary responses and how to use their research findings to change literature instruction and teacher education.

Lewis and Ketter say their study can point to approaches for inviting critical conversations about race in classrooms where such conversations generally do not take place.

The study is being conducted with teachers and a teacher education student who will participate in a yearlong reading group to discuss multicultural children's and young adult literature.

The two professors began the study in May 1997 after residents of a rural community called for a more culturally inclusive curriculum in a school district that is 96.3 percent white.

Initially, three middle school teachers participated in the group. The group has now increased to ten participants, including the researchers, two high school reading and language arts teachers, and a teacher education student.

In spite of an increased interest in multicultural literature for children and young adults, much of the literature taught in our nation's schools is still written by and about middle-class whites. "Consequently, racially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse students living in rural Midwestern communities rarely see their own cultural experiences or experience cross-cultural commonalties," Lewis says.

Whereas many educators see value in using multicultural literature with all students, a number of sociopolitical conditions prevent teachers from voluntarily bringing such literature to their classrooms, the researchers say.

Lewis and Ketter say that although the study idea grew out of tensions in the local community and concerns from African American parents, teaching literature by and about people of color is as important for white students and teachers as it is students of color.

Lewis and Ketter, each of whom has been nominated for national awards for separate and earlier research on the subject, have found in the early stages of their research three sociopolitical issues prominent among teachers of multicultural literature:
-- Teachers feel that they lack the knowledge to teach multicultural literature. They fear that their own lack of knowledge about the cultures of particular racial and ethnic groups could lead them to choose low quality, inauthentic, or otherwise offensive literature for use in their classrooms;
-- Teachers perceive a need to use literature to teach the history of oppression, but are concerned that such texts represent racially and ethnically oppressed groups as victims. They fear parents might respond negatively to the inclusion of literature that, at times, represents particular racial or ethnic groups as victims of oppression by whites; and
-- Teachers fear that teaching literature which focuses on the oppression of racial and ethnic groups could be perceived as politically charged and inappropriate for school literature studies.

Lewis and Ketter hope this study will inform teacher educators as they prepare teachers to discuss multicultural literature in ways that reach beyond the universalizing of experience and the celebration of difference.

12/1/98