By Ben Vilkas
Faculty, College of Education
In an ever increasingly connected society, it is critical for classroom teachers to create an environment that integrates literacy across all disciplines in a culturally inclusive manner. Primarily, this can be done through the use of thematic instruction that is centered on students’ cultural backgrounds. The effective alignment of Arizona state standards to culturally inclusive activities not only promotes active learning and student engagement but also establishes a love of diversity while at the same time, promoting a spirit of unity.
Arizona’s rich history begins with the first peoples and tribal nations. For Arizona students in fourth grade, the state Social Studies Standards focus on the ancient cultures of Arizona and Mexico (S1, C2, PO1-5). In the middle school grades, teachers can weave stories of the past to current issues of today. Using informational texts such as “Children of Native America Today” (Dennis & Hirschfelder, 2003) and “First People: An Illustrated History of American Indians” (King, 2008) can supplement text book readings and enhance thematic instruction. As well, reading O’Dell’s historical fiction novel, “Sing Down the Moon” (1970), connects upper elementary students to the Long Walk of the Navajo, an important event that has had lasting effects on the Navajo community. This book, and many others, can be used as a way to begin a Problem Based Learning (PBL) unit on issues facing the tribal nations in Arizona such as improving economic opportunities, water rights and uranium mining.
In addition, Arizona is culturally and historically connected to Mexico. By choosing fiction books from Hispanic authors such as Soto, Munoz-Ryan and Jimenez, educators can provide instruction that all students but especially those with a Mexican heritage, can appreciate. These types of books promote a positive home-school connection (Becker, 2001), benefit reading fluency and comprehension goals and serve as ways to open discussions on themes such as difficulty adjusting to a new culture, courage in the face of adversity and a sense of belonging. Besides using quality fiction texts, nonfiction books on the history of Central and South American countries can benefit students’ understanding of these countries and serve as a means for comparison. Finally, having students study biographical stories of famous Hispanic leaders such as Cesar Chavez can demonstrate the power of political activism in making positive changes for others.
In general, classroom teachers should ensure that they select texts that reflect not only the rich diversity found their own classrooms but also the wonderful eclectic nature of American society. Christopher Paul-Curtis’ book “The Watson’s Go to Birmingham-1963” (2000) can connect students to past injustices and current events that our state and nation are struggling to address today. Finally, the overall theme of immigration, and especially refugee crises, can be examined using culturally inclusive literature.
By selecting texts that reflect diversity, teachers in Arizona can work to promote unity. This is best done when teachers first establish a sense of community in their classroom (Freeman & Freeman, 1998). Once students feel safe sharing ideas and thoughts, teachers can expand their horizons, connect them to each other, their unique cultures, and to the various problems and issues that need the leaders of tomorrow to wrestle with today.
- Becker, H. (2001). Teaching ESL K-12: views from the classroom. Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle.
- Curtis, C.P. (2000). The Watsons go to Birmingham-1963. New York, NY: Laurel Leaf.
- Dennis, Y.W. & Hirschfelder, A. (2003). Children of native America today. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.
- Freeman, Y.S. & Freeman, D.E. (1998). ESL/EFL teaching: principles for success. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
- King, D.C. (2008). First people: An illustrated history of American Indians. New York, NY: DK Publishing.
- O’Dell, S. (1970) Sing down the moon. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.
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