The Multicultural Curriculum

Yesterday I went to an annual conference hosted by my graduate school’s student group of the state-wide school library association.  There were a number of great presentations, but the one that made the biggest impact on me by far was the presentation on multiculturalism in the library.  I’ll talk more about that presentation in another entry, but this entry is dedicated to a remark the presenter made that has stuck in my mind for roughly the last 24 hours.

One of the initiatives her school library helps to undertake is to facilitate a cultural study of each of the continents, one continent per year.  The idea is that by the time a student graduates from fifth grade, they will have covered each of the six continents in reasonable depth, and will be aware of the culture, history, and customs of these regions.

Last year, the continent was Europe, and come Christmas time, the librarian decided that she would address the holiday by sharing materials relating to the different representations of Santa Claus and the stories surrounding him across Europe.  This is fine and good, but what bothered me is what she said happened next.  The teachers, she said, were overwhelmingly relieved to be “teaching something normal,” something familiar to them, instead of having to teach about unfamiliar and foreign content the way they did most years.

Luckily, the librarian had the common sense to challenge the inherent problems with this attitude.  She gently pointed out to the teachers that just as they enjoyed encountering familiar cultural material (i.e. Christmas), the same held true for the students.

It is hugely important that students see themselves reflected not only in the library’s collection, but in the curriculum at large. We as educators must continually seek to acknowledge and include the histories and cultures of our students, especially as our classrooms and communities grow increasingly diverse.

Diversity is the future of America, and the face of America is already changing – you just have to look to the latest census results to realize this fact.  This is not the time for feelings of discomfort or unease – if we don’t know something, we have to educate ourselves and learn.  If we fail to, we will not be able to make effective connections with our students, and we are hindering their education and their ability to succeed, and the library has an essential role to play in facilitating this education.

In my teaching strategies class, we have to consider our core beliefs, the things we would fight to the death for in our libraries.  I hadn’t realized it until now, but this is one of mine.  It is my belief that as a school librarian, I must create a collection that is inclusive and reflective, and that I am continually seeking to learn more about my students and who they are.  This is what I believe.

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On A Fool’s Errand?

Over the past few months, I have become increasingly confident in my decision to pursue school librarianship.  It’s an ideal fit for me and my talents, and I can’t wait to enter the field as a professional and begin making a difference.

Yet, I have my doubts.  Why? Because right now, it kind of feels like only a fool would want to enter the field of education, particularly public education.  All you have to do is read the news, or skim it, really, to hear the vitriol being directed at teachers.  Teachers have it easy, you see, they only work until about 2:30 in the afternoon, and they get summer break! And they make lots of money! And some of them don’t even bother to show up for work!

It is discouraging, to say the very least, to read about stories like that of my friend, who works in a struggling Kentucky high school and will be fighting to keep her job in the course of ten minutes Monday morningTo hear Scott Brown, the enlightened governor of Wisconsin, insisting that he must curtail the greed of teachers (while others of his party vigorously defend the tax cuts for couples making $250,000 a year or more – the inconsistency, it burns).

Here’s the thing.  I do not plan to take my job lightly when I begin working.  To plan creative lessons, to envision collaboration with subject teachers, to teach your children to have the technology and critical thinking skills they will need to succeed in life? That takes effort. Effort, planning, careful thought, and a lot of time.  Time that extends past 2:30 pm.

I am entering the field of education as a school media specialist because I believe I can make a difference, that I can help change the lives of students, and because I believe strongly in what the profession stands for.  But, Mr. President, if you want to know why more bright, young people aren’t becoming teachers,* I would ask you to open the newspaper and really read what our nation’s leaders are saying about its teachers.  We are not a culture that values teaching or teachers. We are cutting teaching positions in a time of economic crisis.  Teachers might have the most important job after parents in terms of shaping the future workers and leaders of America, but what they do is not appreciated.  Sure, everyone can recall a favorite teacher, but those fond memories do not translate into the public rhetoric or support for teachers from those in positions of power.  Until that happens, Mr. President, I suspect many of my peers will maintain the same attitude: it’s nice, but why would I go on a fool’s errand when life could be that much less stressful?

*In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama discussed his vision of education for America’s future, and spoke of wanting to encourage more bright, talented young people to pursue careers in education.

My Favorite Teacher(s)

One of the first realizations I had when I began teaching English was “my God, this is really hard.”  The time, effort and dedication it takes to be a good teacher.  Being an exceptional teacher is even harder, but I’ve been lucky enough to have more than one in my life.

My good friend writes a blog called Teaching Ain’t For Heroes.  A few days ago, she asked her readers to talk about their favorite teachers, which is what inspired this entry. Though I had many wonderful teachers afterwards, especially in college, there was something special about my teachers in seventh and eighth grade. I look back on those years with a golden glow, and a lot of that is due to them.

These teachers encouraged me to explore my intellectual curiosities, they challenged me, and brought forth an enormous outpouring of creativity.  Most of all, they helped imbue me with a sense of confidence at a time I badly needed it.

The first teacher is Jeff, my seventh grade English and history teacher. I don’t remember much about English class other than learning how to write five paragraph essays, but history class remains vividly clear.  Jeff managed to make history come alive as we learned about the founding of Islam, the Crusades, and the Italian renaissance. Even art history became interesting in his class.  The spring of seventh grade, I got to go to Italy with my family, including a trip to Florence.  I had the time of my life, seeing works of art that we’d talked about in person, and I relished being able to teach my parents all that I’d learned about Italian renaissance art and architecture.

I also remember researching destinations for a travelogue, places I still wish to visit one day.  Most of all, however, I remember learning about and dressing up as  Margaret Paston, a medieval English gentlewoman, for our end-of-the-year renaissance feast.  Her life story fascinates me, and I still entertain dreams of writing a book about her one day.  Jeff’s class opened my eyes to the world.  History is not an easy subject to make come alive, but he definitely made history class one of the highlights of my day.

Another favorite teacher is my middle school Latin teacher, Lainey. From the beginning, she noticed my enthusiasm for learning about Ancient Rome and allowed me to explore it to my heart’s content.  It’s because of Lainey that I got into creating my own websites using HTML in middle school, that I read obsessively about Caesar, Anthony, Cleopatra, the Roman Republic, and the Roman Empire, and that I had the nerve to submit (and get published) in a Latin newspaper. When I discovered an online game about Ancient Rome, Lainey gave me full permission to play and explore it during lab time.  When I finally saw the Roman Forum in person, I stood nearly breathless with wonder thinking “that was the Temple of the Vestal Virgins! That’s where Cicero gave his orations! ZOMG!”  Again, like Jeff, Lainey’s encouragement and support helped nurture a love of history. As a librarian to be, I’m also struck by the fact that Lainey’s willingness to embrace technology helped teach me many vital internet skills. Lainey’s class functioned the way I hope to have my library classes one day: to teach kids to not only use technology, but harness it to explore and learn and further their own interests.

In eighth grade, I had two teachers who made a huge impact on me because of the way they encouraged me.  I suspect they don’t even know the impact their words had on me, but even now, some eleven years after the fact, I can picture their comments to me in my mind’s eye.   Sally, a wonderful, caring English teacher not only sat patiently with me as I tried to negotiate the complexities of English grammar (to this day, a horrendous weak point), but taught me that my words had power.  The assignment was to write some kind of fiction piece, I think, in relation to the book A Lesson Before Dying, and I can’t remember exactly what I wrote (though I have the paper somewhere in a folder), but she not only asked me for a copy of my writing, she told me in her comments that my piece had made her cry.  It was the most astounding feeling, realizing that I could provoke emotion in someone through my words, and, more importantly, that Sally wasn’t family, who routinely praised me for my writing skills.  This counted for real.

My history teacher that year, Kathy, was an equally wonderful and had wonderful lessons and projects (well, she and Sally both), but what I’ll always remember is our final exam that year.  We were given the choice of writing a creative piece that demonstrated our knowledge of American history.  I’d never really written historical fiction before, but I had an idea and I ran with it, writing the story of a girl living in Revolutionary War America.  Kathy loved it, and told me that she believed I had a future as a historical fiction writer.  Ever since that day, it’s remained a dream of mine.  It’s hardly coincidence that every novel bar one that I’ve dreamt up has been a work of historical fiction.

The last person who deserves a mention for making my middle school years so incredible is actually my principal, a woman who is retiring this year, Barbara.  She let my best friend and I run wild with our imaginations decorating the school dances when we went to her to complain, and never told us that our ideas were too insane.   You always knew you could go talk to Barbara for help or to talk, and her kind and gentle demeanor put you instantly at ease.  I can’t imagine a better principal, and I wish her all the best as she enters a new phase in her life.

So to Jeff, Sally, Kathy, Barbara and Lainey, I extend my deepest and heartfelt thanks.  Thank you for helping shape me.  For giving me confidence.  For teaching me it’s ok to be smart and to love learning.  For inspiring me as I strive to become the kind of educators you are. Thank you a million times.

A Year in Books

As a librarian-to-be, people are frequently interested in what I’ve read recently. It’s a stereotype that librarians are all avid readers, but a generally true one.   For the past three years, I have set myself a yearly goal of new books to read: first 50, then 60.  2011 marks the fourth year of challenging myself to read 60 new books/fanfiction/poetry/plays.  I enjoy this rule because it forces me to expand my tastes into reading things I might not otherwise have picked up.

This year, my list is particularly interesting because it makes it very easy to figure out where I was and what was happening when I read each book, a reflection on a year spent bouncing between four different cities in two countries. Therefore, I’ve decided to recap my 2010 booklist in narrative form in the hopes that it will be slightly more interesting this way.

I began the year by reading the latest in the Pink Carnation series, a set of historical fiction novels about spies named after flowers during the time of the Napoleonic Wars, The Temptation of the Night Jasmine by Lauren Willig, read in Delhi on a visit home from Bangalore. Tempt Me at Twilight by Lisa Kleypas was also read on that trip, but proved completely unmemorable.

Returning to Bangalore, I made good use of the excellent lending library down the street from my apartment.  I thoroughly enjoyed I, Claudius by Robert Graves, the classic work of historical fiction about the Emperor Claudius, and found The Illuminator (set in pre-Reformation England with a dash of good old Catholic vs. Protestant conflict thrown in for good measure) by Brenda Rickman Vantrease to be quite enjoyable as well.   Bluebeard’s Egg, a collection of unrelated short stories by Canadian author Margaret Atwood intrigued me, but also proved very confusing at times.  I think this would be a fantastic book to discuss in a group setting.

IBM and the Holocaust by Edwin Black was borrowed from the well-stocked library of my former boss, a well-read and tremendously erudite man, and proved to be a horrifying, eye-opening read.  I highly recommend it if you’re interested in learning how the Final Solution was implemented so efficiently.

February saw me return to Delhi to work from home, where I read The Art Thief by Noah Charney, an entertaining read for its details on the art world, but with a disappointing ending. Lustrum, by Robert Harris took me back to Ancient Rome to explore a period I knew surprisingly little about, the waning days of the Republic and the life of the great orator, Cicero.  Another forgettable romance, this one a free e-book download, The Homespun Bride by Jillian Hart also made the list.

The end of March saw me in Bangalore celebrating the wedding of a close friend and the death of an online one, and while there, I finished two books:  The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak and Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne.  I thoroughly enjoyed the plot of The Bastard of Istanbul even if I do find the whole “deep dark family secret” story-line overdone and trite, and really, what can you say about Pooh except to love it for its charming simplicity and evocations of childhood?

As the spring continued and I found myself increasingly enamored of the TV show Bones, I read ever more fanfiction and discovered some truly talented writers.  However, I also managed to read more books, including The Gastronomy of Marriage by Michelle Maisto, which I found to be an interesting look at food but a tedious look at marriage and gender roles (seriously lady, relax.  Just because you cook dinner a few nights more a week than you and your husband initially agreed to doesn’t mean you’re betraying the entire feminist movement).  I also finally got around to reading Le Testament Français by Andrei Makine, a book I’d picked up in Paris at the famed Shakespeare and Co. bookstore in 2006.  It proved to be a beautiful tale of history and memory.

Like many on my message board, I read the entire Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, which I enjoyed because I was a major mythology nerd back in the day, though I felt the plot to be a little lacking at times.  Overall though, they were fun reads, and the series improved by the final book. Cairo Modern by Naguib Mahfouz offered a fascinating portrait of the lives of young Egyptian men, and Mistress of Rome returned me to Ancient Rome, this time around the time of Christ – a great, compelling story of betrayal, jealousy, infidelity and intrigue.

By June, The Betrayal of the Blood Lily by Lauren Willig (the next in the earlier mentioned series) took me to India at the time of the Maratha Wars, and marked the first book I ever read on a Kindle.  The series has drifted even further from its original premise, to the point of being ridiculous, and I’m not certain I’ll read the next one.  Grave Goods by Ariana Franklin takes place in medieval England and is a series centered around a medieval forensic scientist of sorts – funny, well-written, generally historically accurate and a good read.  To Desire a Devil by Elizabeth Hoyt proved to be yet another forgettable romance novel, whereas Down Under by the inestimable Bill Bryson had me in stitches as he conveyed his sense of wonder at exploring the great continent of Australia.

July brought me back to America.  I began by reading Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy, rescued from a friend’s discard pile, an emotional memoir about growing up with a disfigured face due to jaw cancer at a young age.  My return stateside also brought with it glorious, glorious access to public libraries once again.

This Book is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All by Marilyn Johnson helped get me pumped for beginning library school, and is a good overview of what it is that librarians do (another question I get asked frequently – though I personally know nobody on Second Life).  Gwenhyfar: The White Spirit by Mercedes Lackey was a great twist on the traditional Arthurian legend, made even better by her finding inspiration in an original text that referenced three Guineveres of Arthur.  Middlemarch by George Eliot took awhile to get into, proved to be absolutely charming and delightful. It is now firmly on my all-time favorites list, and if I find the time, I would gladly re-read it.

Confessions of a Closet Master Baker by Gesine Bullock-Prado (sister to Sandra) told a life’s journey through food, complete with some delicious recipes I want to try soon.  The Founding told the story of a fictitious medieval English family, and I thought it was a well-researched, believable story, and I’d like to check out the others in the series (by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles). I followed these two good books with Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie (read for class), and I found myself shocked at how sanitized the Disney version is – Tinker Bell is a nasty, spiteful little thing, and there’s definitely some even odder gender/sexual dynamics at play in the book.  Creepy. Next up, What Would Jane Austen Do? by Laurie Brown. It seemed like it would be a fun read but it actually turned out to be one of the worst books I’ve ever read.  Ghosts, time travel, and treasures hidden in the wall made for a completely ridiculous plot, not to mention Ms. Austen making barely a moment’s appearance in the book.

From here on out, most of my reading came from assignments for my children’s literature course, although I did manage to get some pleasure reading done as well.  These included The Taming of the Duke by Eloisa James (who writes fantastic, witty, and unconventional heroines in the guise of Regency Romances), Midwives, by Chris Bohjalian which was a compelling read about a fictitious midwife who finds herself accused of manslaughter when a birth goes wrong,  and Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi, which was absolutely fantastic.  A short, graphic novel about Iranian women discussing their sex lives, it was funny, poignant, and tremendously well-done.  I have not yet read her more famous Persepolis series, but I fully intend to this year.

As my children’s literature course continued and we progressed to books geared towards older children, I read a variety of different books in different genres.  Amber Brown is Not a Crayon by Paula Danziger is a sweet, poignant look at the perils of friendship in fourth grade, and Nina Jaffe’s The Mysterious Visitor: Stories of the Prophet Elijah recounted Jewish folktales about the prophet from around the world, accompanied by some beautiful illustrations.  Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse told the story of a young girl growing up during the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression in verse form, and I found myself pleasantly surprised by how absorbing I found the story.  The Mzungu Boyi by Meja Mwangi captured the unlikely friendship between a white plantation owner’s grandson and the cook’s son in colonial Kenya, and did a great job of balancing the innocence of childhood with the brutal treatment endured by the Kenyans.  The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson was a touching story about a foster child with lots of spirit, determined to best the system, and Coraline by Neil Gaiman proved impossible to put down – creepy, well-told, and a brilliant twist on the age-old longing for different parents.  Princess Academy by Sharon Hale came from my class reading list, but I read it on the recommendation of a classmate and thoroughly enjoyed it in an afternoon.  The combination of Miri, the spunky yet disheartened heroine finding her path in life, the surprise sweet twist at the end, and the subtle Marxist commentary on the exploitation of the workers all made this a highly enjoyable read.  The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander bored me to tears, and to round out my class reading for the year, so too did Anastasia Krupnik by Lois Lowry, which I found whiny and annoying.

My last two pleasure reads for the year were absolutely stellar.  First off was the fantasy work Sabriel by Garth Nix, a wonderful tale of a young necromancer, and part of a trilogy I’m now in the middle of finishing up.   And last, but not least, was Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay, which did an excellent job of dealing with the sticky issues the French have with historical memory regarding the Holocaust.  The marriage issues faced by the protagonist seemed irrelevant and a distraction, but the historical parts of the novel were extremely well done.

And there you have it.  My year in books.

Purpose and Meaning

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a close friend about regrets in life. Specifically, how it was kind of hard at times to not feel envy when I see Facebook posts from friends off to London or Paris or NYC for grad school or work.

That easily could have been my life had I chosen to pursue a policy degree or an IR program.  I had my life plan mapped out (in vague term): grad school at a prestigious university, a career path that would involve international travel, work at the UN or a similar body, writing insightful policy and opinion papers.   But then I chose not to go down that road, because I came to the realization that for me, that kind of work would be intellectually stimulating but would not feel very purposeful.   Having worked in NGOs before, and grown up around academic/political circles, I realized that I get frustrated with the constant talk and the perceived lack of action.

More than that, though, after working in the corporate world, I realized that I craved more activity in my work life.  I desperately missed the connection I had with my students in Taiwan.  Even on one of my worst days, I didn’t mind getting up and going to school because something made me smile.  And so it was that I came to apply to library school.  It’s also why I decided to not pursue acupuncture as a full-time career, because it would mean not working with kids.

I then told my friend how my projects this semester had helped reassure me that I am on the right path.  It was such a tremendous rush of satisfaction knowing I’d created projects that the librarians needed and intended to use, and their gratitude more than made up for the hours of hard work and complaining I did while putting the projects together.   I put together projects that had usefulness, that will impact students in tangible ways,  something I struggled with as a speechwriter.  It was extremely hard,  wondering what, if any, greater purpose there was to what I was writing, if it really truly mattered beyond boosting the image of the company.

This path, the work I’m doing, it has meaning, and that means I made the right choice, and remembering that makes it easy to overcome those brief moments of envy.

Strength and Grace

(This is a departure from my usual content, but I feel like writing this entry to go along with my awesome friend Aly’s entry, which can be found here)

There’s a woman I know.  I’ve never had the privilege to meet her face to face, but over the years that I’ve known her online, I’ve been lucky enough to see displays of her intelligence, her wit, her compassion, and her kindness.

Over the last few weeks, life has dealt her an incredibly shitty hand, one that she did nothing to deserve.  She gave and loved and got nothing in return but pain and sorrow.   The things she’s been through?  Just one of them would be enough to send your average person into an emotional tailspin, burrowed under the covers, never wanting to come out.  But she goes on, her head held high in the face of everything that is being dished out at her.  She does not speak hate-filled words, though I’m sure she longs to.  She sacrifices her own feelings to ensure that her three beautiful children have happy memories for as long as they possibly can.  She endures it all in the hopes that one day, it will get better.

My friend, I know it will get better.  I am continually amazed by the way in which you reach out to others in need, regardless of your own pain.  I am amazed by the strength and grace you personify as you stand, resilient in the face of those who would knock you down.  You will triumph because you are strong, so unbelievably strong.  I admire you, I respect you, and I am honored to call you a friend.   You are one hell of a woman.

On Being a Minority and Multicultural Literature

I am rarely conscious of my minority status.  I’m just not.  Call it a blessing, privilege, whatever you want, but the fact remains that though my identity is important and does shape who I am, but it’s not a definitive part of me.

Yesterday, however, I became acutely aware that I was the only visible minority in the room, and my professor confirmed my thoughts, admitting that she wanted to seek my perspective on the topic of why multicultural literature is important but didn’t want to single me out, either, for being the token minority.    I appreciate her honesty, it’s just a very weird feeling to be so acutely aware of something that usually is not on my radar, and who would have thought it would crop up in children’s literature class, of all places.

But in some ways, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.  We discussed multicultural literature in class this week, and I found it mildly uncomfortable listening to a group of white women discuss vetting an author’s background to see if they (white authors) were creating authentic works of fiction concerning people of color.

Not only did this attitude make me uneasy, it also misses the point entirely of one of the articles we read for class, wherein the author summed up my thoughts on the matter quite nicely.  It’s not imperative that an author stick only to what they know, what they have experienced.  I don’t believe that for a moment.  However, it is important that the author has attempted to understand the culture/people they are writing about, that to paraphrase the author, they have gone inside that culture rather than writing solely from an outside perspective.

So that’s part of what’s on my mind after class today.

The other thing that I can’t stop thinking about is how surprisingly raw it felt as I spoke my feelings out loud to a class of peers who, I’m pretty certain, don’t understand firsthand, why I thought it was important to have multicultural books in the collection.   Maybe it’s because I’d just had a similar conversation over Thanksgiving with Julia, about how both of us felt frustrated by the lack of books that spoke to our experiences growing up not as immigrants adjusting to a foreign culture, but as Americans with two distinct, equal cultural identities.
Or maybe it had to do with my lack of sleep, but I found myself on the edge, emotionally, as I realized that as a child, there were no books written for me, or about me.  I read books about immigrants, books about Japanese-Americans living in internment camps, books about Jewish kids who identified first and foremost as Dutch or German or whatever and then as Jews, if at all, but there were no books that spoke to me, that told my story.

There were no books talking about what it’s like to have two cultural identities, nothing that reassured me that it was ok to feel confused, embarrassed, to want to fit in.  Nothing that taught me to be proud. I never read a book where the character’s ethnic or religious identity wasn’t somehow just a facet of who they were rather than being the predominant trait about them, and don’t you forget it.  I told my classmates that I genuinely believe that having access to these kinds of books would have helped me process and understand being different while being more or less the same, and attempted to convey how powerful an experience it was to get to college and find out that yes, in fact, there are plenty of books out there that talk about growing up South Asian in the diaspora.  The books I read in that class had a profound impact on me, but it took 19 years and a chance offering of a class in South Asian diasporic literature to realize that there were books written by adults, for adults, that talked about these experiences and conflicts.

But there remains nothing for kids.

And that, to me, is a big, big hole in contemporary children’s literature.  It’s not the only gap – two of the standard texts used to discuss gay parenting with humans as the protagonists, My Daddy’s Roommate and Heather Has Two Mommies are nearing 20+ years old.  The fact is, America, and by extension, our classrooms and communities are growing ever more diverse.  California will be a minority-majority state in less than forty years.  Now, more than ever, there is a need for quality children’s literature written for minority kids, not kids who’ve just arrived from a foreign country (though acknowledging their experiences is also important), but kids who are growing up here, who are American, but who straddle two or more cultural identities in their daily lives.

Those stories need to be told, but they haven’t, and it’s made me determined that, as soon as I think of a suitable plot line, I’m going to try to write such a book.  Someone needs to do it, so why not me?