Make di­ver­sity a two-way street in class­rooms

Austin American-Statesman - - BALANCED VIEWS - Es­ther­j­cepeda@wash­post.com

It’s “Too Many Tamales” sea­son in se­lected class­rooms across the coun­try. The book, a con­tem­po­rary clas­sic writ­ten by Gary Soto and il­lus­trated by Ed Martinez, tells the story of Maria, a young girl who loses her mother’s di­a­mond ring as she and her fam­ily pre­pare tamales for their big hol­i­day feast.

I dis­cov­ered it with my class of first-graders when I taught English-lan­guage learn­ers in a lo­cal ele­men­tary school. Un­for­tu­nately, though ev­ery grade level in our school reads many of the same books to cre­ate a shared cul­ture, only my class ex­pe­ri­enced “Too Many Tamales.” As the hol­i­days ap­proached, the rest of the school read more “tra­di­tional” hol­i­day books. Those stu­dents lost out.

Sort of like how my stu­dents would have missed out on most of the themes the rest of their grade was in­volved in had I not in­sisted that the bilin­gual stu­dents be in­cluded in the gen­eral cur­ricu­lum. The “main­stream” teach­ers thought this was bizarre. “Why are you teach­ing your class about Flat Stan­ley, Ju­nie B. Jones, Hanukkah and Chi­nese New Year?” they’d ask in­cred­u­lously. As if His­panic stu­dents couldn’t pos­si­bly be ex­pected to learn about the same topics as the other first- graders with­out a moun­tain of “cul­tur­ally cor­rect” learn­ing ma­te­ri­als.

And that’s my beef with the hand-wring­ing and op-eds in­spired by a re­cent Page One story in The New York Times, “For Young Latino Read­ers, an Im­age Is Miss­ing.” The premise was that His­panic stu­dents, who make up about a quar­ter of the pub­lic school pop­u­la­tion in Amer­ica, are be­ing short­changed be­cause they don’t “see” them­selves in books writ­ten for young read­ers.

Well-mean­ing as this ar­ti­cle was — who could pos­si­bly ar­gue that all chil­dren shouldn’t feel in­cluded in their school ma­te­ri­als? — it rang alarms about some mis­guided yet pre­vail­ing at­ti­tudes in ed­u­ca­tion when it comes to read­ing, di­ver­sity and in­clu­sion, and mi­nor­ity stu­dents.

First, why aren’t we equally wor­ried that non-His­panic stu­dents get lit­tle ex­po­sure to books writ­ten by His­panic — or Asian, black and Na­tive Amer­i­can — au­thors or in­clud­ing such characters? Aren’t they as harmed by not read­ing the types of books the Times’ ar­ti­cle sug­gests Latino stu­dents need?

And why, ex­actly, is this no­tion that “cul­tural rel­e­vance” is the key to read­ing progress so preva­lent, espe- cially when the con­ver­sa­tion cen­ters on His­pan­ics, when there’s really no ev­i­dence to sup­port it?

As Brice Par­ti­celli, di­rec­tor of the Stu­dent Press Ini­tia­tive at Teach­ers Col­lege, Columbia Univer­sity, told me, “This prob­lem is real — there is not a great enough di­ver­sity of texts in schools, and eth­nic­ity is one of those pieces that’s ab­so­lutely lack­ing.

“But it’s mis­stated: The prob­lem is not a lack of Latino texts in Latino class­rooms, it’s a lack of di­ver­sity — of cul­ture, gen­der, eth­nic­ity, econ­omy, ge­og­ra­phy, genre, per­spec­tive and chal­lenge to fa­mil­iar­ity — in all books in all class­rooms.”

I con­tacted Par­ti­celli af­ter read­ing his let­ter to the ed­i­tor of the Times mak­ing the same point I feel so strongly about. “Sug­gest­ing the pair­ing of Latino characters to Latino stu­dents is deeply prob­lem­atic,” he said. “Fur­ther, pos­ing the is­sue as one solely about eth­nic­ity sug­gests that Latino read­ers need Latino writ­ers more than white or Asian read­ers do. We all need a di­ver­sity of texts.” Amen! Other re­ac­tions have been just as strong. Some have been from Latino au­thors of chil­dren’s books such as Maya Christina Smith-Gon­za­lez, who warns educators not to fall prey to the stereo­typ­ing that leads to an over­abun­dance of “fi­esta and tamale books.”

I thought of this when I read a teeth-grind­ing quote from a teacher in the Times’ ar­ti­cle: “It would be more help­ful as a teacher,” she said, “to have th­ese go-to books where I can say, ‘I think you are go­ing to like this book. This book re­minds me of you.’”

If a teacher gave me a tamale book and said that to me, I’d be crushed. You see, as much as my par­ents en­joyed them (bought from a store on spe­cial oc­ca­sions), I don’t eat tamales and I’ve never even come close to mak­ing them. Frankly, I don’t want any­one to look at me and think of eth­nic food. We are all far more than piero­gies, ta­cos or fried rice.

Los­ing valu­ables such as a ring, though — who hasn’t done that? If a teacher tried to re­late to me with a book about such a uni­ver­sal ex­pe­ri­ence, it would be down­right hu­man. And isn’t this how all chil­dren want to be treated?

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