Interactions with Literature about Immigration and Middle Eastern Cultures
By Seemi Aziz
Jella Lepman, the founder of the International Board on Books for Young People, believed that children’s books are “the best ambassadors for world peace for the next generation” (Freeman & Lehman, 2001 p. 92). The significance of quality literature about global cultures as windows, doors and mirrors into various cultures is undeniable. However, lack of quality multicultural and global literature within classrooms became evident through my teaching of undergraduate and graduate courses at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater and my work in supervising first and second year teachers within the rural communities of Shawnee and Perkins. These experiences provided me with an opportunity to see the kinds of literature students were using within their class projects and teachers were using with their mostly White students. There was clearly a need for teachers and students in Oklahoma to become more aware of global cultures. Because of this need, this project involved introducing a rural and urban/rural school community in Oklahoma to books about Middle Eastern cultures and the Arabic language.
Four teachers from various grade levels within Stillwater and the adjoining Perkins school district were interested in including books about Middle East and undertaking a project that would introduce difficult issues into their classroom discourse. Two of the teachers, Jackie Iob and Melanie Bradley, were first grade teachers at a school within Stillwater. Their classes varied between 19-22 students and the project was undertaken as a whole class activity within an extension of a unit on immigration. Rhonda Hover is a Title I reading teacher, working with small groups of children who are struggling with reading in grades one to three. She generally keeps her groups at six students or less in order to preserve the effectiveness of the small group setting. For this project, she worked with a total of seven third graders who struggled both with reading fluency and comprehension. Both Melanie and Jackie, unlike Rhonda, worked with an ethnically diverse student population with home countries around the world, including Middle Eastern regions. Zeinab Mohammad is an elementary school teacher who at that time was between jobs. She was a native Arabic speaker who could work with the Arabic terms within some of the books. Furthermore, she worked as a coordinator and is the recorder of class proceedings.
The major goals of the group were to observe and record the responses of elementary school students to a book kit about Middle Eastern cultures and to expose two groups of first grade students and a group of ELL children to the books. The texts ranged from picture books and novels to informational texts. We intended to use literature discussion strategies and other activities once a week in one hour sessions within the three classrooms to observe student interest. We also wanted to know if the students’ knowledge of the regions/language shifted as we progressed through the semester. The groups participated in multiple activities that reinforced comprehension of new ideas and unfamiliar cultures to the students, including Venn diagrams, literature circles, and graffiti boards. We also used Smart Boards to look up the geographic regions represented in the books, specifically Morocco and Sudan. We based these interactions on the “Curriculum that is International” framework by Kathy Short (2007). The students were asked to explore their own cultures before they were exposed to the various texts from global cultures.
Edelsky (2004) lists multiple ways educators can think about and describe democratic classrooms. “Teaching for democracy. Democratic participation. Curriculum for democratic schooling. Democratizing our teaching. Democracy in classrooms [could mean] teacher-student relationships, curriculum, classroom organization, and so on” (p. 8). As we worked toward democratic classrooms, we used analyses of the audio and video recordings and teacher recollections of the interactions and the process of initiating the dialogues and leading the discussions to document student interest and shifts in students’ knowledge of the regions/language represented in the books. We noticed how effective the interactions were when students took responsibility for the content as well as the literature discussions. Student knowledge of and respect for the various regions and of the challenges faced by the immigrant characters in adjusting to Western communities also enhanced empathetic feelings within the groups, especially Rhonda’s group where the students responded to aspects of bullying in the texts. As a community we observed that literature presents human experience, and because of this “the reader seeks to participate in another’s vision—to reap knowledge of the world, to fathom the resources of the human spirit, to gain insights that will make his own life more comprehensible” (Rosenblatt, 1995, p. 7).
The world today is rapidly evolving as a powerful place where children are linked to people in numerous and multimodal ways. Educators need to realize that everyone belongs to a global community. ~According to Rosenblatt (1995),
Our schools and colleges must prepare the student to meet unprecedented and unpredictable problems. [She] needs to understand herself; she needs to work out harmonious relationships with other people. She must achieve a philosophy, an inner center from which to view in perspective a shifting society about her; she will influence for good or ill its future development. Any knowledge about humankind and society that schools can give her should be assimilated into the stream of her actual life (p. 3).
It was interesting to observe that the interactions and the resulting reactions brought an over-all enlightenment and empathy towards the characters in the books, even though there was ethnic diversity in two groups and the complete lack of it in the third. We came away from this experience with the realization that students are ready for thoughtful transactions with literature and are prepared to explore new knowledge and to wrestle with words through dialogue instead of merely walking on top of them (Freire, 2000).
Middle Eastern Culture Picture Books Used in the Project
Baker, J. (2010). Mirror. Somerville, MA: Candlewick.
Bunting, E. (2006). One green apple. New York: Clarion.
Heide, F. P. (1995). Sami and the time of troubles. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Khan, R. (2010). Big red lollipop. New York: Viking.
Knight, M.B. (1993). Who belongs here? An American story. Gardinder, ME: Tilbury.
Mobin-Uddin, A. (2005). My name is Bilal. Pennsylvania: Boyds Mills Press.
Mobin-Uddin A. (2007). The best Eid ever. Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills Press.
Winters, J. (2009). Nasreen’s secret school. New York: Beach Lane Books.
Winters, J. (2005). The librarian of Basra: A true story from Iraq. San Diego: Harcourt
Williams, K.L. (2009). My name is Sangoel. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s.
Edelsky, C. (2004). Democracy in the balance. Language Arts, 82(1), 8-15.
Freeman, E., & Lehman, B. (2001). Global perspectives in children’s literature. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Freire, P. (2000 Pedagogy of the oppressed (3rd ed.). New York: The Continuum.
Rosenblatt, L. (1995). Literature as exploration. New York: The Modern Language Association of America.
Short, K. (2007). Exploring a curriculum that is international. WOW Stories: Connections from the Classroom 1(2). Retrieved from http://wowlit.org/on-line-publications/stories/storiesi2/
Dr. Seemi Aziz is an Assistant Professor in Reading and Literacy at the Oklahoma State University. Her research interests are in multicultural and global children’s literature.