First Grade Explorations of Global Literature about the Middle East
By Jackie Iob
This vignette describes explorations with students that arose from a literacy community based in the U.S. state of Oklahoma. Please see Literature about Immigration and Middle Eastern Cultures by Seemi Aziz for an overview of this literacy community’s work.
The increasing diversity in the United States dictates that children need to be sensitive to cultural differences of individuals from varied backgrounds. Because they are in a formative stage of life, children are an ideal population with which to begin teaching about diversity. I used picture books to promote global awareness and sensitivity in my first grade classroom. Students were introduced to several books, including Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan (2010) and Mirror by Jeannie Baker (2010).
I teach in a Title I PreK–5th grade elementary school that has 520 students and is located in a small urban setting near a major state university. Within the district 43% of students receive free and reduced lunch, while in my school it is 90%. I have taught in a self-contained first grade classroom of six- and seven-year-olds for seven years. This year I had between 18 and 20 students throughout the year, fairly evenly divided among boys and girls. Students came from around the world, including Brazil, Mexico, Nepal, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. I began the year with two students who spoke only basic words necessary for survival in their new environment. My six English Language Learners received daily English language instruction. By the time we began the global literature activities, these students were able to follow along and participate in the lessons.
First, I read Big Red Lollipop (Khan, 2010) to the class. The following week we discussed what the students remembered about the story and shared text to self connections. They wrote about what was important to them about the story and broke into randomly selected groups to read the stories again together. Each group used one sheet of large paper to draw and write about their connections to the story. The main connections were about experiences with siblings when invited to a party or the excitement of being invited to a party. Although we had discussions about the hijab, Islam, languages and beliefs of cultures different from our own in weeks prior to reading this story, the students didn’t focus on multicultural issues in this book.
I was reluctant initially to let first graders read and discuss with each other in literature circles without my direct supervision. I worried that their interest might not be as great or they would have difficulty staying on task. There were some issues, but as I walked around and observed I was able to support each group as needed. The greatest issue within the small groups was holding the book in a position so that all could see. Even with second and third readings, the students were eager to see the pictures. Discussions before small group work helped readers remember what to do as they were reading. Group members were not hesitant to give reminders about keeping the book available for all to see. I was impressed with the attention given to those presenting the story.
As students continued their discussions and worked on expressing their understandings of the story, I noticed they were eager to pronounce character names correctly. They referred to the mother as ‘Ami’. Because we had a discussion about the meaning of ‘Ami’ I thought the students would refer to her as the mom or mother. I think the early exposure to diverse cultures has nurtured their awareness and acceptance of different names. I noticed that most groups recalled the names of the girls in the story and wanted to make sure they were pronouncing them correctly. Students in two groups asked other group members from different countries the correct way to pronounce their name in Mexico or Iraq. In our diverse classroom with five different cultures represented, my students are accustomed to hearing names that sound “different.”
At least one person from two different groups commented that a name doesn’t change just because a person moves to a different country. We had this discussion earlier in the year when I was sharing my experience living in Saudi Arabia. Someone asked if I had a Saudi Arabian name when I lived there. I believe this might have come up because a few students had discovered my first name on the parent newsletter. We had a fun and informative discussion about how your name doesn’t change because you move to a new country. We talked about how some people choose to change their name to fit into their new culture, but that is by choice. I read My Name is Bilal by Asma Mobin-Uddin (2005) and we talked about it again when we read My Name is Sangoel by Karen Lynn Williams (2009). Several students strongly expressed that you should be proud of your name, no matter where you are.
When reading Big Red Lollipop (Khan, 2010), the students noticed the mom wore a hijab, but it was not a main topic of discussion. My students see women wearing hijabs on a daily basis, so seeing this in the story was not surprising to them. Also, we read other stories where the hijab was present, as well as having several guests in our classroom who cover their hair and to whom students were able to ask questions. By the time we read Big Red Lollipop (Khan, 2010), their curiosity about this topic had been satisfied. When I asked what they wanted to write or draw about:
Joseph: I am writing about when she was chasing her sister around the living room.
Teacher: Why was that important to you?
Joseph: Because that’s what my sister does to me.
Teacher: Ok, so you had a connection there! What kind of connection was that?
Joseph: I had a text to self connection!
We had practiced text connections through think alouds and other comprehension strategies throughout the year. To hear this student and so many others share their connections was really exciting. I know that to help students become critical thinkers and deepen their understanding of texts read, they need to be able to make strong world connections.
Addy noticed that the title of the story was important because it was also a part of the story. She discovered that the title can help you look for something that might happen or be represented in the story. That seems like a simple thought but I think it was clever that she made that connection and was able to articulate it. It made me think more about how my students are thinking. Her group went on to draw the red lollipop because it looked so good. They decided to draw about the goodie bag because they thought that was the best part of going to a party.
Ethan noticed Ami did not know what a birthday party was. I asked what his group thought:
Ethan: Maybe she never went to a party.
Mario: Everybody goes to parties.
Noor: In my country, we have birthday parties. (Iraq)
Teacher: Why do you think Ami does not know what a birthday party is?
Noor: Maybe she just came to America and doesn’t understand it in English yet.
Others: I think that’s right!
As I observed a group discussing what they would write and draw about, Satich commented that he didn’t know “musical chairs” was a game used in other countries, he thought it was an American game. Satich came to the U.S. as a toddler. I think it is interesting that international students made connections beyond the scenes described in the book. Their reasoning reached into their background knowledge of places outside the U.S. Most have not returned to their home country since arriving in the United States, but have had a grandparent come to visit for an extended time.
After our work with Big Red Lollipop, I read Mirror (Baker, 2010). My first graders were given a brief introduction to this wordless picture book by reviewing the meaning of comparing and contrasting. The students made predictions about what they thought the story would be about based on the title and cover. I brought to their attention that the book had two types of writing on the cover and one student immediately shouted out that one of them is Arabic. When I asked what made him think that, he replied that Noor, a student who speaks Arabic at home, told him.
During our discussion, Anna predicted that a boy would walk down the street and find a mirror on the sidewalk and the kid will look inside and see different things. Allie thought that a girl would see a floating mirror in the sky, like it and take it home for a Christmas present but that her big sister would take it. I could see they were really digging to make predictions. I asked them to think about those predictions as we “read” the story. I then read the introduction to give them the background and how to use the book. They were fascinated with seeing two sides simultaneously.
Even though I told them the setting was Australia and Morocco, a few referred to the places as America and Iraq. The students made connections to the pictures and America and Iraq were the countries they were familiar with. We compared and contrasted the first page together. Someone noticed there were no words on the pages. How can we read a book with no words? Thankfully, Stacy remembered we had read wordless picture books earlier in the year, which lead to the importance of discussing what you notice when reading this type of book.
Abdul, a quiet boy from Saudi Arabia, wanted to show me he could read Arabic, but did not recognize the words. He did recognize some of the Arabic characters and was able to tell me some of the sounds he knew! The students were put in groups of three or four to discuss and record the similarities and differences of what stood out for them.
American students from one group surmised that people in “Iraq” live underground and people in America do not. Noor, who was born in Iraq, said there are no cars in Iraq, just donkeys and that buildings in Iraq are made of dirt but of bricks in America. Another group noticed that people in Australia ride horses and people in Morocco ride donkeys.
During the group work Noor came to me and said she felt two boys in her group were making fun of her country. They were looking at a picture of a covered woman wearing a veil and Joseph said that person is a robber. Upon further discussion I realized he actually said that person looks like a terrorist. I asked what that meant and he said he saw the label of terrorist on a picture in a book he bought. Looking back, I feel I put him on the defense. That was not my intention; I just did not want him to have the perception that people who wear veils should be labeled terrorists. He finally told me that a terrorist is a person who is Arabic and fights against our country. He also said that the person in the picture looked like he was stealing food. He thought the person in the picture was a man because of the masked face. It was actually a picture of a woman at a market. Noor told him that “sometimes we do that in our country” [Iraq], explaining the type of dress and that she thought the lady was waiting to pay for the things she had shopped for.
I explained that some Middle Eastern women dress this way due to culture and religion and that it does not mean they are terrorists. I explained they might have been influenced by television or conversation, but we shouldn’t make assumptions about all people. I realize I might have ruined the moment and broken down the discussion, but I did not want students to leave the group with negative perceptions. I told Joseph that he shouldn’t feel bad for thinking that way, but I needed to get that information across to him and the group members.
I also told the group that when we see things that are different from what we are used to, we should not make fun of the differences. Our class is fortunate that we have such diversity in our school and classroom. I asked, “What you do when you want to find out more about something you are unfamiliar with? What could you do to find out more about the people in the picture?” Joseph replied that we could ask questions.
He then asked Noor if people in Iraq ride in airplanes to which she replied – no! Dr. Aziz asked Noor where she was born and she replied that she was born in Iraq. She was then asked how she got to this country. Initially Noor said she didn’t know, and when she was informed she came to America on a plane, she said, “I don’t remember, I was only three!”
We finished the morning with students presenting their findings. In the end, the kids did a great job. I had issues with leaving them with one sided thoughts. I went back later in the day and showed current day pictures of both cultures in rural and urban settings. I think they were better able to compare and contrast. I also reminded them of the predictions they made and asked if they found them in the story. Ethan decided that none of those things happened, but he kept looking to see if someone’s big sister was taking away a gift. I reminded them that when you make predictions, it’s a guess based on what you already know and it’s ok if your predictions do not come true. Using predictions is a tool to help us make connections and understand what we read.
The majority of students were surprised to see that Morocco had modern cities that looked like American cities. We also talked about the difference in traditional and modern settings. Even though it was difficult for them to make the distinction between the look of Australia and America, the activity generated great discussion and definitely increased awareness and understanding of the cultures. The use of multicultural literature is so important in our classrooms. Classroom teachers must be innovative in finding ways to include all cultures in today’s diverse classrooms.
I am married to a naturalized American citizen. When our children were young and their grandparents or other relatives were coming to visit or when we were getting ready for a trip to my husband’s home country, we talked about the customs and cultures to increase their awareness and knowledge. Several of my students have talked about their grandparents coming to visit. I can imagine their parents engaging in similar activities with their children before the grandparents arrive. I believe those experiences, coupled with family discussions about their native country, has enriched their views of people, cultures and the world.
I believe we are challenged with the question of how to instill and enhance the skills among children that are necessary for them to interact effectively with individuals from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds (Holcomb-McCoy, 2003). Several scholars have pointed out that instilling multicultural sensitivity is an important part of helping children to develop a strong social competence, especially given an increasingly diverse society.
When I asked my students what was they liked or disliked about the stories we read, the greatest response was they had fun. Two mentioned it was cool to see pictures of another country in a book where their friend is from. Three girls in one group said they were happy to know they could still go to a birthday party if they moved to a new country!
Baker, J. (2010). Mirror. Somerville: Candlewick Press.
Holcomb-McCoy, C. (2003). Using multicultural literature to enhance peer helping training. Peer Facilitator Quarterly, 18, 45-48.
Khan, R., Mohammed, K (2010). Big red lollipop. New York: Viking.
Mobin-Uddin, A. (2005). My name is Bilal. Pennsylvania: Boyds Mills Press.
Richards, H., Brown A. & Forde, T. (2007). Teaching exceptional children. Council for Exceptional Children, 39 (3) 64-68.
Williams, K. (2010). My name is Sangoel. Cambridge: Eerdmans Books.
Jackie Iob taught first grade and is now a reading specialist in Stillwater, Oklahoma. She is currently working on her Master’s degree in Reading and Literacy at Oklahoma State University.