Reflection: The Truth About Multicultural Literature Through the Eyes of an Enlightened Educator

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Carly Zenk Vadney, 10.1 Multicultural Lit Reflection


The Truth About Multicultural Literature Through the Eyes of an Enlightened Educator
After my 16 years of education, I am just now realizing the influence multicultural literature has within a classroom and the effects it has on peoples’ perspectives that begin at such a young age. My previous experience was similar to most young children in this country, reading stereotypical Indian stories with the same motifs such as feathers, tomahawks, teepees, and war paint and the majority of other characters being white middle-class. Whatever I read became my truth. I trusted the authors, my teachers, and the books that were selected for me to read. This is what I knew for most of my life, and only during my college and graduate school years am I finally opening my eyes to the TRUTH about multicultural literature. The reason I am able to open my eyes now is because I am in charge of 25 students who depend on me, and trust what I share with them through the literary experiences in our classroom. The truth about multicultural literature is revealed through the debate on the meaning of multicultural literature, issues of authenticity of texts, and the availability of multicultural literature to use in our classrooms.

First, and foremost the ongoing argument of: what is multicultural literature? It depends on whom you ask. In reading Cai’s article, there are typically 3 ways to think about multicultural literature: “Multiple + culture = multicultural literature” (the more cultures represented, the more diverse the literature), “Multiculturalism should focus on people of color” (focus on race primarily), and “All literature is multicultural literature,” (everyone has a culture to represent). (Cai, 313-320). This is a tricky subject because how can some groups of people have precedence over another group of people? But at the same time, you cannot represent every single difference between people including all races, religions, gender, age, sexual preference, ethnicities, social class, etc. The question is, where do you draw the boundaries on what multicultural literature is? People have used the terms “multicultural literature” freely as we see fit. But what groups of people fit this mold? Who creates this category? Some critics argue that we should focus mostly on the racial differences and issues within our country. As Bishop stated, “I choose to focus on literature by or related to people of color. This is because I believe that race- or color- is one of the most- if not the most- divisive issues in this society.” (Bishop, 3) On the other hand, Cai argues that, “to include every culture, the curriculum would not only be unmanageably large but also miss the ultimate goal of multiculturalism.” (Cai, 318). Johnson discusses the diversity within groups including culture, language, religion, social class, age, exceptionality, and family structure as areas included within multicultural literature. (Johnson, 306). It is up to the educator to make those literary decisions for his or her students.

The goal of multicultural literature is another element that coincides with the meaning of multicultural literature. Cai states that the goal of using multicultural literature is to achieve “diversity and equity in education.” (Cai, 318). Bishop discusses how multicultural literature can bring educational reform for all students in that when students “are exposed exclusively to literature in which they see reflections of themselves and their own lives, they are miseducated to view themselves and their lives as “normal,” to interpret their own cultural attitudes and values as “human nature,” and to view other people and other lives as exotic at best, and deviant at worst.” (Bishop, 3-4). Our students need to be able to see multiple cultures, including their own, within the various genres we read. So where does an educator stand when it comes to defining multicultural literature? As the multiple definitions for multicultural literature exist and the goals are set, educators need to see through their students’ perspectives. As educators, we need to represent various cultures in a consistent manner, allowing our students to be exposed to discussions of cultural differences, not just learn about other cultures here and there within the school year. We cannot just bring out African American literature during “Black History Month” or Native American literature during Thanksgiving time. The inconsistency of using multicultural literature in the classroom is what makes students think that there is a “normal” type of literature and that there is the “other” type of literature. As an educator, I see multicultural literature as a tool to enrich students’ viewpoints and perspectives through various cultural texts, and these texts are not limited to only race. Within our group’s conversation on “Multiple Definitions of Multicultural Literature, group member Lindsey Reeves stated, “ Any time I use [multicultural texts] for lessons it is to teach my students how to be more open and accepting of others so that when they grow up, everyone is heard and understood. Our students are our futures, so if we teach them from a young age, then who says we won’t begin to live happily together with people of different cultural backgrounds.” As this is an idealistic viewpoint, this should be every educator’s goal.

Along with the definition of multicultural literature, another important topic of discussion is the issue of authenticity within texts. Whether that be authenticity of a culture or authenticity of the genre of text, accuracy within a story is crucial to its use in a classroom. Culturally speaking, there has always been a debate whether an author has to be an “insider” within a culture to be able to write authentically. Many critics have commented on this heated debate. Reese restated, “A Native person who has grown up and/or lived in the context of tribal society knows that Indians are just “people” and are less likely to portray Natives as heroic or mystical individuals. Access to relatives and knowledge that comes from being raised among Native people means that their writings will accurately reflect the tribe they write about.” (Reese, 159). Harris questions authentic texts written by non-Natives when she stated, “How many authors are likely to have an understanding of the “Other” that does not stem from media stereotypes, pseudo-science, or well-intentioned paternalistic writers?” (Harris, 116). It seems that many people lean toward believing that a Native member of a culture has a major advantage over the non-Native writer. In our discussion group’s “Bowman’s Store” conversation, we were discussing how authors can write within their own culture because they had actually lived that life, and had experienced the emotions that went along with being a part of that culture. Especially in historical fiction, in order for an author to have written a successful story he or she needs to be able to combine the historical facts, their vision of meaning, and the fictional story surrounding the historical elements. (Johnson, 206). This leads into the comparison of Joseph Bruchac and Beth Kanell regarding their Native American literature and authenticity.

Joseph Bruchac is a well respected, recommended author who focuses on Native American literature. He is an author that grew up with the Abenaki ways, as was told in his autobiography, “Bowman’s Store.” Within this autobiography, we see Bruchac as a relatable child that eventually comes to encompass his Abenaki culture, as taught to him by his grandparents. He is knowledgeable about his natural surroundings, as his grandfather had taught him, with the experiences to write valid stores of Abenaki people. Bruchac even describes how he was exposed to the stereotypes of Native Americans through literature and the media when he was little, leading him to not recognize that he is actually Abenaki himself. Bruchac has the prior knowledge, vision, and historical facts to write his works such as “Hidden Roots” and “The Faithful Hunter” without having to fact-check. He knows the stories from his culture that have been passed down. He has felt the feeling of having to be fearful of other people when Native Americans were discriminated against. Because of his life experiences, Bruchac is supported by Native American critics, including Reese, as she stated, “All Bruchac’s books are recommended as sources with accurate information from a Native American perspective. His work has been well received within the Native American community and by critics outside of the Indian community.” (Reese, 170). As discussed in our conversation group in the “Bowman’s Store” board, we believe that it makes perfect sense that someone who has truly lived within a culture would be able to write fluidly about that culture. The same goes for many authors, as authors are constantly writing all types of genres based on their own life experiences. The point here is that there are so many factors that contribute to a historical fiction or realistic fiction text being authentic. Issues of accuracy, connection to cultures, understanding of a time period, relationships with a group of people, and research by talking with others are all needed to write a successful text. Joseph Bruchac has been proven to be authentic throughout his career. He is able to complete his story telling through an understanding, experienced lens. In the collection of stories within The Faithful Hunter, Bruchac uses traditional literature elements such as trickery, magical (in this case more spiritual) happenings, and teaching an important lesson. At the same time, he is accurate and knowledgeable about his Abenaki heritage in using the animal characters, connections with nature, and messages about the importance of nature. This combination of literary elements and Native American cultural references gives The Faithful Hunter that nod of authenticity. Bruchac also has written culturally authentic novels including Dark Pond and Hidden Roots. These novels are written professionally as fictional pieces, but also use elements of Abenaki culture truthfully, as Bruchac has lived through many of the elements we see in these stories. His characters are not stereotypical Native Americans with a headdress, drums, and face paint. These are normal people/children in circumstances of everyday life. Sonny is faced with family struggle, and the journey to find his culture as read in Hidden Roots. Of course, we see these characters’ lives through their Abenaki heritage, as we would see any character’s life through their heritage. The portrayal of character actions, feelings, and reactions are what make Bruchac’s texts authentic and supported. Elements of historical and realistic fiction are found in Hidden Roots, as we notice the strong character development, credible and engaging plot, strong writing style, detailed and believable setting, and a relevant theme. (Johnson, 215) In The Dark Pond, the reader makes connections along with Armin as he deals with the hardships of the teenage years and the issue of busy parents, which are issues any person faces within their life. He is a genuine Native American teenager within this “horror” tale. The depictions of the Native American people are positive representation of the modern Native American. We need to see past the stereotypical, or “traditional” version of the Native American person, as Bruchac tries to encourage through his works. As Reese put it, “the greatest need at this point in time is for more books that provide a contemporary perspective of Native American people, particularly Native American children.” (Reese, 181)

On the opposite side of the spectrum, we have Beth Kanell’s novel, Darkness in the Water. At first read, I admit I thought this text would be authentic at the mere fact that Joseph Bruchac was the writer of the Introduction. Again, I trusted the author whole-heartedly, as I have in the past. In our first discussion of this novel, our group said things like, “I thought Beth Kanell did a nice job not using stereotypes within the text” and I, myself, said “This novel made me passionate about the struggle of the Abenaki people, especially when I read how they had to hide who they are. I want to take this passion and have my students feel it as well in an age-appropriate way.” We had no idea, as most readers who do not have background knowledge of the Abenaki people, that this novel was criticized and that there are heated debates about its authenticity. If I had never read the articles and blogs by Reese, Seale and Dowe, and Slapin discussing this text, I would have gone on thinking this novel was a good representation of the Abenaki people. The question remains- can an author write authentically about a particular culture other than their own, especially when working with historical fiction and cultural elements? In Seale and Dowe’s article it was stated that “If Kanell had created characters who were authentic for the time and place and subject matter; if she had left out the graphic and gratuitous brutality; if she had chosen to make appropriate use of Nancy Gallagher’s material, whose work she cites; if she had understood—or cared—how tragic the Eugenics Survey has been for an entire nation of people; if she had shown any comprehension of what it has meant to be Abenaki in Vermont; even with her stilted, cliché-ridden writing, had she even chosen just to tell truths, she could have been forgiven.” These are the major inaccuracies within this novel that, as a reader, I saw right past. Especially in reading historical fiction, readers must be aware of any exaggeration or misuse of historical references. As our group member Samantha Ulrich stated, “I thought about what was acceptable as historical FICTION and what was acceptable as HISTORICAL fiction, but you need both, and with Kanell's text it was definitely heavy on the fiction and limited on the historical aspect.” We need to look at both the historical and cultural elements within a text to define its authenticity. As described in Denise Johnson’s The Joy of Children’s Literature, “[historical fiction stories] are realistic in the sense that they are possible- the setting is authentic, the characters could have or did exist, and the plot is at least believable if not true to life.” (Johnson, 207). In doing research about text authenticity, we can then confidently know if the setting is authentic and if the cultural elements ring true.

Beth Kanell was an “outsider” writing about a different culture in a time where that particular culture was heavily discriminated against. But, it wasn’t just the fact that she was an outsider that she was critiqued. The focus on the novel itself was off-putting because the reader has trouble knowing what to focus on: Molly’s internal teenage angst or the cultural “references” that are spread throughout the plot? As our group member, Lindsey Reeves mentioned, “It seems like [Kanell] was jumping around trying to include history, and culture, and the story of a young girl.” The focus was not on the culture, and when it was trying to reference the Abenaki culture, the aspects of the culture were incorrect anyway. Another point in our group’s conversation about outsiders vs. insider authors, we revisted the question- can “outsider” authors be authentic enough? I’m sure there are texts out there that will validate this question, but we believe that it takes an extreme amount of extra research to even come close to the level of knowledge an “insider” would already have. As I had stated within our group discussion, “You almost have to over-research to get a full picture of a culture before thinking you know enough.” Is this what it takes to pass the critics? If this is the case, “outsider” authors need to realize the interrogating light that will shine on their culturally reflective works.

What about the teacher’s perspective? As a group, we discussed our frustrations as educators. How are we to know what is authentic and supported each time we read a text within our classroom? Do we need to research every single text for authenticity? In knowing resources such as Oyate’s guidelines to determine authenticity of a text, we can study each text to know whether the text is a positive influence in our students’ lives. Yet, this is just one resource on how to decipher authenticity. I completely agree with Reese’s strategy that “teachers should continue to select both fiction and nonfiction Native American books to use in their classrooms, as should endeavor to select those recommended by individuals who are knowledgeable about Native culture. (Reese, 179). As a group, we realized how large of a responsibility we have as teachers to pick and choose our multicultural literature. As group member Samantha Ulrich stated in our discussion about truth in text, “ I am thankful and feel much more equipped now after this unit and the resources like Oyate’s guidelines for quality Native American Literature, but feel I may still struggle with knowing what is stereotypical or not when looking at a book with Native Americans or especially other cultures that I do not have as much prior knowledge or background about either. I wonder if publishing companies and the media will ever truly use people’s opinion and analysis from these native cultures and have it effect whether or not they publish or create something that is not true to the native culture.” This brings up a major responsibility of the publishers as well. Will the publishers ever see past the money making stereotypical stories and find stories to market that are actually authentic? Or, is the entire responsibility on the reader or educator? People are already not being exposed to much multicultural literature, so with a reader having to research the authenticity of a text, find the text, and then read the text with trust in the author- will people take the time to do this? Or, will these people take what is already available on the library shelf? This is where us, as educators, found a wall. Yes, we have learned how to find truth in Native American literature, but what about other cultures? What is next in learning about authenticity of literature?

One last discussion point about the issues of truth is the truth about our society today regarding viewpoints on multicultural literature. I believe this is one of the most important truths to discuss of all. What really is society’s perspective on multicultural literature? In beginning this unit about Native American literature, I was searching for the multiple novels we were to read, including Joseph Bruchac’s works and Beth Kanell’s novel. I just assumed the many locally libraries available to me would have these texts. To my confusion and frustration, only two of these texts were available in the multiple libraries in my area: Hidden Roots by Joseph Bruchac and Darkness in the Water by Beth Kanell. What does this say about our view of multicultural literature? I am specifically searching out multicultural titles, and I have to have my local librarian search far and wide to find a copy in the state of Michigan. Some of these books were not even available except at universities and they were denied checkout. This was my first impression of this category of literature- it is very challenging to find. After reading the article by Violet Harris, I began to make the connections to my confusions as she stated, “Business trends affect the availability of multicultural issues.” (Harris, 116) Others factors are due to the merges and downsizing that are ending in fewer books that are labeled multicultural will be published, publishers wanting to reproduce books that sell, and the need for marketing. (Harris, 117). This begins to explain the trouble I had even finding these texts to begin with. If they are hard to find in multiple public libraries, how can we expect these titles to be in our local schools or our classroom libraries? This leads up the issue of mainstream literature. With publishers being the deciding factor of what books they promote through their companies, of course their eye is on the prize: profits. Stereotypical pieces of work are still being sold today, despite their inaccuracies and depictions of various cultures. Their popularity outweighs the fact that they are spreading stereotypes throughout our schools and classrooms. Reese had also discussed the issues of Native American literature having to be published through small publishing houses. What this leads to is when librarians or teachers trying to purchase these authentic texts, the are possibilities of order cancellations (due to slower distribution speeds) and these texts are usually not working with the suppliers of the books school typically use. (Reese, 164). All of these factors influence the “truth” within our society’s view of multicultural literature. WHY is it STILL difficult to find authentic texts for our school use? Why are there so many hoops to jump through to finally have powerful literature for our students to read year-round? On another note, I can see many teachers being hesitant or simply afraid to use multicultural literature in their classrooms because they are not familiar enough with the various cultures to teach with them. This is another truth revealed in our society as well. Not only do we have a very difficult time finding and purchasing multicultural literature for our schools, but even if we do have it, are teachers comfortable using it in their classrooms? Is the truth that our society is hiding from cultural exposures? Is the truth that our society is holding back because of the unknown? I almost see a cycle happening here. Teachers are unable or uncomfortable using multicultural literature, therefore students are never exposed enough to various cultural issues. Following that, students grow up with limited prior knowledge of cultural differences, which fuels the discrimination and fear of the unknown yet again. The next generation of teachers is still unsure of discussing other cultures due to their lack of experience with other cultures, and the cycle repeats. I know this sounds negative, but isn’t it?

As for the teacher’s perspective, as an elementary teacher in the early portion of my career, I now feel a weight on me to find change. I notice this cycle and gaps in our education when it comes to the exposure of multicultural literature in our classrooms. It is up to the individual teacher to change his or her own classroom literature experience first. From there, the hope for change can grow and spread throughout the school, into the district, and hopefully beyond. As Lindsey Reeves mentioned in our final group discussion, “What we can do as teachers is get this all across to our students at a young age so eventually our country will be ready to say we have equality within literature.” Teachers are huge tools and advocates to get this discrimination out of our society, and we can begin through exposure, literature, and discussion. My goals now are: 1.) to have authentic, recommended multicultural literature readily available for my classroom use, 2.) to enrich students’ lives and perspectives about issues of culture through text and discussion, and 3.) to have my students have that global knowledge and recognition for various cultures. This sounds like a big job, because that is exactly what it is.

The question was about truth. Where is this truth? I find truth in authentic multicultural texts. I find truth in including multiple groups within what I call multicultural literature. I find truth in the desire for change when it comes to mainstream literature and our societal views. What is truth? The truth is, we have work to do in our educational system when it comes to deepening our students’ understanding of cultural issues. We also have work to do as a society in being able to recognize authentic texts, make them available, and to let go of the hesitation of using multicultural literature in our everyday classrooms. Literature is a gateway into molding our students’ minds. If we are only sending a particular literature into that gateway, then that is all students will be able to receive. Teachers are the mechanism to change minds and to squash stereotypes. That needs to be our new truth as professionals who care about out students’ future as well as our country’s future. As discussed in our last group conversation, “I would love to be able to say that our country is ready to say we have equality within literature, but we are no where near being able to say there are no more inequalities, prejudices, or discrimination.” Education uses stories and stories are power. We need to use that power for change.

Bishop, Rudine Sims. (1997). “Selecting literature for a multicultural curriculum.” Using multiethnic literature in the K-8 classroom. Violet Harris, ed. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon Publishers.
Bruchac, J., & Comport, S. W. (2004). The dark pond. New York: HarperCollins.

Bruchac, J., & Ka-Hon-Hes (1988). The faithful hunter: Abenaki stories. Greenfield Center, N.Y: Greenfield Review Press.

Bruchac, J. (2004). Hidden roots. New York: Scholastic.

Bruchac, J. (2001). Bowman's Store. Canada: Lee & Low Books.

Cai, Mingshui. (1998). Multiple definitions of multicultural literature: Is the debate really just "Ivory Tower" bickering? The New Advocate 11, 4 (Fall)

Kanell, B. (2008). The darkness under the water. Cambridge, Mass: Candlewick Press.

Harris, V. (1996). Continuing Dilemmas, Debates, and Delights in Multicultural Literature. The New Advocate, V.9, No.2.
Johnson, D. (2009). The joy of children's literature. (2 ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Oyate, How to tell the difference,
Reese, Debbie A. and Caldwell-Wood, Naomi. (1997) "Native americans in children's literature" in Harris, V. J. (Ed.) Using multiethnic literature in the K-8 classroom. Norwood: Christopher Gordon, Inc.
Seale and Dow. (Essay)

Also Referenced:

Various Group Discussions within “Discussion Groups 6” for TE 849

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