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Doig, Christalyn

Page history last edited by Christalyn Doig 2 years, 9 months ago




“The Issue of Cultural Diversity in the Classroom”

            America is a place of great diversity because of the variety of immigrants that have brought in different cultures, backgrounds and experiences in the population of America. A place that great diversity is especially seen in America is in the environment of the education system. Part of a teacher’s responsibility is to create a community of learners among their students in the classroom. One way that teachers have been using a solution to the diversity of the race issue is by bringing in literature that exemplifies different people and identities. There are many statistics out there that will show a majority of the teachers in America are white American females, and that the literature used in their classrooms are going to have 87% protagonists that identify as white and 13% that identify as other. (Teale, page 365). As America is growing more diverse, students searching for something to identify with becoming more difficult in the classroom. It is important for teachers to be educated themselves on knowing a variety of literature that they can bring into the classroom. This paper is to bring attention to two books from the same time period written by minority authors that express what life was like during oppression and why these books are great educational resources for the classroom.  Two minority authors that grew up during the Civil Rights Movement wrote their books from a childhood viewpoint which allows them to be used in the classroom because of the literary techniques involved, the historical references, and the relational situations, that are still challenges students face today, that the characters go through and how they overcome them.

          Two modern day authors wrote fictional stories that were influenced by their childhood experiences growing up during this time period of the Civil Rights Movement. The first author Jacqueline Woodson, wrote about herself as a fictional 10-year old girl growing up in South Carolina and New York. Her book is titled “Brown Girl Dreaming”. The second book, The Watsons go to Birmingham – 1963 written by Christopher Paul Curtis, is about a fictional 10 year old boy name Kenny that starts off growing up in the North but has a summer experience in the South during the Civil Rights Movement. By writing these books from a child’s point of view, the authors make large and sometimes frightening historic eras both manageable and relevant to a child reader.

            There are multiple challenges that the characters faced in both stories that are still very present in today’s culture, and seeing them from a child’s perspective is going to allow the student to feel more engaged when reading literature in the classroom. Both books touch on the topic of racism and mainly address this issue from the child’s perspective, specifically 10 year olds, but also make references to how adults felt during this time period. The issue of racism was actually seen more of a cultural thing during the life of Kenny. Racism was not an issue the family of the Watsons faced until they moved to the South, in Birmingham. Racism in this case brought about a couple cases of death which was a hard challenge Kenny had to face at a young age. These challenges taught the characters of Kenny and his brother, that the consequences hate can have, and that life is fragile and priceless. In the classroom, this piece of literature allows hard topics like hate and death to be a point of discussion allowing students a chance to open up and connect with each other their feelings towards the subjects.

            On the other hand, A Brown Girl Dreaming, racism is seen more of an issue that directly affects the life of a 10-year-old girl. For example, she is a girl whose family is affected by the challenges they face when trying to shop at certain stores. Her family chose not to shop at Woolworth’s in New York because of the way this store would treat the black customers poorly. “At the fabric store, we are not Colored or Negro. We are not thieves or shameful or something to be hidden away. At the fabric store, we’re just people. (pg. 54)”. In the classroom, the teacher could bring up the point of how the issue of racism would not affect people on a personal scale, but could also have a potential effect on business. Then this could lead into a discussion of examples of how businesses today are effected by laws against people of different groups.

            The idea of different groups is another challenge that both characters face in their stories because ultimately it is them struggling with their identity. In chapter two of the book Twenty-First-Century Feminisms in Children's and Adolescent Literature, written by Roberta Trites, the author discusses the topic of “intersectionality”, which is what the issue of racism falls under. This idea, also would include another issue that the character Jacqueline faces in her story, the issue of being a female. These two issues are considered to be instances of oppression. “Intersectionality” is the term used when two incidents of oppression come together. Something that is could heavily be discussed in the classroom today. Oppression does not necessarily mean that it is an issue of race or feminism but could also include sexuality, multiculturalism diversity and ability. A literature piece that contains two forms of dealings with oppression is especially beneficial in the classroom to be conversation starters to recognize a world of diversity and how to handle differences. The author concludes in her article that in order to really understand the character it is important to understand it in a multicultural context that allows for understanding of both the experiences of the character and their environment.

            During the age of 4th and 5th grade, a student is really going to be in search for their identity. Both of which is something that the characters face in these stories face. However, the trials that they face during their experiences and their environment is what is going to be used in order to help shape their identity. Trites discusses how Jacqueline questions who she is based off the oppression she goes through. She does not know who she is going to identify with, “The next poem identifies many historical figures whose Standpoint the narrator knows she shares: she is a brown girl critiquing white oppression. That poem describes a fluidity of subject positions that emphasizes multiplicity: she doesn’t know whether she will be like male leaders Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, James Baldwin, or like female leaders Rosa Parks, or Ruby Bridges, but she knows that her hands will be ‘ready / to change the world’ because her world needs to be changed.” (Trities, page 48) This is something that could definitely be referenced in the classroom as it would allow for discussion for the students to choose someone who they might identify with. They could research about this person, what did this person go through, and what is it about this person that makes them want to desire to be like them.

            Next, when discussing the concept of desire, it is often times something that is associated with a dream, which is also something that can related to a lot of 4th and 5th graders. They are continuing to develop that concept of dream and are now at the age where they can start doing something about it. In Jacqueline’s story, one obstacle she wants to overcome is how to accomplish her dreams. As mentioned earlier, the one dream she has to write her name by herself. This also shows a hint of individualism and independence which is a big theme in the book. Both of which are symbolic to what the African American is desiring during this time period. They want to be recognized as their own individuals and be able to have their own rights. According to Trites, Jacqueline is seen as someone who is taught to respect herself by her mother and does so because she is strong through literacy, writing and the creation of story. However, she also is seen reading a picture book but this picture book helps her in realizing what her dreams are, but her mom really tries to encourage her to read above grade level in order to push her. She replies that “I never could have believed that someone who looked like me could be in the pages of the book.” (pg. 228) Then she is told these words by a teacher who self-identifies as a feminist who believes in equal rights “Like Blacks, Ms. Vivo, too is part of a revolution…But right now that revolution is so far away from me. This moment I am saying to you, You’re a writer…Gather into one world where you decide what your world is and what your ending is going to be.” (Page, 319-320) This scene can be a huge take away for teachers just as it is students. Sometimes the teachers are going to be some of the biggest influencers on a student’s life, especially when it comes to helping them find their identity. As teachers it is going to be important to find the right balance in continuing pushing them in order for them to grow academically, but not doing so too much so that they do not lose interest in trying to be independent and accomplishing work and dreams on their own.  

            The second reason as to why it is important for teacher to be educated in a variety of multicultural literature is also recognizing the historical value that literature can hold. Birmingham, Alabama was an area of the country that plays a significant role in the fighting for Civil Rights movement. The main event that occurred in the story is the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing caused by the KKK. This church was a central meeting place for Civil Rights activities and the bombing was meant to stop the African Americans for fighting for their rights. However, this event had the opposite effect in helping push the movement forward. Teachers can use this as a reference point in discussing in the classroom the reasons behind this action and how it affected the movement. As mentioned before, this was a traumatic challenge Kenny faced during that time that affected him in searching for his identity because he had to learn how to deal with the event. This then allows the children to see a horrible historical event through the eyes of a child which makes it a little to grasp an understanding of the event.

In an article about an interview with the author, he expresses that while he did not personal go through the event himself, he did not enough research that gave him an idea of what it must have been like.  CPC: I always had an epilogue to the book, but originally it was my own epilogue. I had never been to Birmingham-in fact, I'd never been to the South before-and one of the things that really struck me in my research was an article in Life magazine from 1963. Right after the bombing they had pictures of the church, pictures of one of the little girls who was blinded by the bomb, and yet to me the thing that was most striking was a letter from a lawyer in Birmingham, a white lawyer, who went to his businessmen's club where he was scheduled to speak the week after the bombing, and he chose to speak about the bombing. He asked his colleagues, who's responsible for this bombing? And he said, we all are, any- body who's looked the other way when we've seen a black person mistreated. All of us have contributed to that. You know, it was just a beautiful, powerful piece. I had originally put that as the epilogue, but my editor said that they wanted something more that children could relate to-something that would tie it in more for children. n, and then we added the epilogue, giving a background to the Civil Rights Movement and the speech by the white lawyer who had spoken to the luncheon group and had chosen the bombing as his topic, which I thought was a tremendous act of courage. I wanted to say something about the people like him who were real American heroes-the people, both black and white, who put their lives on the line, who tried to make a difference. That's something that we hadn't seen before in American history, and we haven't seen it since that time. That era was very special in a lot of ways.”

This quote above, while long, really shows the historical intent behind the story. The next quote really then puts into perspective the author’s intent of the historical event that took place and allows the eyes of a child to see how this event affected him.


“CPC: I think that in situations when you're really scared or really badly hurt, your mind is so wonderful that it tries to cover up the pain for you. I broke my arm once so badly that the bone was sticking through, and, let me tell you, it hurt. And I've had things that have really scared me, too. Call it a release of endorphins if you will, but in those instances, it was as if my mind tried to protect me, and I thought that this would be Kenney's mind's way of trying to understand the situation, to rationalize what was going on.

PEM: Tell me about Kenny's second encounter with the squared toed monster figure of death in the Birmingham church.

CPC: Once again, Kenny goes to the church, and it's been bombed, and there's smoke all around, and the lights are flickering, and, in the strange flickering, the first thing he sees is a little girl's foot under the slab of concrete. His mind tries to protect him, and, as he tries to pull the shoe, thinking that it might be Joetta's shoe, he gets to thinking he's having a tug-of-war with the Wool Pooh-with his personification of death.”

Another historical artifact that is presented in both books is of historical figure, Martin Luther King Jr. who is famous for his “I have a dream speech”. This can quickly relate to the main character Jacqueline in “Brown Girl Dreaming”.  She is a young girl with big dreams for herself. However, the author of this book takes a different approach on the historical references in her story. Her references are more in little events of the book. Just like with King having big dreams for African Americans, Jacqueline has a big dream for herself in the beginning of the book and that is being able to write her own name (ch. 33). Another small example, there was a scene where the mom of Jacqueline chose to sit in the back of the bus so as to not cause a scene. This could be used as a reference point and teaching moment to discuss Rosa Parks.

 The last reason these books are good qualifications for the classroom is the reference of how many literary techniques they use. Learning the different figures of speech that writers us spans across many teaching objectives that teachers are required to teach literature in the classroom. “The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963” is a great educational tool that exemplifies different aspects of literary techniques. The first figurative language that the author Curtis used often was the usage of similes. There were many different ways that he used to describe an action that was taking place in the story, and then would give the reader an even bigger picture of what was going on by relating it to something that a young reader could relate to. For example, page 51 of Curtis’s book says “I bet we looked like the solar system, with me being in the sun and Byron being the orbiting Earth.” He was describing Kenny and Bryon circling each other on the porch before heading to school one day. Two other examples of this used back to back are “He looked like one of those ballerinas that dance just on the tips of their toes. Momma had her hand around his throat like it was a baseball bat and was holding him up in the air.” The use of an analogy is also used in the book, on page 57, there is a scene where a bully, Larry, takes Kenny’s gloves and then shoves snow in his face. The author describes this as a Maytag Wash. “With a Maytag Wash you had to go through all of the different cycles that a washing machine did.” A third figure of speech that is used is onomatopoeia on page 59 used multiple times, “Whack!”. 

            The book Brown Girl Dreaming uses a couple similar literary techniques as well as a few different ones. First, a simile is used in chapter 24 talking about how her feelings run like a river through her veins. Second, the author compares how the girl feels like she is drowning in circumstances around her and is an allegory to Noah’s Ark. Then continues to talk about how she has many questions just like she feels like Noah might have been going through while on the ark. Last, the usage in personification is seen in chapter 3. It talks about two rivers meeting together and one kind of circles back to the other one and the author describes this to be one saying “I’m sorry” to the other.

            Racism can be a hard concept to grasp, especially at the younger ages. As mentioned earlier, it is something that falls under the issue of oppression. Racism at the time period of the Civil Rights Movement could be something that can be compared to the issue of bullying which is mightily heavy in the school systems today. Going back to the challenges that the characters face, bullying is something that they also dealt with, whether it be because they are “smart”, as  in Kenny’s case, or because they are “black” as in Jacqueline’s case. Whatever it may be, they are situations that are real and heavy for students to understand. Teachers bringing in these kind of literature sources into the classroom will allow the opportunity to open up discussion in order to address this issue.

These stories of Kenny and Jacqueline hold other high educational values for many reasons. First the stories both come with easy to recognize literary devices that teachers can teach young writers, they can relate these stories to history, and ultimately these stories recognize obstacles young children face from a broad viewpoint. Both stories come from author’s worldviews of their childhood experiences finding their identity during the Civil Rights Movement that impacted how they were viewed and treated. These stories also heavily impact the kind of society that American is in today. Both deal heavily with the issue of racism that while it is a heavy topic, needs to be discussed in the classroom but must be done so delicately. Because their stories were written from a child’s perspective, the events of the time period allow the students a chance to identify with characters that make it seem like these events are relevant to the child reader. By combining fictional literature with fun activities in the classroom, teachers now have an opportunity through these books to create a community of diverse learners in the classroom. A community, that no matter what race the teacher is, no matter how big of a diversity is in the classroom, no matter gender, no matter the trials and heavy events they may face, the students learn how to build their identity despite all of this and become a respectable, loving person.



ANDERSON, W. (2012). The Presence of the Past: Iconic Moments and the Politics of Interviewing in Birmingham. In POTTER C. & ROMANO R. (Eds.), Doing Recent History: On Privacy, Copyright, Video Games, Institutional Review Boards, Activist Scholarship, and History T (pp. 139-154). University of Georgia Press. Retrieved from

Asch, C. (2013). “The Movement Is in You”: The Sunflower County Freedom Project and the Lessons of the Civil Rights Past. In Crosby E., Cunningham D., Favors J., Hamlin F., Hogan W.,

Crowe, C. (2003). Young Adult Literature: Reading African American History and the Civil Rights Movement. The English Journal, 92(3), 131-134. doi:10.2307/822281

Cruz, B., & Duplass, J. (2009). Making Sense of "Race" in the History Classroom: A Literary Approach. The History Teacher,42(4), 425-440. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40543494

Curtis, C., & Morgan, P. (2002). History for Our Children: An Interview with Christopher Paul Curtis, a Contemporary Voice in African American Young Adult Fiction. MELUS, 27(2), 197-215. doi:10.2307/3250608

SCIURBA, K. (2011). "The Wrong Things About Literature" Invisibility and African American Texts. Curriculum Inquiry, 41(1), 126-131. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41238074

TRITES, R. (2018). INTERSECTIONALITIES AND MULTIPLICITIES: Race and Materiality in Literature for the Young. In Twenty-First-Century Feminisms in Children's and Adolescent Literature (pp. 31-58). Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv5jxnst.6


Comments (3)

Tessa Saiia said

at 4:11 pm on Feb 19, 2019

I feel like after reading this you have more than one theme going here. I see one about dreams/ interpreting dreams and another on religion. Maybe try an focus on one and take out what isn't as necessary.
You have a great story but I think you need to hone in on One Specific topic

Tessa Saiia said

at 10:06 pm on Feb 22, 2019

Great Changes, You really condensed it in a brilliant way!

Emma Hyatt said

at 3:09 pm on Apr 4, 2019

Looks really well! Good job!

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