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Multiculturalism education starts in picture books

By Heidi Wicks

Faculty of Education members Drs. Anne Burke and Roberta Hammett are working with a team of researchers from across the country to explore how pre-service teachers interrogate their own personal, professional and national identities through reading and responding to Canadian multicultural picture books. The initiative is 100 per cent SSHRC funded.

The researchers (who include Lynne Wiltse of Thompson Rivers, Joyce Bainbridge and Ingrid Johnston of University of Alberta, Angela Ward of University of Saskatchewan, Mary Clare Courtland and Ismel Gonzalez of Lakehead, and Teresa Strong-Wilson and Heather Phipps of McGill) define multicultural as an understanding of the diverse realities of modern Canadian society, whether that be through different religions, ethnic values, cultures, or sexual orientation.

“Issues of diversity are the subject of many picture books, and theoretically, both the visual and linguistic aspects both work together to convey the story. We’ve also tried to choose picture books that invite or provoke some question in terms of ideological positions,” Dr. Hammett said in a presentation to members of the Faculty of Education.

Many well-known children’s books were displayed around the room, such as M is for Maple, Mom and Mom Are Getting Married, and This Is My Land, which the researchers believe reference issues like racial discrimination, sexual orientation and residential schools.

Their research indicated that most teachers who are just starting their careers will steer away from topical or controversial issues in children’s literature.
One unidentified teacher claimed, “I don’t really want to open up that can of worms in my first year because parents could get offended. As I get more comfortable I may go there, and I’m not against gay people, I just don’t want to stir up trouble in my first year,” the teacher was referring to Asha’s Mums – a book dealing with same-sex marriage.

Dr. Hammett also discussed generative ways to promote political activity and social change with picture books.

“Marilyn Cochrane-Smith argues that the ways we have traditionally initiated students into the discourses and practices of teaching – especially through widespread versions of the lesson plan – are not likely to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse population of school children,” she said.

The team hopes to draw on data from pre-service teachers responses to Canadian picture books, in an attempt to tease out the intersections between lesson plans and planning, in order to promote social change.

Dr. Burke believes that while we like to believe that multicultural tolerance is being more accepted by the day, there is still a lot of work to be done.

"Multicultural tolerance often begins with the children in our classrooms and has not necessarily been discussed in the home,” she said. “It is important for teachers to understand fully the messages that many classic multicultural books are sharing. Teachers have an important role in helping students become a part of a generation that is accepting of all cultures and diversity.”