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Could Newfoundland culture be too strong?

Researchers study the importance of multicultural education through picture books


From left, Drs. Roberta Hammett and Anne Burke pose with one of the books from their study, Multiculturalism in Picture Books.


By Heidi Wicks

Few would dispute that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians know exactly who they are and where they came from. But are we so absorbed in our own culture that we fall short when considering societal groups outside of our own?

In today’s world, multicultural awareness amongst youth is more significant than ever. Whether it’s a multi-racial family, a same-sex couple, or a child in a different socioeconomic class, recognition of different walks of life is an essential lesson for elementary school-aged children.

Dr. Anne Burke and Dr. Roberta Hammett of Memorial’s Faculty of Education are taking the necessary steps to ensure that these lessons become mandatory in school curriculum.

They have recently concluded the initial phase of the Multicultural Picture Book Study with scholars from five other universities across Canada. Their objective is to determine pre-service teacher’s perspectives on the use of multicultural children’s literature in the classroom.

“We specifically looked at Canadian authors of multicultural children’s literature, teacher’s understanding of multicultural literature, and how it could be brought into the classroom,” Dr. Burke explained. “(The study) presented many different factors such as access to particular multicultural books, and encapsulation - meaning that sometimes children and even teachers who aren’t exposed to diverse cultures may not see the value in integrating these books into curriculum.”

Dr. Burke explained that on a provincial level, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians’ strong connection with identity could actually present a barrier between understanding other cultures.

“We discovered that Newfoundlanders don’t necessarily connect themselves with the idea of being Canadian,” she said. “Our culture and identity is celebrated greatly, and in our curriculum you see a lot of attention given to what it means to be a Newfoundlander, and that’s a great thing.”

Too much of a good thing?

Dr. Burke also said that our detailed knowledge of our own identity could actually be the reason why some pre-service teachers struggled with some of the narratives of the books.

“They couldn’t really relate to the cultural experience outside of their own identity. They wanted more of an understanding of how to use the literature,” she said.

The overall finding was that there is not enough offered in Memorial University’s undergraduate program on multicultural education to prepare teachers for the diversity that is happening in the province.

Considering globalization and our rapidly changing world, multicultural literature is one way to bridge the gap. Dr. Burke and Dr. Hammett aim to make some of the books studied a staple in elementary school curriculum.

“Besides the books,” added Dr. Hammett, “I think that by helping the pre-service teachers reflect on their own ideology and identity, and their knowledge and intentions regarding pedagogy, we were helping them re-think the kind of teacher they’ll become, or how they might contribute to a different culture within a school.”

Dr. Burke and Dr. Hammett’s research is supported by the province’s recent declaration of the multicultural policy.

“The school district and Department of Education are taking an interest in multicultural education, because they see the changing demographic here in Newfoundland and Labrador,” said Dr. Hammett.

Dr. Burke and Dr. Hammett have recently published a book of essays, titled Assessing New Literacies: Perspectives from the Classroom, which explores what it means for classroom teachers to assess the use of new literacies, including reading and writing online, social networking, gaming, multimodal composing, and creating virtual identities.

Dr. Hammett has just received a SSHRC grant for her research, in collaboration with Dr. Deborah Toope of the Eastern School District, Integrating Digital Technologies and Resources in English Language Arts.

The research team is currently seeking additional SSHRC funding, in order to continue with their work on Multiculturalism in Picture Books.
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