This guest post by Susan Bennett-Armistead, author of our My World informational texts, is part of an ongoing series in which she discusses informational text and its benefits and uses, and gives tips on teaching in a preschool and early elementary setting. Check back regularly to catch her next post—you can also read her earlier work here!
How Informational Text Can Help You Enrich Your Diverse Classroom
I recently came back from a trip to an African country. While I was there, I had occasion to visit a few shops. I discovered that it was impossible to find a doll with dark skin. All the dolls were white. In a country where the population is 99% black, a child could never find a doll that looked like him. What message does that send about what is valuable and desirable? It got me thinking about how we represent diversity in our own country.
Many of us have designed our classrooms to be more responsive to the variety of diversity represented by the children in our program. The National Association for the Education of Young Children’s accrediting process as well as individual programs such as Head Start and YMCA’s child care programs insist that diversity be addressed in early education settings. (For purposes of this discussion, the term diversity reflects a broad definition of diversity including gender, racial, economic, linguistic, educational, body type, ability, family structure, and ethnic diversity.) For most of us, this translates to actions such as making sure we have baby dolls of more than one race, books that have representations of families that look like our children’s families, and more than one language represented on our classroom posters and labels. When we think about the books in our classroom and their ability to support diversity, we might not consider informational text in that way, even though we carefully select our story books with that in mind. Here are some tips for examining your informational texts and their use with an eye toward diversity:
Select topics that appeal to many groups. Some topics are part of the universal experience: families, friends, insects, transportation, clothing, etc. Everyone has a relationship with those topics so no one is excluded, even if there is variation within the topic by community or region. On the other hand, some topics, such as holidays, can leave some children and their families behind. Choose your topics to include rather than exclude, while broadening everyone’s experience and content knowledge.
Choose books to support the topic with an eye toward diversity. Whatever topic you choose to address, you’ll support it with books throughout your classroom and throughout your day. When selecting informational books, look for books that have depictions of people of color, families with non-traditional structures, and people using assistive devices. Include informational texts written in more than one language. You might wonder how much to do this. In our own series, My World, we used the ratio of people of color in the US to guide our selection of photos. So, for example, in the US, approximately twelve percent of the population is African American. In our series, approximately twelve percent of the photos show African Americans. If most of your class is one racial group, you might use that as your guide for selecting materials. Beware, though, of representing one group at the expense of another. Even if all your children are the same racial background, family structure, or level of ability, there is value in having more than one group depicted.
Supporting materials should represent diversity as well. When you extend the opportunities for children to make the concepts their own through play, such as dramatic play and art, be sure to include materials from a variety of cultures. For example, if you are talking about nutrition and you set up a grocery store in the dress-up area, include foods that may come from other places or might not be familiar to all the children in your group. Start with what they know and add more novel material. A great way to do this is to encourage your families to contribute materials for your theme. The foods one family eats may be very different from another family’s diet, and sharing their empty containers to use in the dress-up area grocery store gives your class a wonderful opportunity to talk about different foods from different families.
Experts should reflect diversity as well. If you are studying something like insects, you may talk about scientists who study insects. Strive to select scientists of more than one race and from different countries, including both genders. Guest speakers who visit you should be held to the same standard. Similarly, authors of books on topics you read ideally represent diversity as well.
Remember that even discussions of stories can turn into an informational analysis. A good friend of mine teaches a unit on Cinderella stories each year. She uses the traditional French story, Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, and The Rough Faced Girl, as well as some goofy ones like Cinderella Penguin. After the children have heard many different Cinderella stories, they analyze what is the same and what is different about the stories. Each of the first three comes from a different culture with its own clothing, customs and way of talking. While the stories themselves are not informational text, the analysis of the text is similar to how we analyze information about any topic. This works very well with older children working independently in small groups but can be conducted with little children in a whole- or small-group setting with adult support.
The world of information is vast. By designing our classroom materials and experiences to help children learn about information AND see the diversity of the world around them, both through the content of the texts and the depictions included in the text, we can help them see themselves as a part of the larger gloriously diverse world….where not all the dolls are white.
Susan Bennett-Armistead, PhD, is an associate professor of literacy education, the Correll Professor of Early Literacy, and the coordinator of literacy doctoral study at the University of Maine. Prior to doctoral study, Dr. Bennett-Armistead was a preschool teacher and administrator for 14 years in a variety of settings, including a brief but delightful stint in the Alaskan bush.
For more information on the My World series by this author, you can click here to visit the series page on our website or click the left image below to download an information sheet.