Vol. 5. No. 3 R-6 December 2001
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Classroom Diversity: Connecting Curriculum to Students' Lives

Ellen McIntyre, Ann Rosebery & Norma González (editors)
Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann
Pp. vii + 134
ISBN 0-325-00332-7
US $19.00

Typically, teachers begin lessons through attempting to identify what the students know. In attempting to match background knowledge with lessons, teachers work from their knowledge of the students which may in part rely on assumptions about the students' background knowledge base. When teachers do not share the cultural background of the students, they can find it difficult to bring the students into the lesson. This difficulty may be increased when the students do not share the middle class knowledge base informing the curriculum. This book provides explores ways teachers can further their knowledge of their students to inform their teaching practices.

This book consists of eleven chapters written by teachers and researchers describing teaching practices that incorporate the community context in building inclusive learning communities. Unifying the chapters of this book is the use of sociocultural approaches to inform classroom instruction. This use provides guidance to teachers in incorporating the cultures of the students in ways that enable students from minority cultures to succeed. This approach emphasizes valuing the students' cultures through including them in the development of mathematics and scientific activities.

The chapters grew out of teacher research with the goal of applying best educational practices to their context. The focus is on the contextualizing of science and mathematics lessons into different communities from the rural poor to the inner city minority neighborhood. Teachers describe what they do to gather the information they need to make the curriculum content more understandable to their students. The research reports include socio economic descriptions of classes and communities, challenges presented by the particular situations, and descriptions of classroom activities that evolved from better understanding of the community and from the instructional conversations engaged in with the students. The classroom practices include innovative activities that create links between informal mathematics and the formal mathematics of the curriculum or of the science of everyday life in relation to the science to be learned in school.

In the chapter, Connecting Cultural Traditions: Making Comparisons, co-authored by Sharon Maher, Georgia Epaloose, and Roland Tharp, Sharon, the teacher, relates her instructional story through her professional development journal. Excerpts from the journal provide the organizing information for the chapter. There are two central challenges: Sharon's need to learn about the Zuni culture and integrating the Zuni cultural knowledge of her students into her eighth grade classroom. In order to achieve the two goals, she involves the students in the development of a unit through instructional conversation. She implements instructional conversation by engaging the students through dialogues, questioning and other means for uncovering and communicating what they know and think about the issues she raises. Through activities that involve deeper exploration of Zuni culture and then of the Jewish culture portrayed in "Fiddler on the Roof" her learners communicate through their own fund of knowledge and expand that knowledge through analysis and comparison of the culture portrayed in the movie clip. Using this knowledge, the students are ready for the writing assignment of comparing and contrasting the two cultures, Zuni and Jewish cultures, with a store of knowledge to use in accomplishing the comparison. In other words, they have a great deal of knowledge from their lives to use as the means to construct their comparisons.[-1-]

Ring My Bell: Contextualizing Home and School in an African American Community portrays the classroom of Vivette Blackwell. Michelle L. Foster and Tryphenia B. Peele describe the different elements of Blackwell's approach in involving her third-grade students in different learning activities which evoke elements of African American culture while enabling them to learn the necessary skills and knowledge of the third-grade curriculum. Blackwell's class exhibits a literacy filled experience that incorporates hands-on science activities and learning about many African American scientists, music, and Fun Fridays that include community members teaching the students about their skills.

Leslie Kahn and Marta Civil in Unearthing the Mathematics of a Classroom Garden describe how Leslie Kahn used gardening and weaving to teach mathematics in her fourth/fifth grade class. Kahn engages the students in different gardening and weaving activities that match curriculum demands, make cultural connections, and involve parents. The planting of tomatoes led to one student developing a flier to sell the results of an overplanting of tomatoes. The students also had to design the most effective way to use chicken wire to enclose their space. By continually introducing new problems and because of the seasonal rhythm of the garden, the lessons kept the students involved. Through different types of collaboration, these two projects grew into a continually evolving series of contextualized learning opportunities.

In The Sound of Drums chapter, students learn how to describe scientifically the drumming they will do in a play. Faith R. Conant, Ann Roseberry, Beth Warren and Josiane Hudicourt-Barnes write about Haitian middle school students involved in finding ways to measure and describe the sounds the drums they are playing make. The activity grew out of student and teacher dissatisfaction with the language for describing sounds. Through the use of a computer program, students learn how to describe, measure, transcribe, and present the information they learn through a process of measuring the sound waves the drums make.

Preschool children learning about snakes and chickens on their way to acquiring the basis of scientific learning is the basis for Preschool Science: Contextualizing Curriculum with Children's Questions and Family Stories, a chapter collaborated on by Maureen Callanan, Pilar Coto, Ligia Miranda, Anne Striffler, Jim Allen, Cherie Crandall, and Colleen Murphy. The curriculum grows out of the children's interests spurred on by one student's interest in snakes. The teachers model scientific thinking through incorporating the children's questions into the lessons. They incorporate empirical activities such as children crawling on the floor like snakes, imagining what it would be like to be inside an egg, and by taking care of and observing eggs and the chickens that eventually hatch from them. The lessons were sometimes built upon the children's experiences and questions raised at home and reported by parents. This chapter shows not only that science can be incorporated successfully into preschool education, but also that building on the children's questions can lead to successful contextualized instruction.

Contextualized instruction also is the theme of the chapter, Agricultural Field Day: Linking Rural Cultures to School Lessons, related by Ellen McIntyre, Ruth Ann Sweazy, and Stacy Greer. This chapter begins with a description of the aforementioned agricultural field day that involves presentations by different people from this rural community. The presentations include exhibits that demonstrate how milk gets from the cow into the milk carton on the store shelf and the growing and use of gourds. This field day seeks to link the community to the school through building a curriculum that includes the different elements of farm life. Lessons involve reading about different agricultural topics including about the animals, the products, and the machinery of farm production. Mathematics topics build upon the farm economy through children estimating how much corn can be popped from a cup of popcorn, measuring animals, and calculating the money needed to operate a farm. This chapter shows how home and school can be connected successfully through creatively integrating the knowledge fund of the students into the curriculum. The demands of the curriculum are met, especially the mathematics and reading elements while relating them to the lives and background knowledge of the students.

Ellen McIntyre with Joann Archie reports how the latter teaches using multiple perspectives. Their chapter, Teaching History: A Cultural Approach for Primary Grade Children, describes how she builds upon her knowledge of the community she has grown up in and now lives in to provide instruction that enables her primary grade children to begin learning about history in an inclusive manner. By looking at history through various perspectives, she enables her primarily African American students to gain a perspective on history that includes more knowledge about African American participation in U.S. history as well as the perspectives of other people including Native Americans. This multiperspective approach takes them outside of the Eurocentric approach that defines traditional teaching and makes the history lessons relevant to the students' cultures. In addition, by looking at history through the different perspectives, she enables her students to develop their critical thinking abilities.[-2-]

Faced with a group of initially aggressive middle school students from a Mexican American working class community, José David Fonseca, a bilingual mathematics instructor, built a seventh- and eighth-grade mathematics course around the common element of many of the students' background: construction. Fonseca, the assistance of co-writers, Melanie Ayers, Rosi Andrade, and Martha Civil, describe the use of ethnographic research to identify a successful approach to engaging these students in meaningful mathematics learning in the chapter, Creating Learning Communities: The "Build Your Dream House" Unit. Working with the other members of the teacher-research study groups, they devised and he carried out ethnographic research that enabled him to identify common elements from the community. The central common element revolved around the construction industry, an industry that he was very familiar with. Consequently, he developed lessons around a unit that had the students design their own dream houses. In designing their dream houses the students learned the core components of the curriculum through designing and planning their dream houses. They learned algebra through the measurements needed for buying materials, geometry through design, and problem solving and probability in determining costs and estimating value. The unit culminated with student presentations for the principal, fellow students and community members.

The classrooms described in the previous chapters grew out of study groups that are described in the chapter, Creating Links between Home and School Mathematics Practices, by Norma Gonzales, Rosi Andrade and Caroline Carson. The study groups are the latest incarnation of the Funds of Knowledge project in the form of Linking Home and School: A Bridge to the Many Faces of Mathematics project (Bridge). This project attempts to identify household and community knowledge that can supply useful resources for classroom practices. In order to identify this knowledge, teacher researchers conduct ethnographic studies of families among the students in their classes. The ethnographic data is examined for possible resources for classroom use and for a better understanding of the students in the classes. Knowledge of the students and their families enable teachers to construct instruction that engages students in practical use of the more formal types of mathematics. It also allows teachers to expand their funds of knowledge about how to conduct instruction and about the students in their classrooms.

The teaching practices described in the book grow out of challenges described in the final chapter, Seeing, Believing, and Taking Action, by Norma Gonzales, Ellen McIntyre, and Ann Rosebery. This chapter concludes the book with the challenges of building learning communities that involve learning interactively on the parts of students, teachers, family, and educational institution. The evolving practices of the educators grow from their increased understanding of their learners' context. These practices include being able to learn though parental input and instructional conversations with the students about the content and their students' understanding of the content; thus they can adjust their teaching of the content when students find themselves unable to comprehend it. The chapter concludes by pointing out that the innovations developed from communities of educators can also include community members and parents in sharing the problem and in its solution.

This book's primary audience is elementary and middle school teachers, but the content relates to ESL teachers, in particular, teachers with at least part if not all of their class from one cultural group. The book shows some exciting ways to make community school connections that recognize and appreciate cultural elements of the students' lives. The book can act as a springboard for teachers trying to develop activities that respect the students' cultures and make them valid for classroom activity and discussion. The key elements in the chapters are the importance of listening to the students' voices, creating activities that tap into the students' fund of knowledge, which sometimes involves making them the cultural informants, and adjusting the activities to make them engaging long-term projects. The teachers involved were committed to their students learning and able to identify elements that invoked or involved their cultures.

Although the activities described in this book may not be immediately adaptable to ESL situations, ESL educators will find the techniques used for incorporating community knowledge into the classroom useful. The sociocultural approach has been supported ESL by researchers and teachers, so this book will prove useful in suggesting ways of implementing ethnographic approaches to ESL. However, it will be through suggestion because one of the key elements, the ethnographic interview and questionnaire, are not described in detail nor is the instrument supplied. This lack weakens the usefulness of the book for educators wishing to pursue this approach. The activities and how the teachers arrived at these activities are described in sufficient detail to enable teachers to see how they are developed. However, teachers will need to focus not so much on the activities as upon the process that lead to the particular activities employed.

As we make more efforts to include community in the educational process, we need more books that show the thinking and planning behind successful efforts. This book supplies this in a useful manner. It is perhaps ironic that what we are discovering in part is that the community knowledge our grandparents had through living in less fluid communities needs to be worked at now.

John M. Graney
Santa Fe Community College

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