Lynn Ramage: I like to focus on commonalities and differences. I've found that young children who have not had a lot of experiences with children from other backgrounds have a lot of questions-particularly about the physical differences they notice. They want to touch each other's skin and hair. When that occurs, we talk about the importance of asking before touching-and we practice asking. Then we begin talking about the similarities and differences we notice. Later, we'll mix paints in different colors to create colors that "look like me" and use multicultural crayons and colored pencils to find the colors that are most similar to children's own skin tones.
As the school year progresses, I try to take advantage of opportunities that arise naturally in class. This might be a child bringing rice and beans for lunch, seeing a parent wearing clothing typical of her culture, or a child bringing in a picture of his grandparent who lives in another country.
ECT: What about using picture books as a tool? Are there specific titles that make a particularly strong impression on children?
Ramage: I look for books that explore familiar experiences in new ways. A book such as Not so Fast Songololo by Niki Daly helps children understand how a shopping trip can be a very different experience depending on where you live.
A Country Far Away by Nigel Gray is one of my favorites because one half of the book depicts life in England, while the other half explores Africa. This side-by-side approach helps to highlight the parallels between children's lives in both countries.
Many children believe that Africa is only a place of wild animals, so I always love reading Somewhere in Africa by Ingrid Mennen. This story takes place in a city and expands their understanding of the diversity of Africa. Another favorite is The Colors of Us by Karen Katz. A little girl looks at all of her friends and neighbors and realizes that they are many different shades of brown and describes them with wonderful words.
All of these books tend to have great pictures and highlight emotions children can relate to.
ECT: What kind of musical experiences have you found help broaden children's view of the world?
Ramage: I try to play music that reflects the different cultures in my own classroom. The music serves different purposes-as background, for dancing, and to accompany children as they experiment with musical instruments. We talk about how the music makes us feel and the types of instruments used.
It's always fun when we try to learn a traditional dance. (I don't know who laughs the most when we try to do the merengue-the children who are trying to teach it or the children and teacher who are trying to learn it!)
It's also fun when children get to play instruments from different cultures. My collection is not ideal, but the children enjoy the limited collection I do have.
I utilize the parents in my class, teachers, and teaching assistants to help me learn new musical games. We also enjoy those that seem to be common to children of a wide range of backgrounds, including "Ring Around the Rosie" (circling and falling down) and "London Bridge" (circling and capturing someone). Most of all, I try to make music an enjoyable experience-which creates a positive feeling about things that might be unfamiliar.
ECT: What advice do you have for teachers who may feel uncomfortable sharing unfamiliar cultures and traditions with children in their classrooms?
Ramage: If you are fortunate enough to have children from different cultures in your class, begin by using this as an opportunity to help these children feel that being from somewhere else is exciting, rather than just making them different.
One source of general information about other cultures that I've found enormously helpful is CultureGrams. It gives a quick synopsis of different countries and cultures. This is where I begin when I know that I have a student coming from a different culture.
I also use parents as valuable resources. I have sent home a questionnaire asking how they say hello, goodbye, my name is _____, and how to count to five (and later in the year to 10) in their home language. Then I incorporate these words and phrases into my program. We sing, "_____ means hello" to the tune of "The Farmer in the Dell" using the different languages.
I invite parents to come in, share their photos, and talk about their home country (the temperature, housing, what people eat, games played). It's amazing how quickly children become interested in these other cultures. It's almost as if my interest in learning about the countries is contagious!