Multiculturalism in classroom remains touchy subject in N.Y. Some teachers manage to avoid controversy and get message across

December 27, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- Like most children, the second-graders in Room 205 at Public School 116 in Murray Hill love to see images of themselves in the stories they read, their teacher said.

They love the story about how people of every shade help a Hispanic mother and daughter who lost everything in an apartment fire. They love to read how children come in "All the Colors of the Earth." They especially enjoy a story of an African-American father who leaves home to find work, to return when the seasons change.

These are tales that most of the 27 students in Virginia Lockwood's class can relate to, Lockwood said recently. They are mostly children of employees at the United Nations and come from Vietnam, the Caribbean, Japan and other places, as well as Manhattan.

In a setting so dizzyingly diverse, race and ethnicity are beside the point, Lockwood said. Multiculturalism -- a flash point for so much recent tension and bitterness in the city's public schools -- is no big deal in Lockwood's class.

"I don't say, 'Look, children, here's a story about a little African-American boy,' or 'Here's a story about a Vietnamese girl,' " Lockwood said. "Instead, I say: 'Look, children, here's a great story about feelings. Let's read it together.' The characters might happen to be black, Hispanic or Asian, but that's not the point."

Not every classroom in the city is so relaxed. Last month, a white third-grade teacher was driven from a school in Bushwick, Brooklyn, by black parents angry over her use of a book called "Nappy Hair," a coming-of-age story about a black girl. The parents -- whom schools Chancellor Rudy Crew later criticized as misguided -- denounced and threatened the teacher after concluding that the book was offensive.

In a school system where 66 percent of the 70,000 teachers are white and 70 percent of the 1.1 million school children are black and Hispanic, having white teachers teaching black history and culture can hardly be avoided.

Though the Bushwick incident resonated throughout the city, it did not dampen the enthusiasm of teachers like Lockwood. If anything, it strengthened their resolve.

Lockwood integrates multiculturalism into her classroom mostly through reading and writing, rather than introducing it as something separate -- a trap that many people fall into, she said.

Lockwood's strategy seems to work. While reading a story recently about American children picking on an Asian girl because of her native clothes, a Vietnamese student said emphatically that the outfit was "dress-up clothes, not pajamas." An African-American boy then offered to have his mother sew the outfits for all the students in the class.

"We have children sharing information about their culture in a relaxed setting, rather than setting it up as a day for this culture or that culture," Lockwood said.

Gail Wesson Spivey, a black librarian at Public School 198 in East Flatbush, and Teri Gray, a white Jewish second-grade teacher, help each other avoid culturally insensitive material by running books by each other.

Spivey also relies on parents. Recently, she asked a Muslim mother to read a book about Ramadan to see if it was culturally sensitive. The parent approved the book, and Spivey added it to the library. "This was not, 'Mother, may I use this book?' " Spivey said. "It was more like, 'What do you think?' "

Spivey is certain that she would have been driven out of Public School 75 in Bushwick right alongside the teacher, Ruth Sherman, over the use of "Nappy Hair." She has been recommending it to white colleagues since it was published last year.

"It gets on my nerves that this is something that people still have to figure out," Spivey said. "I've spent a lifetime being a voracious reader, and none of the books were about me. When 'Nappy Hair' came out, I was ecstatic."

Sherman transferred from Public School 75 to Public School 131 in Jamaica, Queens, recently after some parents threatened her at a public meeting. They said the book, a critically acclaimed story by a black scholar, was racist.

They were angered by black-and-white photocopied pages of an illustration from the book that were left in mailboxes around the community. The fliers showed a dark-skinned black child complaining about having kinky hair. Taken out of context, the illustrations can appear jarring, and the text insensitive.

This month, Crew lashed out at the disapproving parents, saying their actions could cause white teachers to shy away from a multicultural curriculum.

Sherman has said in interviews that she would not be deterred and planned to use the book at her new school.

With the approach of Black History Month in February, Evelina Barker, a Hispanic parent who lives in Bushwick, wondered aloud whether teachers were going to fear teaching children about historic black figures.

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