Exploring Your School Continent by Continent: An Approach to Multicultural Sharing

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School Library Connection is pleased to collaborate with ALA President Julie Todaro and her school library group Task Force to provide access to a selection of key professional development articles aligned with essential professional competencies for school librarians. We’ll be posting at least one article a day between now and April 15. These articles were hand selected from our archives by an expert panel of librarians chaired by Susan Ballard, Dorcas Hand, and Sara Kelly Johns.

Competency 3: Equity and Cultural and Linguistic Responsiveness

“Exploring Your School Continent by Continent: An Approach to Multicultural Sharing” by Judi Paradis. School Library Connection, January 2016.

Who’s In Our Schools?

More and more the answer is “everyone from everywhere.” Plympton School in Waltham, Massachusetts, is typical of many urban districts with students from around the world. Almost half our students are English Language Learners (ELL), and while most of these students are Hispanic, we have substantial numbers of students from Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and the Middle East. As Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel point out:

Diverse work teams, scattered around the globe and connected by technology, are becoming the norm for 21st century work . . . Understanding and accommodating cultural and social differences to come up with even more creative ideas and solutions to problems will be increasingly important throughout our century. (Fadel and Trilling 2012)

The library can play a role in giving students the understanding and skills to be comfortable and adept in this multicultural world. We also serve as a strong welcoming point for families, with an ability to engage and provide outreach. The Plympton Library has become a key player in the school’s Multicultural Committee, which seeks “to promote, in a caring and enthusiastic way, the value of diversity in a community that is child-centered.”

The Multicultural Committee comprises classroom teachers, specialist subject teachers, ELL teachers, and parents. We meet monthly in the school library and communicate often online to plan activities and programs. Much of this work is conducted using a wiki maintained by the librarian: http://plymptonmulticultural.wikispaces.com/.

A Continental Approach

Discussions of multicultural library collections often focus on a “window and mirror” approach,  through which students see windows into other cultures and mirrors reflecting their own experiences. Our Multicultural Committee incorporates this approach into a number of goals, including:

  • Ensuring that cultural diversity is understood as a positive influence in our building so that our teachers, students and their families are proud of their own cultures and deeply appreciate other cultures
  • Showing the commonalities among cultures that help us connect with one another (e.g., we all have celebrations, family connections, artistic and musical traditions)
  • Making personal connections with students and families so that our school is a welcome place for all

A year-by-year focus on each continent provides these windows and mirrors. There are six populated continents, and six years of school in our K-5 program. We cycle through South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, North America and Oceania.

A continental focus provides every student and teacher with an opportunity to share their cultures, and also helps us to examine the cultural differences that are sometimes not clear to us. When we study South America, we not only recognize all our Hispanic students, but we recognize that our Guatemalan students have a different culture from our Brazilian and Peruvian students. We have spent a decade now looking at our school through this continental lens, and believe that it helps us build cultural pride, understanding, and a welcoming environment among students and staff. As a cultural and academic center with ties to every classroom, the library plays a large role in the activities associated with each continental study.

Identifying Our Experts

Once the continent is announced, I ask students and staff members during weekly checkout times to let me know if they would like to be included as an expert on a particular country. We leave it up to students to let us know about their connections (though we do sometimes prompt very young or more introverted students to participate). Sometimes this self-identification is enlightening as we find out that some of our students or teachers have strong, but unexpected ties to a country, such as significant travel experience or adoption stories. We conduct photo sessions in the library, and display photos in our school foyer and via an Animoto slideshow at our first all-school meeting. Being featured as an expert is typically an enormous point of pride.

We ask students with particularly strong cultural ties to be interviewed as part of a presentation for our monthly community meeting. Over the years, we have had students bring digital cameras to visit family in Guatemala, demonstrate traditional dance from both Kenya and India, and invite family members visiting from Jordan to speak. One Nepalese Kindergartener and his mom made a wonderful video tour of his home that concluded with a traditional song.

Library Materials

A series of displays is easily developed, including informational books, fiction set in the country, folktales, and books focused on immigrant experiences in the United States. As we look at each continent, I review the collection to ensure we have adequate print and digital resources. In a yearly book donation program, I provide a wish list of books and promote it during the December holiday season and at the end of the school year. Books are often donated in honor of family members or teachers.

The continental immersion also informs project planning and materials shared with classrooms. Our awareness of our immigrant community has led to a deep study of immigration in grade four that brings in family members, sharing stories and artifacts, and an enormous celebration with wonderful food! Our second grade exploration of countries of the world often focuses on countries in the continent under study; and first grade students include cultural studies in an enrichment group. We even developed a project on natural disasters to include a look at their impact on continents under study—disasters know no boundaries!

Sharing Cultural Experiences

Each year, I write a grant for funding from our state cultural council for a program to enhance cultural understanding, including Brazilian capoeira, a digeridoo player from Australia, a marionette performance, and Japanese drumming. In a New Year reading collaboration with the literacy coach, we plan a series of fun reading activities with a cultural twist on the day before December vacation. The year we studied South America, our reading event theme was “Brazilian beach party read” with beach books and wishes for a new year of reading as we jumped over imaginary waves. When we studied Asia, we offered “one book/one grade” reads focused on titles by Asian-American authors.

Worldwide Helping

Each year our committee selects charities from the continent we are studying and asks students to select one to support with a vote on Election Day. Students make banks in art class to collect coins. In the library, I display both the returned banks and a weekly tally of funds raised to build awareness of student participation. Projects have ranged from building playgrounds in New Orleans to supporting an orphanage for Guatemalan teens. This past year, one of our Lebanese students asked if we could help refugees from Syria, some of whom he’d met on a visit to his family. He came to the library and made a video for the school describing his experience. His charity was chosen, and students raised over $1200. His pride in this accomplishment was profound.

Opening Windows for All

While our continental approach to multicultural sharing guarantees that every member of our school community has a chance to shine, five years can be a long time to wait for your turn.  Students with important moments to share are encouraged to do so, and our committee has other outreach programs to engage parents. However, immersion in a continent over a year remains a way to ensure that every student is recognized and we open windows to the world for all.


Thomas R. Plympton Elementary School Profile. Massachusetts Deparment of Elementary and Secondary Schools. http://profiles.doe.mass.edu/profiles/general.aspx?topNavId=1&orgcode=03080050&orgtypecode=6& Accessed September 4, 2015.

Fadel, Charles and Bernie Trilling:  21st Century Skills. San Francisco: Jossey Bass Publishing, 2012.

Plympton School Multicultural Mission Statement. Plympton School Multicultural Committee.  http://plymptonmulticultural.wikispaces.com/  Accessed September 4, 2015.

Judi Paradis is a school librarian at the Plympton Elementary School in Waltham, Massachusetts. She is past-president of the Massachusetts School Library Association. She is an active member of her school’s Multicultural Committee.

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