Old Mother Hubbard went to the cubboard to get her poor dog a bone. I'm willing to bet that 99% of you reading this can finish that rhyme. However, many of our students can't, especially if they don't come from upper SES, mainstream culture American or British backgrounds. Many of our students come to us not knowing nursery rhymes, folktales, fables and other common culture stories. However, when they get to those standardized tests, it is assumed that they grew up with these stories and rhymes. That's why every test I've ever administered had at least one or two nursery rhymes or folktales on it. Test makers figure everyone's heard of these so they're great to use for vocabulary questions or compare and contrast questions or even just straight comprehension questions. Plus most are licence free, so they're cost free to use!
The problem of course is that not all of our kids have heard of them, which sets low SES students and students who come from non mainstream cultures at a disadvantage. This is why I make it a point to teach nursery rhymes and common folktales to every class I work with. In fact my students just started using my Nursery Rhyme Comprehension Sheets (free download at my Teachers Pay Teachers store) to disect one nursery rhyme a week. Students need to know these stories and rhymes not only for standardized tests, but because they are referenced in other stories, in movies, in songs and just in general "common culture" discussions.
Recently, I had a discussion with some other teachers about how these rhymes and tales have historically been used as "educational colonialism". Because we think that students NEED to know these stories, we teach them. But often teaching these "common culture rhymes and stories" means that many other great stories, often with a more multicultural cast of characters, which would connect better with these students, don't get taught. John Henry, for example, didn't make a big impact on my current population of students (85% hispanic), but they loved Dona Flor because it had huge floating tortillas like they ones their moms and grandmas make.
And I can see the point of colonialism argument. Why for example to do we teach students in New Mexico the rhyme about how "April showers bring May flowers" when the majority of rain here occurs in the winter? Ummmmm..... because the majority of our common culture rhymes and stories come from England or the Northeastern United States.
So what's the answer? How do we find balance? I'm not sure I have a tried and true answer. But in my classroom I try to:
1.) Be aware of the bias - Sometimes just knowing can do so much to change our behavior. We as teachers need to know that our kids need both "common culture" and "multiculture" so that we can always be on the look out for ways to include both in our classroom.
2.) Use as wide a mixture of both "common culture" and "multiculture" as I can find - Because I know this is an important topic, especially with my population of students, I try to expose my kids to both, constantly. We definitely do story, rhyme and book overload in my classroom because I am trying to make sure my students are exposed to EVERYTHING I can put in front of them.
3.) Explain the concept to the kids - Kids are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. I often explain to my students the concept of common culture. I want them to be aware that there are things that are generally accepted as important for them to know. I also want them to know that there are lots of other cultures out there which are equally important, especially their own! This also makes it easier to explain to kids why things like "April flowers bring May flowers" make sense to some people, even if it doesn't to them.
So what's your take? How do you balance common culture stories with multicultural literature? Does your approach change depending on the make up of your classroom? Let's have a discussion!