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Library as Home

Multicultural Programs Make a Difference

By Janet Collins

Volume 19 Number 3
1991 May

Even if your school doesn't boast twenty-six different languages, you'll enjoy meeting Liz Dees, whose school library sports a tent ceiling, futon, sofa and rocking chairs, and a publishing centre, and Greeba Quigley, who has devised a travelling road show of multicultural materials.

As the face of Canada changes, so does the role of the school library. With an ever-increasing blend of ethnic backgrounds comes the need to address the demands of the non-English-speaking, and increasingly non-European, populace. For many, the task may appear formidable. For others, it is an opportunity to take the library in new directions.

At Gateway Public School in North York, Ontario, new directions are not restricted to the library. Multiculturalism is a key component of the school's program, as the motto Pride in Heritage/Partners in Learning attests.

With a school population composed of children speaking some twenty-six different languages, Gateway found it impossible to maintain a stereotypically quiet library with neat clusters of tables where students busily read English text. "As you can probably tell from the noise in the background," school librarian Liz Dees explained over the telephone, "there is a lot happening here. But then, it's probably impossible for this place to sound like a typical school library since it doesn't look like one."

The tent-like ceiling created by colourful streamers, the strategically placed futon, sofa and rocking chairs, the potted plants, the classical music, and artificial fireplace are all evidence of the truth of Dees' statement. It is a welcoming place, just like the rest of the school.

For many of Gateway's students, the very concept of a library took some getting used to. "A number of our students are refugees," Dees explained. "Many had never been to school before let alone into a library. It took a while to explain to them that the books were for their use and could be borrowed. Some didn't want to give the books back!"

Another problem with a large number of the students was that they had not had the opportunity to develop literacy in their first language, let alone in English.

The growing multilingual book collection has helped in this regard. "It is a proven fact that first language literacy skills help with second language skills," Dees pointed out. "Therefore, by giving the children something familiar we can also help them learn something new. In addition, the children's self-esteem is enhanced because they are able to read in at least one language. It shows other children that even though they aren't able to speak English that doesn't mean they are illiterate or 'dumb."'

The library at Gateway is as much a centre for learning as it is a centre for information. It therefore seemed natural that Dees, with the help of Mary Meyers, the school's English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, create a publishing centre that would help with many of the students' learning difficulties.

Located in a prominent position in the library, the Publishing Centre was established to provide a vehicle for promoting both language and literacy skills of second language students and staff awareness of whole language (and ESL) strategies. "When 80 per cent of your students have a first language other than English," Meyers said, "a system like this really helps."

As the name implies, the Publishing Centre is a place for making books. Special guests have visited the Centre to explain the various aspects of the publishing process. There have also been author visits. But by far the most important authors are the students themselves.

The children not only produce their own work, they are encouraged to share their finished product with the rest of the school. Writing has also become an off-shoot of art and music classes. In fact, writing as a process approach is truly integrated throughout the day.

It would be safe to say that Gateway library's unique approach to learning is the result of Liz Dees' personal vision. "When I came to the school just over a year ago," she explained, "I wanted this to be a learning centre rather than simply a library. I feel that books are really the seeds for learning and creating language. In the future I hope to include a drama area and art centre right in the library. I feel this will give the children countless ways to express what they experience through reading.

"This whole process not only builds the children's literacy skills," Dees stressed. "It also provides an enthusiasm and love for books as well as encourages creativity. There's a lot of co-operation, too, which helps them feel that this is a nice place to belong."

The desire to make students feel welcome does not stop at the library door. All of Gateway makes a conscious effort to help newcomers feel more at ease. Teachers, as much as possible, reflect the multicultural mix of the students. Liz Dees also has an assistant, Yasmin Champsi who works 12 hours per week. She speaks five languages, a real asset in this school setting. Although it is easy to say that it is the people at Gateway and their personal commitment that make this all work, it is more than that.

Multiculturalism is almost Gateway's raison d'etre. A regular school during the week, it becomes a heritage language school on the weekends and a reception centre (for all new students and their parents who have a first language other than English) for seven weeks in the summer. In addition, religious services for some ethnic groups are also held in the school. Further, ethnic holidays of all cultural groups represented by the students are celebrated and families are invited to join in.

If it all seems a bit overwhelming, not to worry. First-time non-English-speaking families are greeted by student "ambassadors" who not only give guided tours but also provide translation. In addition, new students are paired, as closely as possible, with a student from the same language background so that they have someone in their class that they can talk to from day one.

The "ambassador" program seems a natural here. In addition to being the school's principal, Bob Pletsch is the president of UNICEF Canada.

"We believe strongly in empowering children to learn," Pletsch stated. "In addition, we feel that parents should have a say in their children's education, no matter what language they speak."

Gateway has done much to bring a multicultural focus to learning. However, not all schools can adopt such an integrated system. Resources are limited in most districts and every school system knows the harsh reality of budget restraints. But multiculturalism need not suffer.

That is what Greeba Quigley thinks. She has a somewhat novel approach to bringing multiculturalism to the schools in her district. The English and drama program advisor for the Etobicoke Board of Education in Toronto has built herself a travelling road show.

The idea began simply enough; how could she get multicultural materials to the greatest number of schools? The answer was New Horizons, a travelling multicultural library and resource centre that rolls around the school district by way of its portable housing.

New Horizons is actually five such portable "kits," which Quigley describes as being modeled on the folding display racks found at book fairs. Each kit contains an assortment of books (folklore, picture-books, anthologies, novels), posters, realia, and related activity guides. Of the five kits currently in operation, four are aimed at the elementary level (Kindergarten to grade 8) while one is geared for audiences at the transitional level (grades 7 to 10).

"The whole purpose of the collection is to celebrate cultural diversity and to offer the school some guidance to fit it all into a school-wide program," Quigley explained. The activity guides help teachers plan both in-class projects and projects including community involvement. Topics include story-dramas, character interviews, souvenir/ photo albums, common motifs in folklore, and even guidance in developing story-telling skills.

Although she has brought in materials from England, Quigley chooses Canadian sources whenever possible. "They make things so much more relevant for the children," she said. Multi-track books by Addison-Wesley, as well as material from Shirley Lewis and the Children's Book Store are included in the kits. She also seeks out native writers as well as writers indigenous to the region discussed in the book (e.g., Africa). Irwin Publishing is one of her sources for these types of materials.

But books alone do not make a multicultural program. "A participant in one of my workshops put together a series of puppets for me. I also discovered a teacher who had designed a series of dolls. Although many of the dolls appear in traditional ethnic costume, others represent people of different racial backgrounds in urban clothes such as jeans and T-shirts. I think this is an important concept to illustrate that ethnic pride doesn't end when the fancy costume is removed. The children should always be proud of their heritage. Therefore, we need to balance our program between the traditional and the urban environment. It helps children understand how they fit into their society."

Although New Horizons has only been on the road since September 1990 (the transition level kit was launched in February 1991), the program already shows signs of expansion.

"The upper administration has helped a great deal. They saw how the goals of New Horizons dove-tailed with their own goals and are helping us by providing some additional funds. The shared goals of global education, race relations policy planning, and student-directed learning can all be addressed through the New Horizons kits." Such funds helped purchase the puppets and dolls, which did not form part of the original kits.

Gateway Public and the Etobicoke Board of Education schools are not the only ones to promote multiculturalism. Other institutions have equally laudable methods of their own. In fact, a highly visible racial mix is not a prerequisite to a successful multicultural program. Most teachers and librarians recognize that multiculturalism is a two-way street. In addition to making new Canadians and visible minorities feel comfortable about living in Canada, multicultural programs provide an opportunity for children from one culture to learn about other cultures. All such programs are indeed a testament to and reaffirmation of the need to show that there is pride in all our heritages.

Janet Collins writes for Feliciter, the newspaper of the Canadian Library Association.

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