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Roots & Wings


Stacey York


Table of Contents

Letter to the Reader

Chapter 1: Introduction

Chapter 2: What is Multicultural Education?

Chapter 3: Implementing Multicultural Education

Chapter 4: Teaching Through the Classroom Environment

Chapter 5: Activities for Teaching Children About Culture

Chapter 6: Holidays and Celebrations

Chapter 7: Children's Awareness of Differences

Chapter 8: Culturally Responsive Care and Education

Chapter 9: Talking to Children About Differences


A Letter to the Reader:

There are only two lasting bequests
that we can leave to our children;
One is roots;
the other; wings.


I believe that children deserve to grow up anchored in their family and heritage. They deserve to receive all the support and strength that cultural roots offer. They are entitled to receive the sort of protection and support that wings can provide. Children must be sheltered by the wing of a caring adult from the discrimination, bias, and ethnocentrism that attempt to uproot them.

I want to help children grow their own wings and fly. With wings they can venture into the world beyond family, school, and neighborhood. They will be free to soar side by side with the many varieties of people and successfully make their way through life in a diverse world. With wings to fly, children will be empowered to reach heights beyond the anger and fear of prejudice and domination. They will have a perspective that allows them to see the discrimination and fuels the desire to shelter others by working for justice.

1, too, want roots and wings. I want to experience the strength of rootsof knowing who I am, where I come from, and what it means to be a person of my culture.

Finding cultural roots doesn't come easy. I am a white middle-class American woman. I was taught that America is the melting pot nation and that all people are the same. Until recently I never really thought about my cultural roots. I wasn't even sure I had any.

One set of my grandparents immigrated to America from Holland. Ancestors on my father's side of the family were some of the first settlers from England and Wales. They participated in the Revolutionary War. Like the majority of people living the United States, I am a Euro-American (descended from European immigrants).

If I believe the myth of the melting pot, then I say to myself none of this matters. We are all the same. But I know from my family that the Bylands and Yorks lived their lives very differently from one another. They ate different foods, cooked differently, celebrated different holidays, talked differently, and had very different ideas about money, childrearing, extended family, and religion. Often we clashed. The notion of America as a melting pot ignores these differences between individuals. It blinds me from noticing, believing, and understanding the cultural dynamics that were at play in my family. In the end, the melting pot deprives me of my cultural heritage.

I believe that by going inward and going back in time I can come to know and claim my ethnic roots. I will learn for myself what it means to be a Dutch American. Like a well-rooted tree, I will be grounded in myself. Having a cultural identity will give me the strength to fly. With wings I will go beyond myself and my experience, to look at and accept others for who they are. I will expose myself to worlds and people who are very different from me. They have been in my world all along, only I was too afraid notice them, much less to seek them out. If I did notice them, my fear got the best of me and told me to stay away or else I might get hurt (then thinking I might get hurt made me feel angry). In the past, I stayed in my safe little world, closed to all those who were not like me. Since I didn't know who I was, I could trust and accept no one.

By taking flight I gain a new perspective on myself. From the air I look down on my life, my experiences, and my attitudes, and I am able to see things differently. The wings carry me and I continue to change and grow, because once I started flying, I will never be willing to go back to the sheltered, scared life I once lived.

Roots and wings are of huge importance to me as a teacher. Who I am as a person is the same as who I am as a teacher. Even when I am silent I am modeling all of my strengths and fears for the children. My distorted ideas, biases, and fears of differences become the legacy I pass on to the children in my care.

But not anymore. If there is anything that I can do as an early childhood teacher-as an adult friend to children-I hope to leave them a legacy of roots and wings.

So I beckon all adults who share their lives with young children to dig down and find your roots, grow your wings, and take flight in your life and in your classroom so that we may leave an inheritance of human respect and justice for our children.


The field of early childhood education has its own heritage that has been passed down from one teacher to the next. Teacher-training programs, professional organizations, professional magazines, and resource and referral agencies provide a formal structure that keeps our early childhood ways intact. Some say that as early childhood professionals, we have been very successful at holding onto our teaching practices, which are based on strong beliefs about what is best for young children. Other levels of education, such as elementary education, have been highly influenced by popular trends to push children to learn more and to learn it at a younger age. While we in early childhood education have managed to stand firm in some areas, other aspects of our profession are endangered by current trends and practices. This chapter reviews the professional roots, current trends, and opportunities for the future that set the stage for multicultural education in early childhood settings.

What Are Our Professional Roots?

We must know our traditions in order to keep them. An early childhood education heritage influences what we do with young children. Knowing our professional roots helps us understand current teaching practices, identify where they come from, and look toward where we, as a profession, are going. Though many people and social movements have influenced early childhood education, three main threads weave in and out of our long and rich tradition.

Humanistic Tradition

Early childhood education is strongly rooted in humanistic tradition. Believing that children are good, respecting them as people, treating them as individuals, and involving them in the learning process are key elements of good early childhood programs.

Child Development

Early childhood education has always had a close relationship to the study of child development. We have continually been open to the most recent information on child development and have attempted to apply it to programs for young children. As such, classrooms have emphasized teaching to the whole child, learning through play, and focusing on the here and now as opposed to education as a preparation for adulthood.

Social Reform

Early childhood education has also been a part of social reform. Many believe that positive early childhood experiences can improve society. Comprehensive early education programs like Head Start attempt to better the lives of children by counteracting the effects of poverty. Quality day care programs allow women to participate in the work force without harming the family or children's development.


You see things; and you say, 'Why?'
But I dream things that never were;
and I say, 'My not?'

George Bernard Shaw


Today: A Global Approach

A vision for society's future begins today. Recent changes in other countries suggest that Americans no longer need to live in fear of war with Russia and Eastern Europe. Instead, as a country, we must learn how to relate to and work with these people who were once considered our enemies.

just as worldwide changes are bringing international cultures together, the influx of immigrants and refugees over the past ten years reminds us that America is a country of many cultures and languages. Our country was built on diversity, and diversity will continue to be our strength. As early childhood educators, we must recognize cultural differences and provide children with an early education experience that prepares them to live in a culturally diverse country and a peaceful, cooperative world.

Support for Multicultural Education

The time is right for multicultural education. Our largest and most influential professional organization, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), is actively promoting multicultural education. Early childhood programs seeking accreditation by the National Academy of Early Childhood Programs must show that they meet certain criteria regarding multicultural education. Two years ago, NAEYC published Anti-Bias Curriculum, a curriculum guide of developmentally appropriate activities to empower children. In addition, both the Center Accreditation Project criteria and the work on anti-bias curriculum by the staff at Pacific Oaks College in California are raising the awareness of teachers to the appropriateness of multicultural education in the early years.

Current Barriers

Just as trends within the field bring attention to multicultural education, conditions within the early childhood community make implementing multicultural education very difficult.

State Licensing Standards. State licensing standards require relatively little in the way of teacher training: Twelve credits or 90 hours of coursework are common minimum requirements for day care teachers. This means that teacher-training programs must focus on the basics such as child development, health and safety, room arrangement, daily routine, and curriculum activities. Knowledge of multicultural education, such as learning how to work with parents, is an "extra" that we supposedly pick up along the way and on our own time.

"Recipe Book" Approach. The second problem limiting the growth of multicultural education within the field is that teachers are "doers." Most early childhood teachers I know like hands-on activities and make-it/take-it workshops. Few of us have paid planning time. We plan curriculum while sitting on the floor in the doorway of a darkened classroom during nap time, in the evening while watching TV, or on Sunday afternoons. When it comes to curriculum books, we like "recipe books" that make curriculum planning quick and easy. It is difficult, if not impossible, to water down the concepts of multicultural education into a fun, how-to book without destroying their true meaning. In order for multicultural education to catch on, teachers will need to put forth extra effort to read, attend workshops, and reflect on their own teaching practices. This is asking a lot, but just think of it as a gift to children and families, and an investment in both ourselves and the children we share our lives with.

Animated Curriculum and Classrooms. Ask a teacher why she does certain activities and the answer will likely be, "They're fun, the kids love 'em, and the parents think they're so cute." We want children to have fun and enjoy themselves, but we must remember that we are in the education business and not the entertainment business (Katz 1977).

An overemphasis on entertainment has resulted in classrooms full of movie characters, cartoon characters, and TV characters. Walls are covered with murals depicting the antics of animal characters. Classrooms and groups of children are identified by cartoon mascots. Unit themes focus on cartoons and children "learn" about the theme by coloring in ditto sheets of their favorite character. Perhaps this is a commentary on the power of the media and our desire to create a mythology, a common culture. Cartoon characters and popular movies are something most of us have experienced. It is something we all have in common.

At conferences teachers swarm display booths that sell cartoon-character paraphernalia such as stickers, pencils, erasers, bulletin-board kits, finger puppets, decorated attendance charts, and calendars.

Likewise, some of the most popular early childhood curriculum books are comic books. There is even a set of such comic books for teaching children about other cultures. Each book provides monthly holiday activities. For example, children learn about the Dutch by coloring a ditto sheet of a Dutch girl in her traditional costume, cutting out a windmill and putting it together with a paper fastener, and cutting out a wooden shoe and pinning it up on the bulletin board. These books were so popular at a recent state conference that they were back ordered for months!

Children needa break from the pretend, animated world of the media. They deserve to learn about real people through meaningful activities. We need to overcome these current trends that keep our profession from affirming diversity and culture. We must go back to teaching children about the real world in order to maintain the integrity of early childhood education.

Rooted in the Early Childhood Tradition

This book is rooted in good early childhood education practices: considering the child's development, teaching through a well-organized classroom, providing large blocks of time for free choice play, introducing materials, asking open-ended questions to encourage thinking and problem-solving, affirming children for their individuality and uniqueness in order to foster self-esteem, and coaching children in the way they treat one another to build social skills.

In recent years, early childhood teachers have wanted and needed resources for incorporating multicultural education into the curriculum. Unfortunately, many of the books and materials available advocate teaching elementary school level information or using methods that stunt children's development.

I hope that the ideas and information in this book give each of you wings to fly, and that by reading this book, you will feel empowered to incorporate new materials and activities into your classroom. I also hope that some of my ideas will inspire you to create many new ideas of your own.

About This Book

This book was written for early childhood teachers, program directors, teacher trainers, and parents with the following four goals in mind:

  1. This book will introduce multicultural education in a simple and organized way.
  2. Many practical ideas for implementing multicultural education in early childhood settings will be presented.
  3. This book will spread the word about multicultural education. Good, useful information about multicultural education for young children has been available for the past ten years, but it has been "hidden" from the mainstream, appearing only in textbooks and professional journals.
  4. Early childhood educators will have an alternative to the tourist approach, and will discover ways to incorporate the newest thinking about multicultural education into their classrooms.


The information and topics covered in Roots & Wings reflect child development theory, established early childhood education practices, and current accreditation standards. The decision to emphasize some information about multicultural education and leave out other information is a product of my values, my awareness and thinking, and the limitations of space and time.

This book does not include everything there is to know about multicultural education for young children. The following assumptions are not discussed in this book, but I want you to know that I believe in them, and that they are important to me. These assumptions greatly influence my perspective on multicultural education.

  1. In its fullest expression, multicultural education includes addressing the issues of discrimination against individuals in all areas, including religion, gender, economic class, age, ability, and sexual preference. I have chosen to focus on culture, ethnicity, and race because so few early childhood programs deal with this issue with any success. I believe that if a program can successfully incorporate multicultural values, it can go on to incorporate the other equally important components of diversity.
  2. Life in the United States is not fair for everyone. All kinds of discrimination keep individuals from having equal access to society's services and opportunities.
  3. Education is not neutral. Schools and day care centers are institutions, and as such, they are part of the social structure that discriminates against individuals. As part of the social structure, early childhood programs usually teach and perpetuate white EuroAmerican, middle-class values. In the classroom, teachers pass on their values to children through their choice of bulletin-board displays, toys, activities, celebrations, unit themes, and interaction with the children.
  4. Education can influence social change. Some Politicians would like us to believe that education makes or breaks a nation and determines society's future. Unfortunately, this is not true. Politicians, influenced by industry and economics, direct education. As a result, the education of children is designed and funded to perpetuate the prevailing societal myths and to keep the country operating as it has always operated. Education, by its position in a capitalistic economy, cannot bring about social change. It cannot end prejudice and oppression. But education can influence the lives of the people it serves and the Power structures within the system.
  5. The process is the product. If you come to this book focused solely on the outcome of having a multicultural curriculum, you won't be Open to the possibility of discovery and personal growth. Put aside your preconceived notions of what multicultural education should be and your worries about implementing it in your program. As you read this book, focus on the here and now. Open yourself up to your feelings. Take in the information bit by bit. Ask questions, stop for reflection, watch others around you, gather some materials and create some activities, and talk with children and parents. As you do these things, you will create a greater understanding of yourself, culture, and multicultural curriculum, and you will have begun the steps toward implementing multicultural education in your classroom.

The warrior has the wisdom to approach each event as it is not knowing its Outcome. Not forcing results.
His "don't know' is the joy and courage that fill his life

Stephen Levine

Important Terms

It is impossible to talk about multicultural education without using specific words that relate to culture. The following terms are defined here according to the way they are used throughout the book. Read through the list. Which words are familiar to you? Which words are new? Which words name something you can relate to or have experienced in your own life?

Acculturation. The transfer of culture from one ethnic group to another. The dominant culture usually forces its values, language, and behavior on less dominant cultures. As a result, the members of the nondominant culture change their values, the way they speak, and the way they act in order to fit in and be accepted by the dominant culture.

Bias. Showing favorites or dislikes because of an inclination or point of view; the tendency to favor one ethnic group over another, or the tendency to dislike, distrust, and be afraid of a person from a particular ethnic group.

Culture. The behavior, values, beliefs, language, traits, artifacts, and products shared by and associated with a group of people. These characteristics are passed from one generation to the next through experiences and education.

Discrimination. The practice of giving different treatment to a person based on race, sex, religion, ethnicity, age, mental capacity, physical ability, and/or sexual preference.

Dominant culture. The ruling or prevailing culture exercising authority or influence. In the United States, the dominant culture is the white, EuroAmerican middle class. More specifically, white, upper-class men dominate the leadership and decision-making positions and they benefit most from living in our society. Within the dominant culture, there are differences of participation in and benefits from mainstream society based on a person's gender and economic class.

Ethnic. Refers to the commonality among people because of their ancestors; it includes race, religion, national origin, physical traits, values, beliefs, customs, language, and lifestyle.

Ethnocentrism. The belief that one's culture or country is better than other cultures and countries; judging other countries and cultures from one's own point of view and expecting them to act and think the same way.

Euro-American. A Caucasian person living in America of European, Scandinavian, Slavic, or Mediterranean descent.

Minority. A group of people with a separate identity and a lower status from the dominant society. Minorities may or may not have fewer people than the dominant group, known as the majority.

Oppression. Unjust and cruel use of authority to harm a person and keep that person from having access to society's benefits.

Prejudice. Having a preconceived judgement or opinion without accurate knowledge or reason; an irrational attitude against a group of people and their characteristics.

Racism. Belief that one race is better than another and using that belief as the basis for dominating people.

Stereotype. An oversimplified and unvarying idea about the characteristics of members of a group.


Roots & Wings introduces you to multicultural education and takes you through the process of implementing multicultural education in early childhood settings. The book is divided into three sections: introduction to multicultural education, implementing multicultural education in early childhood settings, and the interpersonal effects of culture.

Chapter 2 answers the question "What is multicultural education?" by defining it and by providing an overview of the five main approaches. It also includes definitions of common terms associated with multicultural education.

The midsection of the book addresses curriculum. Chapter 3 is the most important chapter because it takes you through the step-by-step process of developing a multicultural curriculum in an early childhood setting. Chapter 4 provides guidelines and practical ideas for incorporating diversity in the classroom. Chapter 5 answers concerns about what to teach young children and how to teach it. It contains over 50 activities, 12 unit themes, and a curriculum planning form. Chapter 6 helps teachers understand the role of holidays in early childhood education and offers guidelines for making celebrations a positive experience. It even includes a calendar of multicultural holidays.

The final three chapters focus on the interpersonal effects of culture. Chapter 7 discusses the differences young children notice, how prejudice is formed, and why children are pre-prejudiced. Chapter 8 highlights the influence of culture on families. Teachers will find this a helpful resource for working with and understanding minority families and including parents in the program. Chapter 9 focuses on communication between teachers and children. Early childhood teachers often find it difficult to talk with children about sensitive topics, answer their pointed questions, and challenge their discriminatory remarks.

You may want to read the book in sequence chapter by chapter. If you want answers to specific concerns, read the first three chapters to get a basic understanding of multicultural education. Then read the chapters and sections that meet your specific needs.

Questions to Ponder

  1. What people, theories, or life experiences have influenced what you do with young children?
  2. What are your dreams for society? What impact do you want to have on children, families, or society?
  3. What are your assumptions about multicultural education for young children?

Resources and References

Derman-Sparks, Louise. Anti-Bias Curriculum. Washington, DC: NAEYC, 1989.

Feeney, Stephanie, Doris Christensen, and Eva Moravcik. Who Am I in the Lives of Children? Columbus: Merrill, 1987.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 1970.

Katz, Lillian. Talks With Teachers. Washington, DC: NAEYC, 1977.

Levine, Stephen. Who Dies? Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1982.

Morrison, George S. Early Childhood Education Today. Columbus: Merrill, 1988.

National Academy of Early Childhood Programs. Guide to Accreditation. Washington, DC: NAEYC, 1985.

Sevaly, Karen. December Idea Book. Moreno Valley, CA: Teacher's Friend Publications, 1986. Shor, Ira, and Paulo Freire. A Pedagogy For Liberation. South Hadley, MA: Bergin and Garvey, 1987.

Weber, Evelyn. Ideas Influencing Early Childhood Education: A Theoretical Analysis. New York: Teachers College Press, 1984.

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