From Children’s Literature to New Technologies: Cultural Relevance in New Media and Digital Tools

This week I had the pleasure of speaking with my colleague Jane Fleming, Ph.D., faculty member at Erikson Institute and founder of Kids Like Us, on issues of traditional and digital media, technology, and diversity.  Jane has conducted research in the area of urban children’s literature and has been actively involved in helping teachers find high quality urban literature for their classrooms.

During our conversation, we discussed one of her points from a previous presentation.  In her session, she emphasized that even if we choose books that are multicultural, it doesn’t mean that these books will be culturally relevant to the children.  While we want to expose children to content about different customs and traditions, we want to balance this with opportunities for children to identify with stories.  For example, an African American child living in an inner-city neighborhood does not have the same culture or experiences as an African child growing up in a small village in Zimbabwe.  While there may be similarities, there are distinct differences that include dialogue, environmental settings, community members, etc.   Jane’s point on cultural relevancy reminds us of the importance of choosing media that connects with the children.  This concept can be applied to guide our approach to including selections of media and technology that are reflective of young children’s experiences.

To help us pick media and technology that is culturally relevant to children, we, as parents and professionals, have to get to know them.  We have to ask ourselves questions, such as: What is the language and dialogue they hear?  What does their community look like?  Who are the people within their community and family?  What are their traditions and values?  Once we are familiar with the children, we have a better lens of choosing tools that are reflective of their experiences and represent them in the characters and stories.  In addition to have a critical lens, we need to feel comfortable and competent with vetting through different tools and brainstorming with other parents and professionals.

One of the notable affordances of technology and digital media is that children can build their own content or projects.  If we’re having trouble finding content that is appropriate and inclusive of diverse cultures, we can select tools that give children a voice and allow them to capture their stories and information.  Children can create their own story using a storytelling or screen casting app, create a dance for a robot using Kibo or Bo & Yana, or create a short video or cartoon using Scratch Jr. or iMovie.  These are powerful opportunities for children to express themselves, share their perspectives, and become aware of media creation.  This builds foundational skills to help develop their digital and media literacy.

Being multicultural and culturally relevant are two distinct approaches to examining children’s media.  The world of children’s literature can help us become more knowledgeable about these concepts and guide our thinking and application of multiculturalism and cultural relevancy to young children’s interactive media and technology.  This in turn will create meaningful and authentic learning opportunities where children feel empowered and a part of a community.  If you’ve found some helpful ways of translating your experience with children’s literature to new media and technologies, feel free to share your story.

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7 thoughts on “From Children’s Literature to New Technologies: Cultural Relevance in New Media and Digital Tools

  1. Nice post, Amanda! Two things come to mind from the programs I’ve worked with on this topic:

    1. Relevance is key. I work with several programs that seem content with checking a box saying multicultural literature is present even if it may not be culturally relevant to their population. One of the things I’ve learned with working with school librarians is the importance of understanding the population first, then acquiring materials to specifically support it. If used incorrectly, general multicultural titles/resources might miss the mark and come off as little more than a patronizing nod.
    2. What’s the intention? Once you know the population, determining how you plan to connect with the children is an important next step in selecting appropriate tools. Understanding whether the resources are to serve as “mirrors” or “windows” can limit confusion. Is the intention to expose the children to various cultures that might be different from their own [windows]? Or to connect with children and show them a reflection of themselves [mirrors]?

    • Thanks for your comments and sharing your experience Andrew. Relevance and intentionality are important and prompt us to ask thoughtful questions. I have found it helpful to brainstorm with other professionals and parents when addressing these issues. Other people can sometimes point me to new content and resources and help me clarify my ideas and assess my plan.

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