Diversify Your Homeschool Plan with Vanishing Cultures

By Adrienne Furness

Diversify Your Homeschool Plan with Vanishing Cultures
by Adrienne Furness

Most homeschooling parents will say that one of their favorite things about homeschooling is having the flexibility and freedom to explore topics with a richness and depth not possible in institutional schools. Whether they are using highly structured or eclectic curriculums, homeschoolers often look for materials to support and extend their studies. Parents know that one of the most important lessons a child can learn is the value of examining subjects from a variety of perspectives, which is why literature that reflects the diversity of our world should be a part of every family's homeschooling plan.

A Diverse Perspective
The Vanishing Cultures Series by Jan Reynolds focuses on seven relatively unknown cultures and the unique landscapes in which they live. The books provide myriad opportunities to explore different cultures' stories and enrich any number of subjects. Each book in the series is a photo-essay that follows a child of an indigenous culture, giving a sense of the family's daily life and routine. The books are written at a grade-school level easily understood by children as young as five and can also be read independently by readers who can handle basic chapter books. High-quality, illustrative photographs cover each two-page spread, so the books make excellent browsing for prereaders and reluctant readers. The engaging photographs also make the books ideal for reading to a group. If you are homeschooling multiple children of different ages, these are the kinds of books you can give older children to read aloud to younger ones, thus providing an opportunity for shared learning as some children practice reading skills, others practice listening skills, and all are exposed to information that connects to many areas of your curriculum.

Older children will also find more to explore in the front and back matter of the books. Maps show the region where each group of people lives, both from a global and more focused perspective. Children will also appreciate Reynolds's notes at the end of the books. They give personal accounts of her travels, including how she made contact with the people profiled in the book and how the time she spent with the families impacted and changed her view of herself and the world. These reflections can spur children to consider their own assumptions about the world and provide excellent springboards for discussions, projects, and further research and exploration.

Most children wind up studying biomes at one point or another in their elementary years. The Vanishing Cultures Series provides information that easily enables you to include human life in the exploration of the flora, fauna, and climate of different biotic regions. Take deserts as an example. You could start by examining books that give the basics about what makes a desert a desert, such as About Habitats: Deserts by Cathryn and John Sill, The Dry Desert: A Web of Life by Philip Johansson, and Looking Closely Across the Desert (from the Looking Closely series) by Frank Serafini. Nonfiction books with a more personal slant, including Jim Arnosky's Watching Desert Wildlife and Jan Reynolds's Sahara (from Lee & Low's Vanishing Cultures Series), give a sense of particulars. Arnosky records his observations of wildlife in the American Southwest, while Reynolds chronicles life among the Tuareg, a nomadic people who have survived in one of the world's harshest climates for generations. Discussions could center around how people, plants, and animals adapt to different environments. Projects could include creating posters that illustrate the animals and peoples who populate different deserts around the world, creating a diorama of a particular desert, writing a story from a desert animal's perspective, or writing an essay comparing a desert to other biomes. This multidimensional approach could be applied to any of the world's biomes, putting biomes in a social and geographic context that will make studying science more engaging and memorable.

Ecological Studies
Many children are interested in and concerned about the environment, but usually they study ecology through the lens of endangered wildlife. Children often do not realize how changes to our environment also impact people and cultures that have endured for centuries. In her author's note in Amazon Basin, Reynolds points out that many people are aware of the impact deforestation of the Amazon is having on animal life and the global environment. However, few are talking about the ways deforestation is changing life for people such as the Yanomama, whose culture is heavily tied to the rain forest and all it provides. The effect of environmental changes on people is addressed in all of Reynolds's books but is particularly evident in the ways public policies and infrastructure have changed life for nomadic groups such as the Inuit in Frozen Land and the Mongolians in Mongolia.

How Do You Tie It All Together?
If your children are interested in endangered wildlife, as so many are, instead of focusing exclusively on animals, focus on ecology as a whole. Pair Amazon Basin with books such as Rainforest Food Chains by Molly Aloian and Bobbie Kalman, The Tropical Rain Forest: A Web of Life (from the series A World of Biomes) by Philip Johansson, and Rain Forests: A Nonfiction Companion to Afternoon on the Amazon (from the series Magic Tree House Research Guides) by Will Osborne and Mary Pope Osborne. Watch DVDs such as All About Food Chains (from the series Animal Life for Children in the Schlessinger Science Library). Talk about how interruptions in rain forest food chains have affected the plants, animals, and people who live in rain forests. Activities could include creating diagrams that demonstrate the relationships between plants, animals, and people; looking for endangered rain forest animals during a visit to the zoo; identifying ways your family can have an impact on the rain forest (perhaps by finding ways to reduce paper consumption in your home); and researching articles online to find out how life has changed for the Yanomama since Amazon Basin was first published. These types of activities and book pairings would work equally well for any book in the Vanishing Cultures Series.

Looking for More?
Maintaining an open and diverse perspective has value in every area of your curriculum. The suggestions above are just a few examples of how to incorporate diverse children's literature into your family's studies. Browse the Lee & Low website for more titles that will tie into numerous subjects, including science, social studies (history and geography), math, and the arts. Watch the video Cultural Adventure with Jan Reynolds for a documentary perspective on Reynolds's travels. Consult local libraries and librarians. To find listings of books that address diversity, along with recommendations for how to use these books effectively, explore books such as Across Cultures: A Guide for Multicultural Literature for Children (Children's and Young Adult Literature Reference Series) by Kathy Easy and Rebecca L. Thomas and Understanding Diversity Through Novels and Picture Books by Liz Knowles and Martha Smith.

Learning about the world's many peoples and cultures helps build awareness, tolerance, and understanding. The knowledge gained will also help children approach the world with curiosity and interest instead of mistrust and fear — a fine goal for all of us at any age.

Adrienne Furness is a writer and Children's Librarian at the Webster Public Library outside of Rochester, New York. She is the author of ALA Editions' Helping Homeschoolers in the Library and continues to explore the homeschooling world and help build good relationships between libraries and homeschooling families on her blog, Homeschooling and Libraries.

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