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Reading Series Developed To Counter Prejudice

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A reading curriculum designed to promote children's understanding of social and educational inequities based on sex, race, and disability and to show how such discrimination can be overcome is being promoted to major textbook publishers.

Developed by the Council on Interracial Books for Children Inc., the "mini-basal readers" are the product of a two-year, $240,000 project funded by the Women's Educational Equity Act Program (weeap), a federal aid program that fosters educational equity for women. The readers were introduced recently at a workshop for 10 publishers in New York City.

Intended for use in the third and fifth grades, the curriculum materials--known as embers 3 and embers 5--consist of an anthology of readings and a teacher's manual for each grade. (embers is an acronym for Equity Models for Basal Readers.)

The embers readers, which are intended to supplement basic reading textbooks, contain stories, poems, essays, and biographical sketches that were specially chosen or specifically written for the project. They address ideas about friendship, families, culture, social action, and equality, among other concepts, and examine issues surrounding race, sex, and physical disability.

One of the readings, for example, is an account of Rosa Parks's refusal to move to the back of the bus--the incident that sparked the series of civil-rights protests in the 1960's.

Stimulate 'Critical Thinking'

The teachers' manuals, which the council considers central to the curricular project, include information and class activities to stimulate students' "critical thinking, desire for further inquiry, and responsive action ... and to improve the communication skills of reading and writing, listening, and speaking," according to Ruth S. Meyers, co-director of Project embers and a professor of educational psychology at New York University. Each lesson in the embers books concludes with ways students can take action to change an inequitable situation.

Reaction to the project--which was tested in 26 classrooms in 18 schools around the country from November through February--has been enthusiastic, according to Jamila Gaston-Colon, coordinator of the project for the council.

Two publishers--Open Court Publishing Co., a major publisher of elementary texts in language arts in La Salle, Ill., and The Feminist Press in Old Westbury, N.Y.--have "expressed interest" in publishing the readers for general distribution, she said. And several publishers have told the council that they would consider incorporating the ideas in the embers readers into their own reading series.

"If publishers adopt the ideas," she added, "that is wonderful, but we hope they will pick up" the entire project. The project, she said, was developed by "curriculum specialists with special skills and special experience with equity issues."

The council is actively seeking a commercial publisher or private funds to underwrite publication and distribution of the books by the council, which is a nonprofit organization.

The National Education Association (nea) has shown interest in having similar readers developed for other elementary grades, she said.

At the publishers' New York gathering, Jack Kleinmann, executive director of the Foundation for the Improvement of Education, an affiliate of the nea, told the group: "Speaking for the nea, we are extremely interested in the program. We would be partners in every sense of the word."

Project embers' readers include material by black and third world writers, some of which has not been previously published orwas out of print. Other selections were commissioned for the project.

One such story, "Space Sisters," is an account of three girls from different backgrounds who hope to win a trip to Cape Canaveral by collaborating on a science project. The girls squabble and reconcile and seek technical advice from their mothers (one of whom is a paramedic, another of whom is a law student).

They don't win the prize, but are comforted by the father of one of the girls, who suggests that they've learned to work together.

Lesson plans for a story told by a blind child include an essay for the teacher on stereotypes associated with disabilities, strategies for introducing the ideas in the story to the students (such as allowing the children to walk around the classroom blindfolded and discussing what they heard and felt), as well as ideas for introducing new vocabulary and literary forms.

After reading the story to themselves, students can be assigned to look for examples of how caricatures of disabled persons are used for comic effect in TV programs or cartoons. Additional reading on the life of Helen Keller is also proposed.

The teacher's guide ends each unit of study with a section, "Taking Action," which offers ways to foster "social responsibility" among students. In the case of the third-grade unit on physical disabilities, it proposes that students survey school facilities for changes that would increase disabled persons' access to the school and that they write about their findings for the school newspaper.

Applications Reviewed

The Project embers staff is currently reviewing evaluations of the readers provided by the teachers and students who tested them and by reading and curriculum specialists, according to Ms. Gaston-Colon.

Although the council had anticipated objections to some of the material--such as depictions of racial incidents in the third-grade anthology--there have been virtually none, she said. The evaluations have proposed revisions, however, including the suggestion, made by students, to include more single-parent families in the stories and pictures. In addition, teachers have pointed out topics and forms (such as poems) that may be too advanced for the particular grade levels.

The two grades were selected for the reading project, according to the council, because it is widely believed that third grade is the level at which children begin to read for enjoyment and that by the fifth grade children read to acquire ideas.

Although the council believes that the ideas contained in the embers readers are not sufficiently covered by traditional reading series, Bradford Chambers, director of the council, denies the charge, contained in an unsigned article in the April issue of Conservative Digest, a magazine published by the "New Right" leader Richard A. Viguerie, that "the council considers most children's classics to be racist and sexist."

The council's purpose, Mr. Chambers said, is to analyze children's books and school textbooks for bias and to assist in counteracting stereotypes. "All literature reflects, to some degree, the values of the period in which it was written. Books [that are racist or sexist] can be used constructively to help children understand bias."

He noted that the Digest erroneously describes the second of weeap's two grants to the council as a grant "to publish a 'feminist basal reader' for third-graders." The federal money does not support publication of the books developed by the project, which focuses on two grades, not one.

According to the council's grant proposal to the federal women's education program, the model readers are intended to "make publishers aware of the type of materials needed to help students understand the need for equity in education."

"The materials foster fundamental values on which we'd all agree," commented Sharon Robinson, director of instruction and professional development for the nea "I'd regard any effort to cast them otherwise as a rather disingenuous effort to bring in materials that are not relevant."

Leslie R. Wolfe, director of weeap since August 1979 until last week (see story on page 11), describes the embers readers as "one of the most successful projects" the program has funded. "They are extraordinary basal readers that will go a long way toward breaking down stereotypes. Many publishers do believe that it is important to have books that deal with children of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, and they will respond to what the council has done."

Susan Walton contributed to this article.

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