Teaching Cultural Universals Using Children's Literature: "Mirrors"

By Lisa Buchanan posted 09-12-2017 10:19:58 AM


“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” --Anais Nin

This book review is the first in a series of reviews of exemplary children’s books for teaching social studies. For this inaugural blog, I decided to feature my favorite children’s book, Mirror by Jeannie Baker. Mirror is wordless picture book illustrating the daily lives of two children across the Earth from one another: a child in Valley of Rose, a rural region of Morocco, and one in a suburban region of Sydney, Australia. In this blog post, I am going to focus primarily on the opportunities for using Mirror to examine cultural universals and the elements of mutuality and diversity. In addition to a well-thought-out delivery of culture, Mirror illustrates all ten themes of the National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies. How many picture books do that? It is a remarkable title.

Teaching Cultural Universals Using Children’s Literature

In Baker’s trademark style, mixed-media scenes are built using natural and recycled materials. Scenes of simple, daily life interactions like morning routines, commutes to school and work, trade, meal preparation, family time in the evening, and technology use all contribute to the evolving narratives of the two children. The physical design of this title offers something seldom seen in children’s literature. The left and right side of the book are printed for side by side, simultaneous reading. This side by side layout allows the reader to identify similarities and differences between the two children as well as text to self connections for these daily interactions.

A Mirror Concept

In both the book’s title and content, Baker challenges us as readers to consider how the two stories mirror one another as well as how our own stories (e.g., text to self connections) are mirrored in the narratives found in the book. The ways in which our stories are different are equally important to identify, and given the amazing detail of Baker’s illustrations, readers are able to identify differences in Baker’s stories as well as among their classmates. Mirror serves as a great starting point for conversations about diversity and mutuality between young learners. In the “Additional Resources” at the end of this blog post, you will find other picture books that can be used in conjunction with Mirror to extend your teaching of the mirror concept to understand diversity and mutuality.

Potential Classroom Applications for Mirror and Cultural Universals

While an obvious use of Mirror would be in the shared reading model, my favorite activities are completed in small groups. For small groups, I provide one copy of Mirror to each group of 4-5 students.

Cultural Universals Focus

family traditions and values, shared mealtime, trade, transportation, homes

ELA Goals

Students will be able to compare and contrast texts about a common topic for differences and similarities in content.
Students will read and respond to informational texts.
Students will identify text to self connections.

Compelling Questions

How do each of the family’s spend their time throughout the day (e.g., sharing an evening meal)? What can we infer this tells us about what they value? Each family participates in some form of trade of goods throughout the day. Where does your family shop for food or home supplies? How does this differ in different geographic regions (e.g., urban, suburban, rural)? In each story, the families use various modes of transportation throughout the day. How does your family travel? How might this vary depending on your geographic region and climate? In what ways do the families share space in their homes? How are their homes similar and different?

Application 1: One thing I love about Baker’s work is her capacity for weaving a story within a story. Children may notice a special connection between the two homes--the beautiful tapestry rug. This story within a story shows the "interconnectedness" of people. You may want to extend this during your teaching to brainstorm with students the various ways in which they are interconnected with each other and others outside of the classroom. Using visual mapping here can help students literally see this often uncelebrated connected nature of humans.

Application 2: Select one pair of scenes in Mirror (e.g., locating and selecting goods) and illustrate your own family’s routine for doing the same.

Application 3: This book illustrates an entire day in the lives of each family. Have students create a timeline using phrases, time markers, and images to illustrate an entire day with their family.

Application 4: In small groups, research the demographics, geography, agriculture, and interesting facts about Australia and Morocco. Both are featured in the Interactive World Map described below under “Additional Resources.” Use the information collected to create small group diagrams comparing and contrasting the two.

Application 5: Assign each small group a pair of scenes illustrating the boys’ homes (e.g., morning routine). At each group, students discuss how their homes are similar and different from the pair of scenes. Debrief as a class, helping make explicit the universals of home life (e.g., shared mealtime, sleep behaviors, morning routine, meal preparation, pets, technology use, how we share space in our homes).

Additional Resources

Look for a full article on teaching family, a cultural universal, titled What Makes a Family? Sharing Multiple Perspectives through an Inclusive Text Set in the November/December 2017 issue of Social Studies and the Young Learner from Christina M. Tschida and Lisa Brown Buchanan. Other resources you will want to explore for ideas for teaching cultural universals include Rebecca Sanchez’s piece What We Treasure and Who We Are (2007) in Social Studies and the Young Learner and National Geographic Kids’ Interactive World Map. Sanchez’s piece describes great opportunities for artifact analysis and students’ responses for individual development and identity. The Interactive World Map is an easy to navigate information hub for locations worldwide. Each entry, once selected, provides beautiful photographs, basic facts, and informational text especially helpful for research. You can find both Morocco and Australia included here!

The following children’s books can be joined with Mirror by Jeannie Baker as a thematic text set on teaching cultural universals:
One World, One Day, Barbara Kerley
This is the Way We Go to School, Edith Baer
Family Pictures, Carmen Lomas Garza
In My Family, Carmen Lomas Garza
Same, Same, but Different, Jenny Kostecki-Shaw
This is How We Do It: One Day in the Lives of Seven Kids from Around the World, Matt Lamothe

Dr. Lisa Brown Buchanan is an Associate Professor of Elementary Social Studies at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. If you have questions or want to share feedback on this blog post, please email Lisa at buchananl@uncw.edu.

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