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Dublin Parent Amita Roy Shah Battles Stereotypes by Writing “It’s Time for Holi!”

March 21, 2012

Dublin parent and author Amita Roy Shah wrote the children’s book “It’s Time for Holi!” to help all children get a better understanding of the Indian culture, and in particular, to help children of Indian descent connect with their culture, while growing up in America. The book has been well received and was included on the 2011 KART Kids Books List in the early grade school K-3 category. The Kart Foundation reviewed over 1,000 books to create the selective list. Ms. Shah is promoting the book with readings in classrooms across the Bay Area, while working towards a Doctor of Education (Ed.D) in Curriculum and Teaching at Columbia University. Her doctoral research is focused on the experience of South Asian Americans who decide to pursue a career in teaching.

OneDublin.org recently met with Ms. Shah to learn more about the Hindu festival Holi, also known as the festival of colors, and how incorporating multicultural celebrations in the classroom can help break through stereotypes and promote cultural understanding. Bonfires are lit on the eve of the festival and during Holi people throw perfumed and colored powder at each other in a celebration of color and inclusion.

OneDublin.org: What is the history of Holi?

Amita Roy Shah: “There are several stories that stem from Indian folklore. One story is about a blue god named Krishna who was being made fun of by his friends for being blue. Krishna went to his mother and she playfully said take these colors, we are all the same, and throw them on everyone else, and you won’t feel different anymore. So that’s what he did. Holi is about addressing discrimination in terms of race, class, religion, and eliminating that difference. There is an erasure of difference by having everyone covered with color.

OneDublin.org: What inspired you to write “It’s Time for Holi!”?

Shah: “As our nation becomes more multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and multi-linguistic, I feel we need to be more inclusive. I’ve been a teacher for the Los Angeles Unified School District and I’ve developed curriculum all across California for non-profits, and every time multicultural celebrations came up and I needed to find read along books for kids, I only found certain cultures – Chinese New Year, Kwanza, Ramadan, Hanukkah and Christmas of course, but nothing for Indian culture. This was back in 2003-4 when I was teaching and I assumed that someone would eventually write a children’s book on Indian culture – I thought something was coming.

“When my son was born I decided if I don’t do this, then I don’t think he’ll have a book that validates his experiences. Growing up as a second generation South Asian, it was very difficult for me to understand ‘Who am I?’ in the United States – my bi-cultural identity. ‘Am I Indian?’ I’m Indian at home and American at school. A lot of the books I had my parents and in-laws bring back from India were about kids in India, and not realistic for what Indian kids experience in America. The books didn’t reflect what my son will experience – being Indian and living in America.

“I decided if I don’t write a book for the third generation, to provide a book where children can see themselves, it not going to happen. I wrote the manuscript while I was already reviewing read-aloud books every day for my job, so I had a good idea of how the book should be structured. I picked Holi because it could be easily incorporated into the classroom, building on the teaching of colors and seasons.

“Finding an illustrator was difficult, because I needed someone who could create very realistic pictures. I ended up working with an illustrator in Canada who worked with pictures of my family as a reference point. The process was really challenging, how to mesh two cultures into one book. We worked together on what the characters should wear, questions like: should they wear bindis? [the dot of color or piece of jewelry worn on the forehead close to the eyebrows], should they wear jeans with an Indian kurta top?  I wanted the images to speak to children that live in a western country and are celebrating Holi.”

OneDublin.org: What questions do you get from students at the book readings you’ve held at schools?

Shah: “It’s great to be able to address stereotypes. Some kids think Indians from India are Native Americans, so we talk about that. And the kids that celebrate Holi, who have never talked about it in the classroom, get a chance to share their experiences. I also tell kids that you don’t have to be in India to celebrate Holi, that there are local celebrations. [Asha for Education’s Holi 2012 event at Stanford University takes place April 7-8, 2012 and is open to the public]

“For my research I’ve spoken to a lot of second generation South Asian Americans, and they’ve felt very isolated and confused. For example, one girl couldn’t explain the henna on her hands after returning from a wedding. Her teacher told her to go wash her hands after another student said ‘she drew on her hands with orange marker’. The girl said ‘it’s not orange marker’ but didn’t know how to explain henna. Finally the girl’s mom came to school to explain that it wasn’t marker – it was henna. Helping bridge the gap between the home culture and the school culture really helps students.”

OneDublin.org: How have the schools you’ve worked with reacted to introducing Holi to students?

Shah: “A lot of schools have thanked me for bringing Holi to their attention. They see how interdisciplinary the book is – dealing with color and seasons. My vision for the book is to have teachers integrate multicultural celebrations into lessons rather than isolating the celebrations. Too often multicultural celebrations happen in one day and then it’s over, the kids only get one piece and don’t get an understanding of what the culture means. I hope that teachers will bring in culturally relevant literature and culturally relevant pedagogy into the classroom to help all children relate to their culture. The students who are from diverse cultures can also talk about their experiences or have their parents come in to to show children how to put on a sari for example, things just as simple that, to help children understand other cultures. While putting on the sari, it’s important for parents to share some of the knowledge, values, and beliefs that stem from the culture so that students can develop an accurate understanding of the culture that goes beyond the food, fashion, and fads of the culture.”

OneDublin.org: Are things improving, is it getting easier for second generation students?

Shah: “Sometimes I feel like we’re making progress, but it is gradual. Most people haven’t heard of Holi, but Diwali is more well-known now. When I was growing up nobody was aware of Diwali. We are making progress, but there is so much people don’t know or understand about Indian culture. It’s so easy to get kids excited about multicultural celebrations, and to create kinesthetic, hands-on activities that kids love. There is so much potential for the classroom.”

OneDublin.org: With the pressure on standardized test scores, is integrating culture in the classroom possible?

Shah: “I believe there are multiple ways to achieve program standards. Teachers are given a standard that they have to teach to, I get that, but there are so many ways teachers can meet that standard. Our students’ backgrounds, cultures and stories are so diverse and that should be celebrated in our classrooms.”

OneDublin.org: What guidance do you have for parents and educators looking to promote a multi-cultural society?

Shah: “It starts with integrating authentic, real-life examples from the community into the classroom rather than using stereotypic examples. Because we live in such a multicultural world we have people with diverse experiences that can be brought into the classroom. Parents should encourage their children to present about their culture in school. There are so many things students are doing outside school that are about their culture. Sometimes children don’t know how to share their cultural experience, and that’s where the parents can help.”

Amita Roy Shah earned a B.A. in International Studies / Business Management at the University of California – Irvine, a Masters in Education from Pepperdine University and is working towards a Ed.D. in Curriculum and Teaching at Columbia University. “It’s Time for Holi” is available in major bookstores, on Amazon.com and as an iBook via iTunes.

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