Embracing Diversity in Schools
The Many Cultures of Our Nation
In the 21st century, America is once again the refuge for people from all across the world. While a few come here with mayhem in their hearts, the vast majority of people who emigrate to our land are trying to make a life for themselves and their families. This has been the way our country has grown for over 200 years. In the 19th century, there was tremendous racism around the Irish and Italian immigrants who streamed to our shores and landed at Ellis Island. For many of us, who have been endowed with the pure image of Americanism from the start of our lives, our ancestors did not fare so well. The current groups of people, mostly from Mexico and Central America, who are entering the United States, are also facing a daunting public that is not always supportive of their brave venture.
When I was a teacher, I taught large numbers of students from immigrant families. I enjoyed these students, and the mutual respect that we shared was very strong. I can remember many instances when a student from a family of immigrants, just like my non-immigrant families, would forget that I was their teacher and we were at school; they would accidentally call me "dad." This inadvertent error was followed with a sheepish grin and sometimes followed with an apology. I always set their minds at ease and told them, "I am not their dad, but understood that this was a mistake that could happen and that I was honored that they would make this mistake." I never took offense at this and just realized that I had made serious connections with students, who would make this error.
Our schools have students from every nation on Earth in them. Some of these students struggle with the work and have difficulties adapting to our culture. Many of them bring a new perspective, and this is an opportunity to learn from them as well. When we drive around a southwestern state, we see homes and businesses styled in Mediterranean and Hispanic architecture. We find restaurants with a variety of dishes from around the world, but we also find many establishments serving food from Mexico and South America. We embrace the things that we enjoy about other cultures, but tend to see too many of the challenges as burdens on our own society.
The Brave Adventurers Who Came to a New Land
One thing that we all have in common in this country is that, with the exception of Native Americans, we all either arrived from somewhere else or had ancestors who were brave enough to take a risk. When most people think of immigrants, they do not think of brave adventurers who left their land, culture, family, and language to take a risk and join another culture. This other culture is not always friendly and many barriers are placed in the way of these adventurers as they try to transition to a new way of life and different expectations. We don't think of these brave people as steadfast pioneers, but maybe we should change our frame of reference.
Over the years, I have had many students describe their parents, who were immigrants, as being kind of "old school." The students were concerned that their parents would not allow them to interact or have an experience that seemed risky, based on their experiences or perceptions. Typically, this happened around the time I would take students to a week of Science Camp in the local mountains. Students would express concerns that their parents would not let them attend. I would hold parent meetings and would communicate with the families, and would include pictures from past years to alleviate the concerns. I made sure we had funding in place, so that money was not an issue. Under these circumstances, most parents would allow their students to travel to science camp.
The issues that these parents faced were real in their minds. They had traveled, often with very little resources, hundreds or thousands of miles. They came to a new country with new ideas, and tremendous cultural differences. These parents had worked very hard to create a stable life for their families, and now this teacher, me, wants to take one of their children to the mountains for five days. This created uncertainty in their families, and was hard for them to see the value in this type of learning and development of independence. Most overcame this and their students did get to attend and generally enjoyed their time at camp. The kids would usually describe their parents as being very protective, and I would correct them and let them know it was because they cared about them intensely. I would explain to them that they should respect their parents and everything they had risked for them. I would sometimes talk about the risk they took to bring their children to the United States and compare this with the pioneers we studied in our Social Studies textbooks. We need to constantly form and build mutual respect and admiration for the students and families we work with. Even now, when I think about the effort it would take to uproot my family and move, it re-frames this issue in my mind and enhances the respect I feel for all of the families who have chosen to go on this grand adventure.
Our Classrooms Benefit
A multicultural classroom is a microcosm reflection of the world we live in. The biggest danger that America represents to other nations of the world, who rival us, is not our military might, or powerful economy. It is our multi-ethnic society built on respect and trust, role modeling a future that could be scaled up worldwide. The power of this model for global thought and perspective is true in our classrooms too, and our students get the benefit of sharing ideas, cultural values and creativity derived from different worldviews. If we want our students to be global thinkers, with a collaborative problem solving approach to the issues they face, then having them in class with students from other cultural backgrounds can only enhance the experience. In many instances the adults have more challenges with this global concept than the young people do. Adults view this with preconceived notions based on their limited ethnocentric experiences. The students don't have very much of that mapped out in their minds because of their lack of negative perceived experiences. The students are young and have much higher levels of mental plasticity, and so they are much more friendly, open and ready to learn and play together.
The adults are almost always the weak link when it comes to working with students from different cultures. The adults can be parents who are not well educated, and who may be suffering from poverty. They can be educators who do not believe in a mission to develop global thinkers. Some adults love in a mythical past of Utopian reality that never really existed. A place in their minds eye, where the US will successfully become an isolationist nation again with an internal economy only. They can be administrators who see students of diversity as a problem to just be measured for outcome and not get to understand the students as people who matter and have real lives to live. Or, they can be a political class, who are not well educated in the realities of immigration and the effects of this upheaval on the young mind of a child who hears in the news and on media that they are not welcomed to be a part of our nation.
This is not meant to be a judgement of immigration policy, but we really need to think of the impact that the political rhetoric has on children. These young people are watching the news and making decisions based on what they see, read, and hear. Our students, from whatever culture they come from, are marvelous human creations with the potential to cure cancer and build a better world. Let's give them the tools, mutual respect and adoration so that they feel welcomed, supported and are a part of their new extended American family.
© 2019 Scott P Davis