We are in the midst of a global social action in support of Black Lives Matter. At the core of the recent protests and demonstrations is the issue of systemic racism, an undeniable reality in our world. My daughter recently returned from France and is in quarantine at the moment, so we've been having daily conversations about the realities of systemic racism. My kids are biracial. Perhaps my daughter is attuned to the issue of systemic racism implicitly as she has heard the stories from her mom and now is putting the pieces together in these times of heightened awareness and the need to understand what is happening. All of this has got me thinking about the necessity for increased awareness and understanding so we can transcend from centuries old paradigms of racism, bigotry, and inequality.
For many in our society systemic racism wasn't a problem because it wasn't a problem before the events leading to the current protests throughout our world; situational blindness dictated that we didn't know what we didn't know. Now that the spotlight is on, and rightfully so, what is the potential opportunity for schools to take action and become explicit about what kids need to be aware of and know so the system can be rewritten without the racism that permeates it?
I wrote a piece several years ago in response to what I believe is a moral imperative of educational institutions to not only represent diverse cultures, cultural perspectives, and cultural practices, but leverage them for the benefit of all. I argue that diversity is not a challenge, but an opportunity for schools to change the context of learning in ways that celebrate and honour diversity as opposed to vilifying and stereotyping it.
The following appears as the final chapter for a book entitled Innovative Voices In Education - Engaging Diverse Communities. Here's what I wrote:
Multicultural to Intercultural: Developing Interdependent Learners
Kids from every corner of the globe attend Canadian schools; simply acknowledging this multiculturalism isn't good enough anymore. We need to move beyond a reciprocal appreciation of our differences toward an intercultural perspective that maximizes the social, emotional and academic potential of every student. We do this by fostering and teaching intercultural competence... the ability to effectively communicate with and learn from people of other cultures. This chapter introduces the Hope Wheel; an action oriented learning tool designed to support the development of respect, understanding, relationships and responsibility as students become interdependent travellers on the journey toward sociocultural and academic competence. To help prepare our children for the realities of their future, and to function more productively within the realities of the present, educators must embrace the diversity of our world and do everything they can to help kids connect with and learn from each other.
When I started teaching seventeen years ago, little did I know that my first job would have so much influence on my perspective toward culture, and in particular the concept of cultural diversity. I took a position teaching first and second grade at Tall Cree, an Indian reservation in the far north of Alberta, Canada. The community I taught at was remote; three hours of gravel roads after the pavement ended. I lived in a teacherage beside the school in the community that had no services, just houses, a school, a church and a Band Administration Office. I and four other teachers were the only non-Aboriginal people living in the community of about two hundred residents.
In Canada we are for the most part proud of the multicultural mosaic of people that make up the population of our vast country. I grew up learning and understanding that multiculturalism was a good thing. I was used to living among people representing cultures from around the globe, so why was I so anxious about living and teaching on this Indian reservation in my home province? I chalked it up to nerves surrounding my first teaching job, but deep down I knew it was more than that. Despite growing up immersed in a multicultural society, and near many Aboriginal communities, I was crazy nervous about actually living and interacting with these people whom I really knew nothing about at all.
I was about to realize that multiculturalism was not the positive conduit I thought it to be toward an understanding and culturally interdependent society. I was about to realize that a peaceful, understanding and culturally interdependent society depends on our willingness to engage each other, learn from each other and do everything we can to understand each other’s perspective.
The Thing about Culture…
There is some irony in the word culture. German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger stated interestingly that “culture is a little like dropping an Alka-Seltzer into a glass- you don't see it, but somehow it does something.” (Enzensberger, 2010) It’s a word that most people would claim to understand, but have some difficulty clearly defining. We represent culture from our personal perspective; we wear it on our sleeves. In so many ways our culture makes us unique, but it’s also what defines us as part of a group; we are unique and homogeneous at the same time. Perhaps the best description of culture I’ve heard is simply how we do things around here, each one of us as part of a group consisting of people and elements that are very similar.
The complex function of human diversity we call culture helps identify us as individuals, and as groups within a world that is growing and shrinking at the same time. It’s easier than ever for people from every corner of the globe to mobilize and connect because contemporary technology has made physical and social mobility more efficient and accessible to us... the distance between us is shrinking. We are exposed to each other as a result like never before; our history, language, customs, religions and perspectives... our awareness of each other is expanding.
This new global reality presents both challenge and opportunity. We are challenged to coexist peacefully and purposefully in ever-closer proximity than we appear to be comfortable with. Attempts to create cultural uniformity addressing this challenge have repeatedly failed. If we can’t all be the same, perhaps a shift in thinking that views our differences as assets instead of deficits would be the good medicine required to initiate a new paradigm. Refocusing our diversity this way is our cultural and moral opportunity on the path toward increased interdependence and peace. After all these years of coexisting sociocultural harmony continues to elude us.We have to learn how to get along.
Where Do Schools Fit In?
As opposed to simply reflecting the multicultural nature of society, the social learning places we call schools are uniquely aligned to exercise a moral priority (Fullan, 2003) to re-frame it as one of cultural interdependence; an intercultural society. In society, and in schools, the ignorance, and perhaps prejudice we display while coexisting in a multicultural environment percolates under a facade of tolerance and acceptance. Multi as a prefix simply means having many. Inter as a prefix means amid, among, between, mutually, reciprocally, together, within… words that connote interaction within a group. To tip an evolution toward engaging intercultural school environments that replace multicultural tolerance and acceptance with competent intercultural understanding of and respect toward others, schools need to create positive opportunities for multicultural kids to peacefully and purposefully share more than just space. They need to share personal and group cultural perspectives with each other.
Diverse schools that emphasize teaching all students how to be peaceful and purposeful (hopeful) have the capacity to produce young people who advocate for and demonstrate peace and hope in a larger social context; the effort is scalable.
We are hearing the call for change in our education system loud and clear from every angle, but how to contextualize that change is a big question. If we frame diversity as variance or divergence it becomes synonymous with change. It seems a natural assumption that diverse schools would support the process of educational change. Globally recognized Canadian education reform researcher, Michael Fullan, asserts that “as the main institution for fostering social cohesion in an increasingly diverse society, publicly funded schools must serve all children, not simply those with the loudest or most powerful advocates.” (Fullan, 2003, p. 29) Fullan’s words, main institution for fostering social cohesion in an increasingly diverse society… resonate with me. Schools have the capacity to be the mirror instead of the reflection. Instead of reflecting society, schools can shape the image of society by demonstrating a paradigm shift from multiculturalism to interculturalism. As intercultural learning laboratories, schools provide an environment where intercultural perspectives can be practised and evaluated continuously.
A balance is struck in culturally diverse schools when students realize that being different isn’t a quality reserved for others, but rather a state that describes each one of them. When students learn how to celebrate this balance in support and recognition of each other, the gap of ignorance between them narrows, and they begin to function as interdependent learners on their way to becoming well-adjusted, high-functioning peaceful global citizens of an intercultural society.
Perspective- Our Cultural Looking Glass
The circumstances that surround every single conversation about culture are a sum total of the perceptions of those participating. If we are to peacefully and hopefully engage each other, we have to try to understand and empathize with each other’s cultural perceptions. Twisting our cultural lens a bit focuses awareness of how self-identity is influenced by our perception of others, the world and everything within it. Culture is what we believe.
I used to teach at Venture Middle School, a specialized, segregated middle school program designed for kids whose behaviour and social-emotional problems were too severe for them to stay in a traditional classroom. My colleagues and I worked very hard to get to know these kids perceiving that there was more to the story about why they ended up with us than met the eye. In order to learn the stories behind our students’ stories, we had to identify as best we could, their cultural perspectives. David Nicholson was one of my teaching colleagues in the program. At the end of one particularly challenging day he said, “I think I’m starting to understand these kids; to them we’re the strange ones.” At the time I’m not sure we fully understood the profound impact this game-changing epiphany would have on our program.
We perceived that these students came from different worlds; what we understood as cultures of poverty, neglect, violence, abuse and a litany of other social and environmental cultural realities- cultures most of us weren’t personally very familiar with. This reality radically affected their ability to conform to what we thought was a pretty effective intervention model.
In their perspective however, where our students came from was what they understood to be normal; their reality. We were trying to address their social and emotional needs from our cultural perspective, not theirs. Enlightened by David’s realization, we redesigned our program backwards based on what our students needed from their cultural perspective instead of what we thought we needed to see from ours. We listened to them, we cried with them and we became hopeful by taking action to help them adjust to a broader world offering different forms of support and care previously withheld in the environments they knew.
Shifting our focus from how we could reform our students so we could return them well-packaged to fit nicely in a homogeneous mainstream classroom, to how we could better understand our students’ cultural perceptions about what they needed from us was a major shift. We worked on building trusting relationships with our students by assuring them we would not judge them. As they became more at ease understanding we had no reform agenda, they began to engage us. We listened to their stories, and they became valuable interpersonal learning tools for us and them. We were becoming culturally interdependent. We began to understand that ‘normal’ is just a setting on the clothes dryer, and that honouring the unique and personal elements of our students’ cultural perspectives was key to creating a school where all felt a sense of belonging. It was then that we could begin helping them formulate a purpose behind their presence within our school program. We became solution-focused collaborators, writing learning stories with our students instead of for them. It was an empowering shift for all of us.
Exposing how we perceive the world, and in turn becoming open to alternate points of view causes the lens we look through to gain a broader and clearer scope. Exercising opportunities to see the world through the eyes of others allows us to challenge our own perceptions; to reflect on our purpose and the manner in which we influence the world. The interpersonal tools we access to negotiate cultural understanding become sharper and more focused when we open ourselves up in this way.
When I started teaching my friends back home used to ask me what it was like to live and work on an Indian Reservation. I didn’t have to think very hard about the answer. I was quickly realizing that living among the Woodland Cree people in my new home a mere seven hundred kilometres away from my old home was as different to me as I could imagine it would be living seven thousand kilometres away on the other side of the world in a foreign country. I became increasingly ashamed that I hadn’t learned more about these people with whom I shared a home province. I didn’t really know the first thing about them. I was humbled by their willingness to embrace me as they openly and naturally shared the rich and timeless nature of their traditional ways, language, spirituality and customs, elements that have undeniably influenced my perspective toward life, culture and teaching in profound ways. I am so grateful to have been blessed by this experience. I felt supported and important to my new community. As I became increasingly aware of the people surrounding me who were so different, their perspectives and beliefs influenced my perspectives and beliefs.
I was fully exposed while living and teaching as a minority within an Aboriginal community. Members of the community didn’t make explicit efforts to teach me their traditional ways, they just went about living them. Realizing there was much to be learned from immersing myself in their day to day lives, I let go of my anxiety and started to become intercultural before I even had any real notion of the term, or its meaning.
The irony of my position living and teaching in that remote northern community became more apparent to me over time. I was hired by this group of tribal people to teach their children when in reality, simply by being there, I was learning more from them than they were from me. I began to wonder why the school that was re-shaping my cultural perspective couldn’t evolve as an institution that shaped the broader perceptions of Aboriginal culture. I formed a belief that schools have the capacity to be natural conduits for teaching culture. We teach what we know. Schools that know culture have much to offer in leading society toward open and informed cultural perspectives.
Perspective of Schools- Our Cultural Microscope
My observation is that schools typically take a reactive position in relation to the challenges of society. We adjust our practise according to what we perceive our communities and the larger society need from us. Whether schools should continue functioning in a reactive context toward social challenges is another big question. I think we can do better for our children by providing an example that teaches them to be proactive. The diverse nature and far-reaching social scope of public schools create powerful potential to influence socio-cultural attitudes. Schools should think bigger.
Schools provide real-time, action oriented opportunities to explore the dynamics of culture. Instead of reacting to cultural realities affecting our school environments from outside our walls, we should be seizing the opportunity to lead a necessary paradigm shift in how we view our role within a diverse society. As institutions formed for the purpose of educating, schools are highly suited to the leadership challenge of teaching society how to be culturally proactive.
It’s time for educators to take action on this reality and lead schools in becoming intercultural learning places that perceive cultural diversity as an asset, not a deficit. On behalf of society, schools would then be intercultural proving grounds; places where our communities look for direction and insight regarding the recognition that what we’ve viewed as our multicultural challenge is much better framed as our intercultural opportunity.
My Hopeful (Actionable) Future…
Iconic Austrian psychologist, Viktor Frankl once said that “Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated, thus, everyone's task is unique as his specific opportunity to implement it.” (Frankl) We are here on earth for a purpose. Many of us may not understand yet what that purpose is, but it’s there for all of us. I believe purpose is the element that defines our hope. When we lose hope, we become purposeless.
Hopeful schools leverage intercultural synergy to improve the quality of their learning environments. They understand the imperative to prepare kids for the global realities of a changing world, and they surround the hope they have for their students with concrete conceptual teaching, designed to explicitly prepare a new generation of culturally responsive global citizens. In this sense their hope becomes purposeful.
Joseph Welsh Elementary School, where I serve as a teacher and vice-principal, recently became a member of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Associated Schools Project Network (ASP Net.) A major goal of ASP Net is to promote and support intercultural, collaborative learning connections among associated schools around the world. UNESCO frames learning within four pillars: Learning to know; Learning to do; Learning to be and Learning to live together. (Canadian Commission for UNESCO) These pillars frame purposeful learning brilliantly, and align in a synergistic way with a developmental model I created called the Hope Wheel.
I created the Hope Wheel during graduate school as part of my action research while working at Venture Middle School. I was struggling to visualize a paradigm that encompassed the intercultural perspective our program was shifting toward. I returned to the roots of my professional teaching choosing a medicine wheel model to represent my evolving point of view. My experience working and living among First Nations people exposed me to timeless wisdom surrounding learning philosophy. To First Nations people, learning is the essence of living; it’s organic and natural, and for many, represented by the medicine wheel in one form or another.
Michael and Judy Bopp are co-founders of Four Worlds International, a human and community development organization with roots in indigenous peoples’ development work in North America and well known for its ability to bridge between the cultures of communities and the culture of the agencies and professionals who attempt to serve them. (Bopp J. B., 2006) They explain that,
Medicine in tribal tradition refers to any substance, process, teaching, song, story or symbol that helps to restore balance in human beings and their communities. The medicine wheel is an ancient symbol which represents an entire world view (a way of seeing and knowing) and the teachings that go with it. (Bopp J. B., 2006, p. 22)Borrowing from the timeless wisdom of the medicine wheel provides us with all we need to establish a simple, non-linear framework of intercultural purpose.
The Hope Wheel became a powerful guide for my colleagues and me as we navigated the varied cultural perspectives of our students. We placed our students on the Hope Wheel relative to their experiences in life, how they viewed them and the emotions created as a result. As we became aware of their social, emotional and cognitive states (what we framed as their cultural perspectives,) we were able to work with them in purpose-driven contexts as they learned to advance themselves on the wheel in different domains of learning how to know, do, be and live with each other. We formed meaningful dialog around each student’s variable position on the wheel, and used the graphic model as a template for personal growth.
Navigating Toward Cultural Competency
In the context of creating culturally competent global citizens the Hope Wheel provides teachers a valuable visual representation of student development and progress. Hope is the elemental foundation supporting the process. Surrounding this hope are four concepts, each representing a concentric path toward cultural interdependence. The first path is Respect.
Respect is the place on the Hope Wheel where young people gaze with wonderment at the world surrounding them and begin to simply realize they are part of this world; they are learning to be. They begin to feel an implicit purpose to learn. They need answers to the question, “why?” When we walk the path of discovery with students, we support finding the answers they seek; we establish value in learning… we help them define purpose. A template for interaction between themselves and others is established on the path of respect. Interacting with ideas and concepts in the domain of respect leads to the establishment of self identity, and orients kids toward the evolution from dependence to independence.
The domain of understanding is where kids learn to know. Skill acquisition, new knowledge and rationale for life-long learning are established within this domain. Students at this stage begin developing an independent nature as they take risks with learning and start to develop intrinsic motivation to discover. In the domain of understanding students sharpen their focus on the surrounding world; they look more critically at themselves and others in their quest to gain knowledge and make sense of things.
When students move to the relationships phase of the wheel, they begin to understand the value of interdependence among people; they learn to live with each other. Kids who function competently at this stage seek extrinsic sources of support in their developing relationships, and they begin to understand that interdependence is about distributing strengths among a network of collaborative people working together to learn. In the domain of relationships students become more resilient by seeking the support of significant others. They learn how to think deeper and critically about ideas, and they establish self-imposed boundaries.
Students who have travelled full-circle on the Hope Wheel enter the domain of responsibility where they learn to do. They display an implicit understanding of the imperative to serve self first so they can responsibly serve others. They understand what taking action means. They become caregivers for those travelling the hope paths behind them. In the domain of responsibility students display intrinsic knowledge and insight as a result of their experience, and they begin to feel confident enough as leaders to engage others; to support and nurture them.
The Hope Wheel is grassroots theory applied to our personal and interpersonal perspectives. It’s a model we can use to place ourselves and those around us on a continuum of human development. We enter the phase of respect when confronted by something totally new, but perhaps function confidently in the domain of responsibility in a different context as a result of our experiences and the knowledge we gained as a result. Where we fall on the Hope Wheel is a reflection of our developing cultural identity. Owing to the notion that self-awareness leads to self-confidence and the willingness to share our values and perspectives with others, the Hope Wheel is also a conduit for confident intercultural communication leading to increased cultural knowledge and responsiveness.
Knowing Self First…
The cultural perspective we hold is shaped by our experiences as influenced by our birthplace, our family, our spirituality and the zeitgeist within which we were born; it’s the cultural reality lens we look through. Our cultural identity is learned beginning the moment we’re born. Obvious physical characteristics and genetic traits define our culture in part from the second we’re conceived. After we’re born, the evolving cultural identity we form is largely influenced by our relationships and surroundings. Steve Van Bockern, coauthor of “Reclaiming Youth at Risk- Our Hope for the Future” (Brendtro, 2002) refers to this identity as our cultural tail. I had the pleasure of attending a retreat with Steve on the Morley Indian Reservation west of Calgary in 2002. He explained that we can’t cut off our cultural tail; it’s always there, behind us affecting our perspective, but also that great things are possible in everyone’s future despite this tail that follows us. (Bockern, 2002) Whether good, bad or indifferent, our cultural tail tells the story of where we’ve come from; who we are in terms of how our environments affect us, but it doesn’t have to predict where we’re headed.
From a cultural perspective, in many ways I believe we begin our lives rather innocently. Like clay to the sculptor, we start as unformed material yearning to be moulded and shaped into a more tangible form; our growing cultural identity. Just as soon as we see the light of the world we begin forming perceptions and feelings about our culture and how we are different from others. We are the sum total of what we think we are. Adults must be responsible about noticing the cultural perspectives of children so we can help them form positive perceptions about their personal identities. This enables them to confidently build relationships and circles of support as they share their perspective with others.
One fall day during my first year teaching at Tall Cree Indian Reservation, I was reading a book to my first and second grade combined class just before the end of school. The book my student-of-the-day chose to read was one on the “American Indian.” Without giving it much thought, I began reading the book to my class.
The mother of one of my students was our janitor, and she would typically start her day before ours ended by emptying the garbage cans in the classrooms to get a head-start on her evening cleaning duties. As she entered our class she said “hi” to her son, and he replied by saying excitedly, “mom, we’re reading a book about Indians!” I was immediately struck by his statement. As his mom chuckled a bit and made an inquisitive face toward us, she asked him, “Brandon, you know you’re an Indian, right?” He gave her a puzzled look back and said, “oh yeah.”
My student was an Aboriginal person, an “Indian,” as his mom described, but he hadn’t given that fact much thought. At the tender age of six he simply existed, and although he had been raised to that point in his life within a very distinct and rich cultural environment, his personal, private view of the world hadn’t been fully shaped or formed yet. He was functioning very happily in the domain of respect on the Hope Wheel; gazing with wonderment at the surrounding world and simply realizing he was part of it; he was learning to be, and his mom was helping him make sense of that.
It’s so important that adults, and particularly parents, make the effort to speak explicitly about culture. Culture is an element described in part by a person’s race. Birgitte Vittrup conducted research in 2006 around young children’s judgement of others based on race. (Bronson, 2009) She determined that kids as young as six months old judge others based on their skin colour, but also noted that families that talked about interracial friendship dramatically improved their kids’ racial attitudes. Her assertion is that actually talking about race is the key to helping children become unintimidated by differences as they develop the social skills necessary for a diverse world (Bronson, 2009); how we help them form their own private logic.
As we grow our cultural identity continues to evolve; we develop what Alfred Adler describes as private logic. According to Adler, “private logic is the reasoning invented by an individual to stimulate and justify a style of life.” (Wikipedia, 2010) Our environment and the people within it shape and form our private logic relative to cultural identity. Adler contrasts the concept of private logic with the idea that “common sense represents society's cumulative, consensual reasoning that recognizes the wisdom of mutual benefit.” (Wikipedia, 2010) We perceive ourselves, others and the world around us, drawing conclusions about each as we live, learn and grow... this perspective becomes the essence of our cultural perspective; what we develop in the domain of understanding on the Hope Wheel. We can never implicitly understand other’s perceptions, but we can be empathetic toward them. In simplest form, it’s this empathy that encapsulates our degree of cultural responsiveness.
We’re experts on our personal culture identity and frame it in infinite ways, but when it comes to defining, or better yet understanding the culture of others, we aren’t nearly as contemplative. Adler’s theory as applied to the context of culture appears to suggest that our cultural private logic is the point of view we take relative to our personal cultural identity, and that cultural common sense is the way we perceive the culture of others, and most importantly the wisdom that can be gained from that perspective; how we become culturally interdependent.
Culture is more than who we are, our skin colour, where we come from or our ethnic or religious values; it’s the summation of all the elements of our lives that influence our thoughts, ideas, values and passions. The kind of school I want all kids to attend is one where thoughts, ideas, values and passions are nurtured and shared toward increased understanding of others. When we are exposed to the thoughts, ideas, values and passions of others, our eyes are opened to learning possibilities we may never had considered otherwise.
Contextualizing the Intercultural School- Engaging Perspectives
Culturally diverse schools are living laboratories demonstrating and exemplifying the virtues of interdependence. Effectual and purposeful communication within them allows kids to learn from each other as they evolve beyond the paradigm of multiculturalism and begin to function competently in the domain of relationships on the Hope Wheel.
Keeping in mind Adler's private logic theory, every individual student within a school possesses a personal cultural perspective; “I am, others are, the world is, therefore”… Of course all schools are multicultural as defined in this context, even if obvious elements of culture like skin colour, religion, language, dress etc. are environmentally homogeneous.
Intercultural schools go a giant step further to acknowledge the social, emotional and academic benefits of cultural common sense; the idea that if schools are multicultural by nature, why not leverage opportunities to illuminate the learning that emerges when so many different thoughts, ideas and passions are represented? Intercultural schools openly celebrate, share and utilize these thoughts, ideas and passions as learning tools. Engaging learning relationships develop in an intercultural school environment.
My friend Brian Plastow teaches social studies at École Lindsey Thurber Composite High School. He shares a story about improved learning resulting from the inclusion of kids possessing diverse cultural backgrounds within his class.
A few years ago in a tenth grade class I was teaching about some of the challenges presented by economic globalization; specifically the lesson was about child labour. We looked at some textbook examples, watched a video on children working in dangerous tanzanite mines in Tanzania, discussed several other examples and looked historically at child labour in England during the Industrial Revolution. The class in general was appalled by the conditions kids had to work in; how unsafe and unjust it was that these kids had to work instead of going to school. There was one student, however, who had emigrated from Afghanistan. He shared a point of view that exposed us to a completely different perspective. He explained that in developing economies some families can't afford the luxury of not having their children contribute economically to their family. Kids had to work. Without their labour the families would have absolutely no hope of getting out of their poverty and the hardship and oppression it caused. This student's contribution to the dialog in class truly showed us how difficult this issue is to solve and showed us that it might be unfair for us in Alberta to judge people in completely different social circumstances. Thanks to these student's from different backgrounds we truly get a global picture of the world. (Plastow, 2011)So many differing perspectives within an intercultural school provide infinite opportunities for kids to analyze thought (their own and others), and nurture creativity by looking at things from these different perspectives. The implicit purpose of intercultural schools is to create transparency between cultural perspectives as an integral teaching and learning tool. In my teaching I use Hope Wheel based talking circles as one way to do this.
Talking circles provide formal opportunities for kids in school to address each other respectfully utilizing the Zen concept that one should only speak when what is being said improves upon the silence. One talking circle I remember in particular moved us to a transparent place where we could empathize with a student who was all but written off by everyone.
This student whom I will call Bill barely attended school, but when he did his influence was felt by every staff member and student. The level of disdain he displayed for others was extreme. He was defiant and belligerent to the point where, to be honest, we were relieved when he wasn’t there. One day we had a fight break out on the bus to school. During the fight, both combatants yelled horribly demeaning comments and racial slurs toward each other. Bill was on the bus that day, and although he wasn’t involved in the fight directly, he was the catalyst.
It was clear relative to the Hope Wheel that neither party had displayed an ounce of respect for the other during this incident so, on their request, we agreed to initiate a talking circle dealing with that as our starting-point. In a talking circle only one person is allowed to speak at a time. All others must listen to the one who holds the icon (in this case a talking stick- simply a short stick ordained with the symbolic colours of our school banded around one end) until it is passed to the next person in the circle who may choose to speak or just pass the stick along.
The point of view of each participant was represented as the stick travelled around the circle and we began to understand the context of the fight. It started with Bill calling a boy a racial slur on the bus, and another laughing at his name-calling. Fearing the consequences of standing up to Bill directly, the victim of his name-calling punched the boy who laughed instead and the fight was on.
As the dialog around the incident developed, intense emotions began to emerge from many who had once been the victim of name-calling, some of it racially motivated, some just plain old bullying and teasing. As usual during the talking circle process Bill silently stared at the floor. A good half hour passed and we were winding up having heard unsolicited apologies from both fighting boys, when the stick came around to Bill on the final pass. Bill took the stick, looked up from the floor and we could see the stress on his face.
He looked right at his victim, stood up and said he was sorry. He told us that he knew what it felt like to be called names because he was called names every day. He explained how he was constantly looking out for his own personal safety in the neighbourhood; that he lived in constant fear, and that he knew what that felt like. Then he sat down and passed the stick along.
Nobody else spoke after that. Bill became transparent for us that day and we were able to get a glimpse of his private logic. We understood him better and he wasn’t so scary anymore. I wouldn’t say the kids became friendly with him, but they weren’t afraid anymore, and for the most part he refrained from random intimidation and bullying of his classmates from that day on. When Bill offered a glimpse of his cultural perspective that day, he altered the dynamics of our program. The fact that he refrained from perpetuating his wrath of fear told me also that he took responsibility for his actions providing us with a less stressful environment to teach and learn within.
Seeing the world through the reality lens of others can be a humbling and enlightening experience, and in this case, a very restorative one too. We started by addressing the domain of respect that day, and through the process of our talking circle restored understanding, functional relationships and some relative responsibility to our environment.
A Willingness to Share is a Very Good Sign
We learn empathically when we are blessed with the opportunity to experience authentic elements of different cultures. Opening ourselves up to the lifestyles of others teaches us that we all have the same basic human needs, but culturally unique and interesting ways to satisfy them. Intercultural schools don’t have to explicitly invite kids to share elements of their culture. They are implicitly open to how different kids satisfy their basic human needs in different cultural contexts. Visceral cultural elements permeate intercultural schools in ubiquitous ways.
We appreciated when a Pakistani boy in my class last year used to bring Pakistani sweets and pakoras for the class each time he went for dinner with his family to their favourite restaurant. Nobody asked him to do this; he just did it because he felt comfortable sharing these cultural elements with us, and the sociocultural intent to honour us behind the gesture. We can learn about others by experiencing their customs first-hand; food, art, language, dress, music, sports... when we eat, see, do, hear and speak the customs of others, we are able to get a glimpse through their reality lenses, and we understand them just a little bit better. Kids who share personal cultural elements without needing a prompt or a contrived purpose are displaying the natural and organic unfolding of culture that must be a hallmark of truly intercultural schools.
When kids share their cultural backgrounds and stories, they spark the imaginations of those around them. Listeners form images in their minds about what they are hearing. Sir Ken Robinson says imagination is a precursor to creativity (Robinson, 2009) calling creativity “applied imagination.” (Robinson, 2009, p. 67) He explains “you could be imaginative all day long without anyone noticing, but you would never say that someone was creative if that person never did anything. To be creative you actually have to do something.” (Robinson, 2009, p. 67) Like hope, create is also an action word. Being mindful about the culture of others illuminates opportunities to build relationships, form altered or fresh perspectives, synthesize ideas or perhaps engage a learned skill in an act of creative self-discovery. Intercultural schools influence creativity through the routine and natural sharing of cultural elements and perspectives.
Other’s Stories- Connecting the Broader Community
In my community we are lucky to access the services of Jan Underwood at the Central Alberta Refugee Effort (CARE). CARE supports the efforts of immigrants and refugees to overcome barriers and participate fully in Canadian life as valued members of the Central Alberta community. (Central Alberta Refugee Effort) CARE is very involved supporting the work of central Alberta schools to embrace cultural diversity and offer a welcoming school environment to all students.
On one occasion Jan brought a guest with her to our school, MonyBany Dau, a Sudanese refugee who is now living locally with his family. We had been speaking about racism with our grade five classes and felt MonyBany’s visit would add some authentic value to our message. He shared part of his story as he spoke about belonging in profound ways. As a child soldier at age nine, he saw things that our students could never have imagined. He explained that war in his homeland resulted from conflict between different people, and that through his experiences he developed an understanding that diversity is the natural order of human existence, and that we should celebrate it, not fight over it. He taught us that each finger on our hands is different, but they all come together for a shared purpose. (Dau, 2009) This bit of wisdom resonated with many of the kids who hung on his words that day. One girl commented that every time she felt like excluding someone from her group, she would look at her own hand to remind her of MonyBany’s words.
The opportunity to hear MonyBany speak had a lasting effect on our fifth graders. The vivid stories he shared provided so much more insight and transparency than reading them in a textbook or via the Internet would have. Connecting with CARE serves to expand our students’ scope of reality and helps put some of the daily school issues they confront in perspective. I have great respect for the responsible effort CARE makes to connect our intercultural school to the broader intercultural community.
Our Own Stories- Connecting Inside the School
As much as it benefits students to hear personal stories from responsible community members, an intercultural school also provides many great opportunities for them to hear each other’s stories. The effort kids make who are willing to share their stories is often very personally meaningful and provides them with a golden opportunity to be responsible as story tellers with their own important message. Those that are emotionally willing to tell their stories benefit from the opportunity to express why they are who they are, why they do what they do and act the way they act. It can be a cathartic experience to share intimate details about ourselves seeking acceptance and understanding. Bill could attest to that as indicated by his willingness to share with us that day in the talking circle.
If we aren’t willing to engage this culture of sharing, our stories aren’t told and opportunities to support healing and acceptance of what cannot be changed are lost. Opportunities to celebrate our skills and experiences, to teach empathy, and perhaps sympathy as well, are also lost. Perceptually (culturally) speaking, students don’t have to be from the other side of the world to benefit from the opportunity to share their personal stories. Disadvantaged kids; disabled kids; kids from non-traditional families; kids who have excelled… all children have a perspective and those willing will benefit from sharing it. I have always said that self esteem is defined in two simple steps: we require opportunities to become good at something, anything, and then more importantly, we require opportunities to share what we’re good at with others. We know ourselves better than anyone else does, and sharing this expertise with others is a very responsible and esteem-building experience.
Our student’s cultural views of themselves, others, the world and any perspective or action that develops as a result, are formed by their experiences; the story already written. Making a point to learn these stories positions educators well to help students continue writing their stories in the present and ultimately helps prepare them for the stories they intend to write in the future.
Making “Culture” Your School Culture
An intercultural school perspective is not something you simply add-on to the school that previously existed so you get the school you had before with a bunch of culture added to it. Culture can become your school culture. It involves an incremental process of continual learning and improvement. It requires a deliberate effort to notice differences, focus on them, think deeply about them and finally, to engage them in meaningful ways. The perpetual goal is to establish a learning environment that positively reflects meaningful and purposeful interaction among students and staff, and to never stop learning about others, and ourselves as a result.
One-shot festival style showcases of culture don’t fit the bill if we’re striving toward making culture an omnipresent aspect of our school culture. Interculturalism isn’t working if it’s reduced to a one-day event where kids display their culture: food; traditional clothing; art; music, etc., all to be forgotten until the next time.
An authentically intercultural school is one where the diverse nature of the student body is pervasive; one where teachers plan their daily routines to include the customs, languages, ceremonies and physical elements of culture represented in their school. The routine and open interaction between people representing elemental aspects of their cultural perspective is omnipresent in a school where culture is valued. Every aspect of administering the school program would consider how culture was going to fold in at the outset as opposed to an afterthought.
The slow-to-evolve industrial model of educating young people reflecting the effort to create uniformity in society isn’t getting us anywhere. All of us: parents; teachers; school administrators and other responsible adults looking out for kids in contemporary society need to carefully consider how poorly uniformly structured schools fit our purpose to create vibrant intercultural teaching and learning environments as leading institutions within our diverse society.
To help prepare our children for the realities of their future, and to function more productively within the realities of the present, educators must embrace the diversity of our world and do everything they can to help kids connect with and learn from each other. The path to enlightenment is learning, and getting a glimpse of how others view the world is an opportunity to grow understanding that we should not deny. The peace and hope we need to sustain our world depends on our ability to engage and understand each other. Let us all take responsibility for this effort.
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