Thursday, January 24, 2013

Cultural Awareness

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Cultural Awareness in the U.S. Classroom

In the commentary on the case study of the seventeen year old European American

Vanessa Mattison, the author of our text, Sonia Nieto, states, “Vanessa took the approach that cultural and racial differences are not significant, that ‘it couldn’t matter less to me.’ In this, she is simply reflecting the value of being color-blind, which we all have been led to believe is both right and fair. In this framework, differences are seen as a deficit rather than an asset.” (Affirming Diversity-Nieto, page 8). This has raised my awareness on two levels, both in the classroom and as a mother, bringing up my own children who are now fourteen and sixteen.

Does the idea of being color-blind automatically negate the cultural differences? Does it mean we only see those differences as a deficit? In this, I must take issue with the author. I do not believe that saying, “I don’t care what color his skin is” means that we toss aside his ethnic diversity. It only means that we see past his skin color to an individual person first, then take joy in all the things that make up that person, ethnicity being an important part. Considering our “sorting game”, one might even say it was a good idea to look past his skin color first to the individual because the majority of the time, we can’t tell who is what by looking at them anyway. I do believe it is important to celebrate a person’s heritage, but not at the expense of that person’s individuality.

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We tend to think in terms of a person of different ethnic origin walking into a classroom with a majority of Caucasian children, but it is interesting to imagine the reverse. What if Vanessa walked into an inner city school where 80 % of the children were Black and Latino. Would she feel comfortable? Would she encounter reverse discrimination? These questions made me take a look at the population of Blacks, Latinos, and Whites at my elementary school, which is pretty evenly divided into thirds. Nowhere is the study of the children’s social customs more evident and easy to read than in the cafeteria during lunch, and here I made a startling discovery. I cannot say how it is at any other school but at Atlantic West, interestingly enough, the children separate into groups. These groups are NOT ethnically divided but personally divided according to individual attitudes. The defiant troublemakers, the shy quiet timid kids, the smart good grade ethic ones, the girly fashion conscious girls, the sports jocks, and others not so clearly defined. As my school mainstreams our autistic students for specials, and I sit with them during lunch, I have had the opportunity to observe this grouping first hand many times. During music today, I watched three boys who were obviously the best of friends, defiantly talk back to the teacher and throw papers at people. One was White, one was Black, one was Hispanic. It could have been a bad television show. They were comrades-in-arms and it was also obvious that they didn’t really care about each others cultural diversity. They were friends because they all had bad attitudes towards authority.

My children are another example of why I disagree with Sonia Nieto’s negative description of what she calls “color-blindness”. My daughter Shaina’s favorite teacher was her fourth grade teacher, whom she still keeps in touch with. She spent a month raving about her wonderful new teacher and all the “cool” things she was learning and how nice Mrs. Singleton was. I was excited to meet her at Open House and made the discovery that night that Priscilla Singleton was Black. Shaina had never mentioned it to me. She did not negate this fact, on the contrary; throughout the year Mrs. Singleton brought to her teaching little bits of who she was culturally. When they studied Kwanzaa, we were so intrigued by the beauty of the philosophy of it that we added it to our own celebrations of the season. Shaina never saw Priscilla Singleton’s heritage as a deficit; she simply saw past her skin color to a person who was and is a loving and gifted teacher who is an African American woman. Shaina also has Latino friends who she loves because they have attitudes in common. But she does not negate their heritage; she celebrates it. It is not, however, why they originally became friends, it is just part of the whole person that she loves. My son Scott is on the cross-country and track team at Pompano Beach High School. He is friends with a young Black man not because he is or isn’t Black, but because they have something in common. Despite the fact that they are the two slowest people on the team, they love running and enjoy the exercise and the feeling of being part of a team.

I believe that depending on where the school is, and the age levels, prevailing attitudes among different social groups can be very different, as well as the structure of the groups themselves. On the elementary level, I would encourage “Culture Days” that would celebrate each ethnic group in my classroom. I would ask that particular children bring in information about their heritage; perhaps a parent could contribute an ethnic dish that we all could taste, and every child in the class could find out one piece of interesting information to add to the day and the discussion. I would make sure that the walls of my classroom celebrated and informed about the diversity of our country. I would bring in music of different cultures and teach my class songs. I would encourage learning about, and class celebrations of, different holidays. I would try to learn every day from my students and hope that they would learn every day from me. Most of all, I would try to show them, through word and action, that I considered each of them a rare and precious individual whose culture was a beautiful part of what they are.

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