Literacy development is evident in all areas of our school curriculum. I (Yiola) have been thinking about the Ontario Curriculum, particularly the new Social Studies curriculum and how much it has evolved over the years. The latest Ministry policy for teaching Social Studies has made significant gains in developing critical literacy and culturally relevant pedagogy.
This weekend while I was celebrating the Easter holiday with my family I wondered how this culturally significant event could be included in the curriculum without alienating those students who do not observe Easter.
The Grade 2 social studies curriculum has a strand: Changing Family and Community Traditions. When I taught Grade 2 the strand was called: Traditions and Celebrations. By the heading alone one can see the conceptual shift that has taken place in how we think about traditions. Then it dawned on me, must we compartmentalize units of study to blocks of time? Why not open the unit of study and have students throughout the year share the community traditions they observe? And of course, they needn’t be limited to formal holidays. They can be as significant as the family tradition of quilting or playing music.
Then I began to think about how important this particular family tradition is for my children and how I would like for it to be affirmed in school; not for its religious value; but for the importance it holds in our family. What if Sylvia Clare wrote a procedural piece on making “flaounes” with her Papou (see image)? She could talk about, experience, and write about how to make traditional Cypriot flaounes. And, if this opportunity were open throughout the year for all children to share at any time a special community/family tradition in a way that was meaningful to them (through writing, speaking, doing) so much knowledge, information and appreciation could be shared. Just one small example of how literacy and social studies could work together.
The many religious celebrations this month remind me that we live a very diverse society. In this blog over the last few months we have discussed some of the challenges of living/working/teaching in a multicultural society. I (Clare) read Leah McLaren’s fascinating article When Multiculturalism Tests Our Moral Relativism in the Globe and Mail. http://v1.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/HTMLTemplate?cf=common/MiniHub.cfg&configFileLoc=config&hub=leahMcLaren&tf=columnists/Summary.html&title=Leah_McLaren
McLaren writes about an incident with her neighbor when her stepson oversteps the best friend’s family’s values. (The incident between the two little boys involves bum bums.) She talks about the problem of “parenting in a multicultural environment” which “tests our moral relativism. It reveals the wildly different ways most of us struggle to make sure our children end up as good people. The question is, good according to whose rules?” McLaren and the neighbor eventually achieve “an uneasy truce over tea and biscuits.” She says “privately, we will each adhere to our own rules. And in public we will try our best to get along.”
Like McLaren I faced the clash of values when I was a classroom teacher. The first time one of my first grade pupils told that he was not going to clean up the paint centre because that was women’s work I became painfully aware of the difference between my values and his family’s values. (I also had a flash of anger!) As a classroom teacher I had my class rules – everyone is responsible for the smooth running of the classroom. What do we do as teachers do when a parent tells us that education is not for girls? Or boys do not need to help with maintaining the classroom. As a new professor a student teacher announced to the class that as teachers we should tell our pupils that homosexuality is a sin and that gays are going to hell. (That was truly one of the most difficult teaching moments in my long career.) Responding to others who hold very different views from my own is not easy. McLaren does a great job of finding a solution but as a society we need to keep exploring “solutions.” Tea and biscuits are a good place to start the discussion but working through the next knotty steps requires imagination, flexibility, openness to others, patience, knowledge, and a sense of humour. (I highly recommend McLaren’s excellent article.)
On Monday I (Clive) shared my previous blog on multicultural education and stereotyping with my social foundations class. This proved to be a great literacy activity on blogging as a writing form that both teachers and students need to master, one that helps us clarify our ideas and make our communication more precise. It also renewed our conversation about how to approach ethnicity in the classroom. We went round the whole class, each person commenting in turn on the blog. No one chose to pass and everyone was interested in what others had to say. A couple were struck by my profile of “Mike”: they had no idea that people of Irish and Scots background might look down on each other. On the whole people liked the blog, but they continued to refine points and add personal stories.
We heard a new story of complex ethnicity from a class member of Indian ancestry who grew up in Madagascar, lived in a French-speaking environment for several years and became fluent in French, spent time in India where she was told she spoke Hindi with an accent, and then moved to Canada where she hopes to teach French as a second language. What is her ethnicity?
Then on Tuesday the wonderful personal essay “Just Call Me Paul” appeared in one of our local newspapers. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/facts-and-arguments/changing-my-name-doesnt-mean-im-betraying-my-identity/article16406166/
G. Paul Sileika’s grandparents migrated to Canada from Lithuania over 50 years ago. In the 1970s when multiculturalism was on the rise his parents decided to give him a name that “reflected their ancestral origins.” They named him Gintaras and called him Gint for short. With rich humor, no self-pity, and trenchant common-sense he talks about the impact of this decision on his life. The whole article is well worth reading.
What struck me especially was how he felt his identity was lost. “Before I can even begin to build rapport with someone or connect on a common interest, my name catches his or her attention. Before I can share my personal story one is already written for me.” Because the name was unfamiliar and difficult to pronounce correctly (the “G” is hard), many called him “you” or simply nothing. Long after finishing university he finally decided to switch to using his middle name – Paul – and hasn’t looked back. He says he believes in multiculturalism and is proud of his heritage, but wants to go by Paul in informal contexts and G. Paul in formal ones; if anyone asks what the G. stands for, he’s “happy to tell them.”
Of course, although you can change your name you can’t change your accent or physical appearance. But Paul’s story illustrates well how we should often move beyond such markers, rather than dwelling on them unduly – as so often happens in multiculturalism classes. While prejudice and discrimination must be studied in depth and actively opposed, there’s so much more to a person than the ethnicity of their parents and grandparents. We must also explore and celebrate their constantly emerging individual identity, of which their complex ethnic identity is just one part. Otherwise, like Paul, much of their identity may be lost.
Stereotypes are the main basis of prejudice and discrimination; yet multicultural education often reinforces stereotypes. How to resolve this problem?
My (Clive) social foundations ITE class this year is a dream come true: bursting with talent; an extremely diverse group but with a strong sense of camaraderie; full of fun but serious about learning to teach well. On Monday we had the second of three classes on inclusive education, with a focus that day on multicultural education. It was a wonderful session. Every student participated, and many spoke openly about their own racial and ethnic background. For example:
- Jim: Identifies as Black, born in Canada, of Caribbean ancestry, not tall enough to play basketball well, doesn’t like rap music.
- Janni: Born in Canada; her parents are of South Asian ancestry but grew up in South Africa and talk often about their life in that country.
- Sandi: Parents of Indian background, most of her schooling in Germany, often refers to herself as Tamil Canadian.
- Ali: Identified by others as Black, ½ Somali, ¼ Italian, lived much of his early life in Saudi Arabia before his family moved to Canada, family is Muslin but he isn’t really religious.
- Mike: Born in Canada but of ¾ Irish and ¼ Scots ancestry, classical musician, worried in school that when teachers saw his Irish name they would look down on him.
Given this ethnic complexity in today’s world, how can we take the common approach of talking about ethnic groups and resolving to respect the people who belong to them? In what sense do students have an ethnic identity? True, people differ a lot, but their differences rarely run along ethnic, racial, or religious lines. The differences within such categories are much greater than between them. A large proportion of a person’s identity comes from individual qualities, as advocates of differentiation and multiple intelligences have said for some time. Ethnicity is important and should be respected, but individuals have complex ethnicities and draw on each facet in distinctive ways.
As the discussion unfolded, we came to the conclusion that in school we should focus largely on: (a) historical and current cases of bias and discrimination and their enormous human cost; (b) the positives of being inclusive; (c) the limits to ethnic and racial labelling; (d) commonalities that cut across sub-groups; and (e) the importance of individual identity.
At a personal level, many students seemed relieved at the thought that they could develop their own identity and didn’t have to fit a standard ethnic identity. I think many school students would feel the same way, and adopting this approach in the classroom would strengthen community and individual self-esteem.