Begin With Ourselves

Diversity can be a touchy subject. It can make people uncomfortable. Diversity, however cannot be ignored. We need to talk about it.

Today, as part of our in-service days, we had a facilitator guide us on beginning that conversation. It was a great start because it wasn’t a session led by someone who had all the answers, but because it was someone who helped us talk, begin to refine, and help us agree on how we define various terms. She started us out with 7 terms:

  • Diversity
  • Cultural Competency
  • Multicultural Curriculum
  • Inclusivity
  • Privilege
  • Equity
  • Multiple Perspectives
All of these can have multiple meanings, and all are important in beginning an honest, safe talk on diversity. An example that came up was a possible hiring practice in an independent school. If it says on the job description: Masters degree and 5 years of independent school experience recommended, is the school potentially ruling out diverse voices that come from a public or parochial school?
For some, diversity brings up the notion of “been there, done that,” but really, diversity is an ongoing endeavor. It promotes social justice, takes away assumptions and prejudices, and teaches us that there is value in what is different. Our school values states that we “actively cultivate and awareness and respect for diversity in all its forms.” Before we can do that with our students, our families, and our greater community, we need to begin with ourselves.
Our facilitator began with an excellent TED talk which I’ve included below. It really is worth the 18 minutes.

Being Welcome into Another’s Home

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending my very first Bar Mitzfah, a former student of mine. Without ever stepping inside a temple before, I wasn’t too sure what to expect. And if you try to search the internet and do a little research, the variety is almost endless.

I think it’s a great growing experience to step outside ones familiar surroundings, and I think it varies what each person learns.

Detail of a window at the Temple Di Hirsch Sanai in Seattle

First, my anxiety was eased by a feeling of welcome. There was never a feeling of ‘you’re not one of us’. The synagog/temple was stunningly beautiful and did not look too different from some of the Catholic churches I grew up with.

Second, the ceremony was clearly a rite of passage steeped in thousands of years of tradition, and one that obviously involved a lot of preparation on the part of a 13-year-old.

What I really noticed was that all the passages and readings from the Torah (even if you took out the religious references) were ones that any human could relate to. Having faith in oneself to take risks, make good choices, and learn from mistakes were a common theme. Another message was that we strive to do good with the intention to leave the world a better place than how we found it. Yet, we  are human and will sometimes make mistakes. In essence – we learn.

I was really touched throughout the ceremony, but mostly because I was very proud of my former student’s success and his mom’s as well.

Finally, the reason this experience is appearing here on this blog is because it reminds me of the importance of the tenets of multicultural and diversity education. Whether that diversity is in religious beliefs, culture, orientation, political ideology, the most important thing is to ensure a feeling of belonging. Today I was a little worried that I was going to be an outsider peering in, but I felt welcomed instantly.

Our schools, classrooms, and curriculum need to be places where everyone feels like they belong. The act of learning itself, from taking risks and making mistakes, or wanting to work to make this world a better place for future generations, are values that cross cultures and beliefs. The more we explore differences, it’s not surprising that we often find many similarities.

CS and MS thanks for always being so welcoming and including me in your special day. It was wonderful and I enjoyed every minute of it. You both should be very proud.

Shabbat Shalom!


Learning Through Story

This evening I had the pleasure of seeing the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner for drama, Ruined. Set in war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, it’s not for the faint of heart as its central characters are women who have faced and survive all kinds of horrors. This run is currently in its last week at the Intiman Theatre and features most of the original Off-Broadway cast. For some reason, it skipped a transfer to Broadway, went straight to London, is here in Seattle for 4 more days, will run in LA next, and the producers are hoping to take it to Johannesburg after that.

I have read headlines and pieces about many of the atrocities taking place in that part of the world, however having it dramatized and seeing it as art rather than journalism, for some reason, resonated more with me. The power of stories, especially those that you haven’t read/seen before can be powerful teaching tools. I learned a lot (and want to learn even more).

I was also fortunate to see the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winning Drama, Next To Normal last year in New York and was moved to tears from the middle of act 1 to the end of the play. How many rock musicals (about someone suffering from severe mental health issues) can claim that.

In their book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath mention Story as one of the most powerful ways to make an idea stick. They say, “Stories drive action through simulation (what to do) and inspiration (the motivation to do it.).

If you are a woman in an African country going through a civil war, what would you do and why? What do we do to survive? Do we speak out or remain silent living in fear?

While this story is not going to be part of my second grade curriculum, it’s an important story and a difficult one. It’s a reminder that at every age, there are sometimes difficult stories to tell, but in order for learning to occur, these stories need to be told. And if the story has done its job, the observer begins to ask questions. When you ask questions, you start to learn something new. If we can get our children to ask questions and keep asking them, we will have contributed to their abilities to become life long learners.

  • Boy Soldiers plucked from villages
  • Deforestation
  • Mining for metals in cell phones
  • Sexual violence
  • Violence

These were just some of the background topics. Do these themes exist in classic literature? Of course they do. Even this play was inspired by Inspired by Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage. But why does this story feel so fresh? Perhaps because it’s happening now.

There’s a hospital mentioned in the play that treats and surgically repairs women that have been “ruined” – Click here to learn more.

The Challenge is in the Moment

I attended a keynote address by Dr. James Banks at Seattle U earlier today. James Banks has been called by some as the father of multicultural education in the United States. His talk was titled: Human Rights, Diversity, and Citizenship Education in Global Times – just imagine trying to do that in an hour. I won’t even attempt to summarize his talk, but he definitely hit on some key points.

He began his keynote by referring to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (you can read the whole thing here). And though it is easy to talk about all its promises, it is not so easy to implement in the classroom. We have to recognize that students are citizens themselves and not citizens in waiting. Students must experience human rights and therefore they themselves must have an education in which their identities are affirmed and empowered through their experience.

Banks talked about assimilation and how through shame, immigrants historically shed their culture in order for the hope of a better life. White ethnic groups were successful at assimilating, but Hispanics, Natives, and Blacks were not. They could not ‘deculturalize’. Do schools today still ask kids to be more like the dominant culture? Are there still schools in the country that have signs in the hallways saying, “No Speaking Spanish”? Rather than make kids feel shame about their culture (or identity for that matter), we need to validate that experience and then give them context.  James Banks used Black English as an example. Do not place judgement on Black English, don’t make them feel shameful about it. They are going to speak it at church on Sundays anyway. Instead, validate their context, but also point out other contexts. Banks example was, Black English is not going to get you a tenured position at the University of Washington.

He then continued about the following identities overlapping: global, cultural, national, and regional. Most important though is that of the individual.

It was humbling how much more there was to learn and do with regard to multicultural education and Banks, insisted we write down the names and authors of books that we needed to add to our reading lists. Scholars in the field of justice, law, human rights, education, and such. Banks then told us what we had to do (besides all that reading): We had to Know, Care, and Act.


He asked us to simply think about the words pioneer or settler and then to think what words the Sioux might have used to describe the same people. Think about the term ‘westward expansion’ and think which group that simple terminology empowers. He mentioned that someone in another group he had been speaking to changed the term ‘pioneer’ to ‘illegal immigrant’ which got a laugh from the crowd. But just think about it for a second. Just knowing enough to challenge the language in our history books would be a great starting point.

Caring: Banks then cited Dante:

“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crises maintain their neutrality.”

…and quoted MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN – “Service is the rent we pay to be living. It is the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time.”

and mentioned Audre Lorde, the American feminist, who wrote: “Your silence will not protect you.”

Acting: We need to have the courage to act. What Banks talked about here reminded me of Irshad Manji’s talk at the NAIS conference of having the moral courage to speak up for what is right. Here is a quote from MLK Jr.:

“Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But, conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because one’s conscience tells one that it is right.”

Banks closed with a quote from James Baldwin: There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment; the time is always now.”