One of the sessions I’ve signed up for on our faculty-wide professional growth day has something about multicultural education in the title. I often feel that I could just as well be the presenter on this subject because I’ve been exposed to other languages and cultures as long as I can remember. Nevertheless, I always appreciate sharing the wisdom and perspectives of others.
I chat with colleagues as we enter the classroom, heading for an unoccupied chair. It has a sign on the seat that says, “Reserved for a White Male,” so I move toward the next vacant space…which has the same sign. And so do all the rest of the empty chairs! I see on the faces of my colleagues expressions ranging from resignation, to puzzlement, to impatience, and finally to recognition, as we each reach the expected conclusion: the point of this workshop is to examine the roles of race, gender, and privilege.
It has been many years since that professional presentation on multicultural awareness. It was only one of many sessions in which I have participated during my professional career to the end of affirming and extending my role as an educator sensitive to “otherness,” and dedicated to extending opportunity to all my students. It was one of the most effective exercises, however, in making a strong point in only a few seconds. It was a good reminder that I always have something to learn; I would not have had that clever trick up my professional sleeve.
During my professional service in public school systems I served on committees that had as their mission to extend curricula to be more inclusive and representative of human beings that are not white and male. We examined published textbooks and other commercial materials. We recommended for purchase those that included stories and illustrations of children and families who were of other than European descent, people in wheelchairs, people who were obese, people who were homeless.
In the 1980s these school district committees were named Multicultural Education, Intercultural Education, Cross-cultural Education. In the 1990s the mission was evolving toward Peace Education, Conflict Resolution, and Learning and Living Tolerance.1 It was no longer enough to point to curricula and textbooks that reflected more diversity than previously. The “Heroes and Holidays” approach to inclusiveness was seen to be superficial; posting portraits of famous African-Americans during one month of the school year was like an inoculation, a duty to be checked off during the course of an academic year. Involving students and their families in a school-wide observation of Día de los Muertos, complete with altars, offerings, and festive foods was an excellent bridge-builder; but it didn’t go far enough.
Now we were attempting to study issues in more depth than by merely marking dates on a calendar. As professionals we were beginning to engage in conversation with our colleagues about social justice and inequality. And we were aiming to make our classrooms—from kindergarten through high school—safe places where students could learn about one another while examining their own stories.
The professional development vehicle with which I am most familiar is SEED (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity).2 With colleagues, I was trained, and served as a SEED facilitator for several years of growth and sharing. Among the tenets of the model are the following:
-Participants meet monthly after classes during the school year. Participation is voluntary, and the program for each three-hour meeting is developed by the participants themselves (staff-centered staff development), who examine issues related—for example—to faith, race, gender, language, physical ability, and sexual orientation. SEED groups may be composed of teachers/aides, parents/community members, or administrators. Ideally these are discrete groups, so that participants are peers who expect from one another that confidentiality is assured.
-The topic for each meeting is supported by literature and film, fiction and non-fiction. Discussions are based on a common reading or viewing that opens up reflections of personal experience.
-The stories of our selves are as valuable as the books on the shelves. We often find that the feelings and history we share are stronger than any apparent differences that might divide us.
-Differences in social and cultural traits serve as windows that allow us to see outside of our immediate experience toward others, but also as mirrors that require us to look at ourselves in the context of our familiar culture.3
-Guidelines of circle discussions allow an opportunity for each to share, but ensure that we may “pass” when our turn comes; we may add our thoughts once the circle is complete. Cross talk is discouraged during the circles, so that all might have an opportunity to contribute, and knowing that there will be later opportunities for deeper conversation.
During my public school teaching I had always advocated for families who used a language other than English at home, and who were otherwise coping with an alien environment. But with SEED, my mission was supported by rich and inspired discussions about many more dimensions of difference…and by other professionals. I was not alone!
Since my public school experiences, I have continued to harvest the fruits of those SEED seminars, cultivated as they were in the rich soil of trust, scholarship, and exploration among colleagues. They still enrich my conversation about “otherness,” not only professionally but in personal encounters as well. I am forever grateful to the program, its founders, and to my fellow SEEDs.
1. Teaching Tolerance Magazine is published twice yearly by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and has played a significant role in the sensitivity to and awareness of otherness in academic curricula: http://www.tolerance.org/magazine/archives
2. The National SEED Project on Inclusive Curriculum was founded by Peggy McIntosh and Emily Style in 1989. For history, timeline, and articles go to: http://www.nationalseedproject.org/
3. Articulated by Peggy Style, 1988: http://www.nationalseedproject.org/Test-SEED-Texts/curriculum-as-window-and-mirror.html