The importance of bridging cultures in the classroom

Illustration by Rafael López.

DEARBORN — Multiculturalism in classrooms has become far more necessary, not only as a means of understanding among different cultures, but also as a possible shelter from any identity crisis a child could face.

The 2016 election’s outcome— which included spikes in racism and hate— has caused minority parents to worry for their children’s wellbeing, mainly in schools, where they are not around.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than half of the nation’s children, all younger than 18-years-old, are predicted to be part of a minority group by the year 2020.

Therefore, the young need to feel comfortable and safe in school settings where they spend most of their days.

A Pacific Standard article entitled “Racism 101: Let’s Talk About Diversity and Prejudice in America’s Public Schools,” published two years ago, stated that all schools need to embrace “straight talk about racism; the recruitment and hiring of more teachers and administrators of color; curricula in which the work of racially-diverse authors…are central.”

The proposal falls into agreement with Dr. Amira Kassem’s outlook on English education.

“Teaching is a political act,” she told The AANews. “And, curriculum is policy enacted.”

Teaching: “The political act”

Kassem, a Dearborn Public Schools teacher since 1991 and an adjunct professor of English curriculum and instruction at Wayne State University, explained the importance of discussing mixed observations in the classroom.

“Diverse perspectives form the core of a pluralistic world,” she said. “Especially in schools— which are theoretically the playgrounds of ideas— all perspectives should be included and discussed. It is not enough to consider what to read with our students or to settle for including multicultural books.”

She said “how to read a text” is just as central and added that the educator is held responsible to analyze the “White, middle aged male perspective” for the views his texts lack. Thus, the teacher must bring them to the table.

Kassem also described interrogation as critical to supporting different viewpoints.

“You have the responsibility to interrogate the text for those absent perspectives and bring them to bear on any discussion of that text,” she said. “The interrogation of the text— any text— is crucial to empower and accommodate other perspectives. Simply providing diverse texts can be a tokenism of a sort— to appease rather than call into question a dominant narrative.”

Curriculum: “The enacted policy”

As for teaching multicultural literature, Kassem said it should be a norm.  But it’s not, especially since it’s still a constant discussion.

However, she pointed out that teachers can diversify the curriculum just by allowing students to bring their cultures and customs into the classroom.

According to the 2012 book “Infusing Diversity & Cultural Competence into Teacher Education” by Aaron Thompson and Joseph B. Cuseo, the current curriculum, also known as the “traditional, Eurocentric, male-centered curriculum”, disregards “the contributions and perspective of non-dominant groups” and “fails to validate the culture of minority groups”, which can segregate them even more from a school culture that contrasts significantly from their own culture.

Therefore, as Kassem suggested, interlacing the curriculum with diversity in the classroom— by making room for analysis and discussion— encourages students to see through multiple lenses, not just their own.

“Bridging cultures and diverse literature”

Kassem said discrimination starts within picture books, where publishers overwhelm the public with statements regarding their obligation to multiculturalism. She said they claim superficially their intent to produce more opportunities for children to comprehend their own worlds.

“But they are really not there,” she said. “And, even when they are, schools, under curricula committees, take too long to find them.”

Consequently, Kassem said it is necessary for both the minority and majority students to bridge cultures.

“The bridges must be built on both sides and crossed simultaneously,” she said. “White kids need multicultural literature just as much, for they too often live in a dominant narrative that does not help them navigate others’ maps.”

Kassem said Arab American students living in Dearborn are not sheltered from the possible identity crisis that may result if unable to bridge cultures. She noticed that many of them remain incapable of gliding through their inherited culture because they lack the essential tools— such as language and literacy abilities— to do so.

“And, they usually do not have the mentoring that is necessary to exploring and adopting elements of their American culture— ones that do not clash with their ancestral one,” she said.

In this ongoing political environment, Kassem has also noticed that these students are continuously having to authorize or quiet each other depending on their backgrounds.

“For many of them, that is not always an easy negotiation,” she said. “But, they manage. For others, it is the heart of their identity crisis.”

By Zahraa Farhat | The Arab American News | Thursday, 12.08.2016, 11:53 PM