Friday, May 13, 2011

Week 30: What Diversity Means In Education

The first time I became aware of “diversity” as an issue in education was during the my Freshmen Convocation at Northwestern University. This was a welcoming ceremony at the beginning of the year in which then president Henry Bienen welcomed my class to the University.

One of the first things Bienen said in his speech was “your class is the most diverse class in Northwestern history.” He then went on to list the demographic of the freshmen student body including hometowns, religious denominations and race.

This statement of diversity seemed odd to me at the time. It didn’t seem so much like an expression of pride but a defensive reaction trying to prove to people something that had previously been doubted. What really made this statement seem ridiculous is that I found out after attending the Freshmen Convocation the following years as a member of the Northwestern University Marching Band who performed at this event, was that Bienen made the same diversity statement to every freshmen class for the next three years.

I grew up in Seattle. At my high school school diversity was so much a way of life that it became a non-issue.  There weren’t racial focused clubs at my school. Yes, we did have cultural fairs but they were as much focused on the Caucasians as the minorities. This idea of diversity never came up.

Things are different now and in my past 6 years as a teacher diversity has become one of the most talked issues in education. It’s something that everyone seems to want to discuss and improve on but at the same many people don't know what to actually do with this topic. . . including myself

My school like most is working on diversity. We not only discuss diversity in our mission statement but we also have a separate diversity statement. It’s been a challenge to really think about the way I teach in a way that truly embraces diversity to better educate my students. I already teach different kinds of music from different cultural backgrounds and I work hard to present material in different learning styles. What else am I suppose to do?

This week I figured out part of an answer. At the beginning of one of my fifth grade music classes, one of the students asked me where I was from. Instead of giving the quick answer of “I’m was born in Seattle, and my parents were born in Taiwan.” I pulled up a world map on my computer, projected it on the screen and told my students about my cultural background.

I explained to them that I identify myself as American even though many people look at me and categorize me as Asian.  I told them how other Asian-Americans more closely associate with the culture of their ancestors and would say that they are from Taiwan even if they were born in America.

I told them about the freedom we have as American to identify with different cultures even if we do not ancestral connections to them. I expressed to them that people's cultural identity changes throughout people’s lives and being “not sure” when something asks you where you are from is valid and brave answer.

My students brought up issues of their background and how they aren’t sure what to say when people ask them about their own heritage. I encouraged them to be honest, state some facts about their ancestors but not to let that limit them in the way they perceives and construct their own cultural identity.

We spent more half the class on this discussion and it had not direct connection to the music lesson I had planned to teach but it was worth the time.

When people look at my father-in-law, Andy, who is a second-generation immigrant like myself, they don't wonder about his heritage as an immigrant because he’s Caucasian. Yet people automatically identify me being from another culture even though I'm just as American as Andy.

While this may seem unfair, it’s the way it is and students are conscious that I’m not Caucasian and when they ask me about my heritage it’s not out of or disrespect but out of a longing to understanding themselves.  They see me as a person who can help explain to them how to understand and handle their own cultural identities. That’s not something I asked for and it’s not a burden.  It’s an opportunity to open up conversations with people and talk about the differences and the diversity that makes our world beautiful.

I still don’t really know what this diversity stuff is really all about but part of me feels like I’ve found one way I can play a part in helping my students understand what I'm still trying to figure out.

This may not be the answer to what diversity means in education, but it's a start.

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