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Reflection #3

rcrittendon's picture

            For my field placement, I mentor a third grade student, Anna, at an elementary school in West Philadelphia.  One week, as part of the mentoring program, the mentors and their mentees, along with a chaperone from the school, took a field trip to Chinatown.  As the students had lived in Philadelphia their whole lives, I was surprised to learn they had never been to Chinatown. 

            The first place we visited was a Chinese bakery.  Using the five dollars given to her by the school, Anna bought a fried shrimp dumpling.  Upon seeing what she had chosen, the chaperone congratulated Anna for “trying something strange.”  This comment made me uncomfortable, but as I had met the chaperone an hour before I did not feel as though I could say anything. 

            Although Anna did not respond to the comment and seemed to quickly forget it, this moment has stuck with me.  It reminded me of times in my own education when we learned about different cultures and the tone of these lessons. 

            This experience relates to our readings, namely the excerpts from James A Banks’s book An Introduction to Multicultural Education.  In this reading, Banks describes the different “levels” of teaching students about other cultures.  Most schools, including my elementary school, use the “Contributions Approach”, where students are only introduced to cultures outside of their realm of experience in the form of holidays or heroes from those cultures.  For example, every year my class would “learn” about Judaism by playing with dreidels and singing “Oh Hanukkah” and the the bulk of our African Americans history lessons fell under the umbrella of African American history month.

            I do not agree with this disjointed approach because it portrays other cultures as something separate that other people do someplace else.  It suggests that other cultures do not have much significance or relevance in relation to our own culture or our understanding of our culture and cultural heritage.  When a teacher makes a comment such as the one this chaperone made, it excuses students from seeking to learn more about a culture.  It pardons, even encourages, their ignorance.

The students enjoyed simply walking through the streets of Chinatown as much as, if not more, than they enjoyed the bakery and the shops we stopped at.  They stared openmouthed at the Friendship Arch on Tenth Street and asked one of the mentors (an international student from China) what some of the Chinese characters meant.  After hearing the Chinese word from her, they would repeat it several times until they could say it with confidence.  The enthusiasm to learn and experience a new culture was there, but not capitalized on. 

As a mentor, I only see Anna afterschool, and the attitude of the chaperone (a popular teacher at the school) leads me to wonder how other cultures are taught in Anna’s school.  What kind of tone do these lessons carry and what are their, perhaps unintended, implicit messages?  More broadly, how should other cultures be taught to elementary school students?  Is there a reason why the contributions approach is most predominantly seen in elementary schools?  Is it because it truly is the best approach for that age level, or are teachers underestimating their students?