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Chapter Seven: Education in Early Childhood

 Section 6: Cross-Cultural Understanding

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Tea Cup Dance performed by the Academy of Chinese Performing Arts. Jennifer Saito shown. (1996).


Back to Small World -- its most striking aspect is its international population. Children, before they can understand different cultures and nations, can perceive differences in racial appearance and language. Where children from homogeneous neighborhoods and schools are likely to be taken aback by a different color person speaking an unusual tongue, the children of Small World accept such differences as a matter of course. Most of their classmates and friends look and talk differently from each other. Where the segregated classroom properly represented the realities of the US in the past decades, Small World is a more accurate microcosm for the future.



Furthermore, the mixture in Small World is more than a mere tokenism. Having one Black, one Chicano, one Indian, may add a little spice to an otherwise all White school, but often more harm than good is done. The token may feel isolated, out of place, and, therefore, be defensive. The defensiveness may provoke negative reactions among children who are likely to be relatively close-knit and testy.



The difference in cultures represented at home and in school may put the token at a disadvantage scholastically, lowering esteem in the token's eyes as well as those of his/her classmates. The well-known negative cycles of poor performance -- lowered self-esteem -- poorer performance, etc., may set in. In short, the use of the token may give an unfairly poor image of different races; language groups and cultures, and hinder rather than help the type of cross-cultural understanding that is desired, hindering, rather than helping the development of an expansive identity in the majority of students and a positive self-concept in the token. It is better if no clearly identifiable group forms a majority -- and certainly none did in Small World.



The problem for tokens is lessened when they are part of a group in a classroom. Even then, if the teacher is a member of the majority group (in the society if not the classroom), the minorities do not have the prestige of being "like" the adult authority in the classroom. Thus, even substantial minority representation in a classroom may not really promote respect and understanding among different groups when the teacher is identifiably a member of one group and particularly when that one group is a dominant group.



Ideally, each cultural, racial, language group in the classroom would have an adult representative. This is not absolutely necessary. An exceptional teacher, even one from a dominant group, may be able to overcome some inherent disadvantages. When the teacher population of the school system is well mixed, children may realize this -- particularly as they advance through the grades. Team teaching offers opportunities to mix the adult population of the classroom.



Small World dealt with the problem of adult mixture in a straightforward manner. It was a parent cooperative and one parent from each family had to contribute one afternoon per week (it was an afternoon program) in the classroom. Thus, each child had a member of his/her racial, cultural, language group in the classroom 20 percent of the time. Each child had a turn basking in the esteem brought by having its parent sharing responsibility for the classroom. The parents would often bring in aspects of the child's culture -- food, music, clothing, toys - to share with the class as part of the cross-cultural learning experience. The parent aspect of the program thus contributed to the understanding and respect for the multiple cultures represented in the program.



The parent involvement had several other benefits. The parents had the opportunity to observe and work with other children. This gave them a more realistic perspective on their own children -- usually relieving some of the typical anxiety parents have about how their child compares with others. The parents also learned from each other, and the Small World staff, different ways of working with children. Thus, their parenting skills were generally improved. The parents also participated in cross-cultural relations for the children. While the children attended Small World for only a year or two, they will continue to benefit for years to come through the changes the program effected in the parents with respect to parenting and cross-cultural understandings.



Small World encouraged cross-cultural respect by valuing the uniqueness of each of the represented cultures. Each culture was seen in its own terms, coping with its own view of its environment. Each culture had something to offer which in no way detracted from the essentiality of other cultures. In this way, Small World promoted the healthy combination of self-respect and respect for diverse others.







Book Contents

Transcultural Friendship: Our Political Future


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