Cultural Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts in New York State’s Southern Tier
Reflections on Diversity in the Schools
Accepting and embracing diversity should be better modeled in our schools. In fact, it’s my opinion they sometimes, inadvertently, teach the opposite. How many times have schools told their students such unthinking things such as ____(insert your school name here)___is number #1? It’s a cheap way of trying to build community or foster group identity. But I think it’s dangerous, because it’s the thin end of the wedge. It teaches that our group is unthinkingly good, for no particular reason other than it’s the one you are in. By implication, it defines the group you are not in as inferior. This is teaching racism, rather than diversity.
As a parent, I regularly get mail and other pieces of written communication from a school principal who signs everything with the slogan “West is Best”. To that, I would want to say grow up! Are you saying that East High is somehow not as good? (Was it the US News and World Report that has ranked East higher 2 years in a row?) Are you a professional who puts down your co-workers in the district who work at other schools? What message are you sending about team work in the district as a whole, how you view other schools and most importantly, how you role model for students how they might handle things as adults?
And if that weren’t enough to be controversial and have people dislike what I said, I am going to complain about no tv week in school. It’s a bit like saying I dislike motherhood and apple pie. How can I not like it? But here’s the thing: no tv week (no screen week) seems to be designed for people who have never been exposed to a day without television and would have no way to amuse themselves without it. Ok, those people need a week without it to get over the withdrawal, eat together as a family, learn to play a board game every once in a while or (drum roll….) read a book. Those who participate get an ice-cream cone purchased with money for the program. They also are encouraged to wear odd things at school that week, such as crazy hair one day, tie dye clothing the next, Hawaiian things, etc all week. I am not sure that dressing in crazy ways teaches kids to not watch tv, but it probably gives them something to do for a half hour and something to talk about. How about the ice cream? I don’t know – is it a bribe, sorry, incentive? Don’t worry, kids, you can stop watching TV this week and still become obese. But what does this have to do with diversity, you may ask?
What about the kid who doesn’t want to participate this year because her household already has a lifestyle that includes only limited TV watching and screen time already? Why are the people who run the school encouraging her to give up her not-quite weekly viewing of the educational Nature Show on Public Television that she enjoys with her Dad? And what is wrong with her exchanging one email with her Aunt who lives in another country to try to keep up a relationship in between the few overseas visits that are possible? But the peer pressure is incredible. Why are we putting kids under peer pressure situations in elementary school to make them conform and then we are upset when they give in to peer pressure when they are teens? Are we creating our own problems or making natural tendencies worse?
Now you may be thinking that peer pressure is not the same topic as diversity. Obviously they both have other elements in them, but here’s where it overlaps. If you teach diversity in all the many aspects, then children grow up with the concept that people are diverse for all kinds of reasons, some that come naturally like skin color, sexual preference or race and some that may be chosen such as religion or hair color, no wait are those chosen? Some people choose and some people are born into them. Who knew there was so much gray? (That’s both the gray area of the topic and hidden gray hair, but I digress.) Or is that another diversity topic? But my point is, if we teach children about all aspects of diversity, then it doesn’t matter if the diversity they encounter is what people are born into or about the chosen lifestyles of others they encounter, they will not feel they have to always conform to the norm. I once tried to explain to an art teacher (who no longer works here) that having kids all draw the same burger with cheese on a bun picture is not being respectful to vegetarians and those who don’t mix milk and meat. (I’m not even sure it’s a good art practice for 6 year olds, according to a PTA brochure on good practices of teaching art I had picked up in the same school, but that’s another topic about art.) When she didn’t understand this, how could I explain why some parents are not thrilled to display the offensive artwork a child brings home? You can’t and it’s a no-win situation. Teaching diversity is not what my daughter learned in kindergarten when the teacher seemed to mantra “we are all the same” which had the effect of further alienating those few who did feel they were different. It’s more about what she learned in first grade from another teacher in the same school who said, “We are all different and it’s all good”. Diversity has many different aspects to it, but in the end, we need to work on respect for differences. That’s what we should be teaching, not the clichés of seasonal decorations I am told come from Wal-mart. Who would choose to teach children to decorate a spring classroom with non-biodegradable plastic Easter eggs when there are spring peepers living and growing near the school grounds to be studied?
The International Baccalaureate (IB) program with its global approach should help our schools address some of these issues. We have a certain diversity of students, we have a rigorous new curriculum, now we need the whole school district staff (teaching and non-teaching) and parents (especially those who volunteer in the schools and for after school activities) to challenge themselves to think in terms of diversity, inclusiveness and respect for differences. It is imperative that our schools strive not to reflect the mediocre norms of society but to mirror the highest ideals that the world can offer the children. And in what better place can you expect to have a well-built mirror than here in the crystal city?