I'm chillin this week with some teachers in our new school, MATCH Community Day. Here's a puzzle I'm pondering (while staff is worried about much more practical things) Our new school has lots of kids
a) whose parents were born in other countries, or
b) who were born in other countries. So:
Should the curriculum include more about foreign nations -- maps, songs, capitals, etc -- than we'd otherwise do if all the kids were born in Boston?
What about the look of the school? Should it be United Nations-ish? Or should heavy John Wayne, to acculturate kids?
(Let's stipulate: our academic goal is to get the kids to rapidly become excellent at speaking, reading and writing English, surpassing the other kids in Massachusetts. In technical language, the state classifies some children as "Limited English Proficient (LEP)" and others as "Formerly Limited English Proficient (FLEP)" We turned that into a verb: we want to FLEP kids. Skillfully. Quickly. Just wanted to cover that. Now back to our puzzle).
You could plausibly argue either side. For all children, learning about other nations and cultures is valuable knowledge. Right? We'd all agree. Better for any kid to know about Cape Verde than not know. Better to know a few words of Mandarin than not.
But there are many other types of knowledge that compete for "airtime" in a school. There's lots to learn about the United States, for example. About animals. Planets. Religion. Food. Senses. The Red Sox. If a kid knows a few more words in Mandarin but a few less in English, that gets trickier. (I realize my tendency is to zero sum a question).
The case for "more" international would go like this:
1. Nations and culture can be taught for knowledge, but also
2. Nations and culture can be taught for "activation" -- the hope that our kids become more interested in school if they learn about stuff that they're more excited to go home and tell their parents about.
3. Nations and culture can be taught for "validation" -- the feeling of inclusion. Scholarly types say stuff like this: "It acknowledges the legitimacy of the cultural heritages of different ethnic groups, both as legacies that affect students' dispositions, attitudes, and approaches to learning and as worthy content to be taught in the formal curriculum."
(That sort of language, to be honest, bugs me a tiny bit. Of course it's legitimate. The question is whether it should be prioritized over other things).
Let's say we take a "Mildly lean towards including more of this in curriculum" meta view. Our kids do have a longer school day. So we could plausibly cover lots of American stuff and still include more int'l stuff than a regular school.
If we go this road, quickly we get new questions.
Should kids mostly learn about their own nations? Ie., do we have more flags and photos and maps and songs of their countries (I'm guessing 20 or so)?
And if so, is it proportionate? If 50% of the kids are from Mexico, do they get half the cultural references, and the one kid from Sudan gets one thing per year? What happens when a kid moves in or out of the school? Do we add or strip this stuff?
Or do we rep all countries of our kids "equally"? But that would almost ensure shallow knowledge.
Do some countries matter more? Is it better for any American 2nd grader to study the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China -- my little brother just taught me that) than the LLLL countries (Laos, Liechtenstein, Lesotho, Lebanon -- I just made that up)? I think: yes.
Or should we steer clear of any sort of inclusion of this nature? One might argue: let kids learn their culture at home. Meanwhile, focus on America and Americana. Should any kid learn about Vietnam before Montana?
(I learned about Israel in Hebrew School, not in public school. Theoretically. In reality, the teaching was horrible. I learned nothing there. But I did eat a ton of cookies. That I remember vividly. There were days when I'd sneak off to the kitchen, open up a whole industrial size box of cookies, and eat them all.)
Who decides this stuff within a school? Does Kate, our principal, set guidelines? Each classroom teacher goes her own way? Does the parent council have a role?
Much of this is more food for thought than anything. We have a curriculum already, from our partner Community Day, which includes a bunch of commercially produced stuff. So from a teacher's point of view, she's not starting from scratch; she's starting from 80+% in place.
Do Massachusetts state curriculum standards help? MA's tend to be widely respected by liberals and conservatives who examine such things.
Overview of Scope and Sequence
PreK-K At the preschool and kindergarten level, learning in history and social science is built on children’s experiences in their families, school, community, state, and country. Children listen to stories about the people and events we celebrate in our national holidays and learn why we celebrate them. They also become familiar with our national symbols. The purpose of the preK-K curriculum is to begin the development of their civic identity.
Grade 1 In first grade, children listen to and read folk tales and true stories from America and from around the world. They learn about major historical events, figures, and symbols related to the United States of America and its national holidays and why they are important to Americans. The grade 1 curriculum continues to strengthen children’s identity as American citizens.
Grade 2 Second graders learn world and United States history, geography, economics, and government by studying more about who Americans are and where they came from. They explore their own family’s history and learn about distinctive achievements, customs, events, places, or landmarks from long ago and from around the world. The chief purpose of the grade 2 curriculum is to help students understand that American citizenship embraces all kinds of people, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and national origin. American students come from all countries and continents in the world. A history and social science curriculum should help students acquire a common understanding of American history, its political principles, and its system of government in order to prepare them for responsible participation in our schools and civic life.
Heavy American. No question our kids are gonna learn that stuff.
Another part of the standards seems to go the other way. Like this for Grade 2:
Building on knowledge from previous years, students should be able to:
2.1 On a map of the world, locate all of the continents: North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and AntarcticA. (G)
2.2 Locate the current boundaries of the United States, Canada, and Mexico. (G)
2.3 Locate the oceans of the world: the Arctic, Atlantic, Indian, Pacific, and Southern Oceans. (G)
2.4 Locate five major rivers in the world: the Mississippi, Amazon, Volga, Yangtze, and Nile. (G)
2.5 Locate major mountains or mountain ranges in the world such as the Andes, Alps, Himalayas, Mt. Everest, Mt. McKinley, and the Rocky Mountains. (G)
2.6 Explain the difference between a continent and a country and give examples of each. (G)
2.7 On a map of the world, locate the continent, regions, or countries from which students, their parents, guardians, grandparents, or other relatives or ancestors came. With the help of family members and the school librarian, describe traditional food, customs, sports and games, and music of the place they came from. (G, C)
2.8 With the help of the school librarian, give examples of traditions or customs from other countries that can be found in America today. (G, C)
2.9 With the help of the school librarian, identify and describe well-known sites, events, or landmarks in at least three different countries from which students’ families come and explain why they are important. (H, G, C)
2.10 After reading or listening to a variety of true stories about individuals recognized for their achievements, describe and compare different ways people have achieved great distinction (e.g. scientific, professional, political, religious, commercial, military, athletic, or artistic). (H)
Side note: The "with the help of the librarian" kind of cracks me up. The bureaucrats can't help but want to decide the inputs! Can't a teacher plausibly decide if she wants the help of the librarian on a particular matter, or not?
Anyway, these standards seem to lean towards "make sure you cover topics related to where kids are from" theme.
My own values:
1. I'm for any reasonable mix. But I value knowledge over "activation" or "validation."
2. I tend to care more about decision-makers. Who gets to decide.
But this question touches 3 decision-makers I value a lot --
I value parent input. But in my experience, there is sharp diversion -- some parents want to Americanize their kids and no cultural knowledge from school; others want the validation aspect of their own cultures. Parents always control the degree to which they add (or not) instruction at home on their own heritage.
I lean towards teachers as decision makers. Any excellent teacher -- getting their kids to make great strides in reading and writing English in particular -- earns a large vote of autonomy in my book, on this and a ton of other issues.
I suppose my belief here is conditional. I don't support bad or mediocre teachers making many judgment calls. Peyton Manning (excellent) makes his own decisions. Mark Sanchez (below average) is told what to do by the coach. As it should be.
But overarching all of this is my year of working closely with Kate; having utmost confidence in her setting the right boundaries and asking the right questions. She'll figure it all out.
These are the sorts of questions you get to ponder with a new school. Before it opens. Soon, all questions are tactics, not values. How hard must it be raining to cancel recess?
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P.S. Sri Lanka.