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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
February 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 5

No Longer Strangers

One teacher's personal experience with diversity helped her 2nd graders value their differences and appreciate their similarities. Her suggestions may help other teachers balance “they” with “we” in their classrooms.

The district superintendent sat squarely across the table from me. The principal was at my right side. It was the final stage of my interview for a teaching position in a rural elementary school with a high transitory population. Approximately one-third of the students, the superintendent told me, would likely transfer in and out each year. A number of them lived in the migrant camp in a neighboring town. About a quarter were Hispanic.
The school had several bilingual teaching assistants, I learned, but no other ethnic minority teachers. Would I—a third-generation Japanese American—feel comfortable in this community? the superintendent asked. “I think,” I considered carefully, “they need me.”

A Cultural Harvest of Students

I was hired for the job, and I loved it! My 2nd graders represented a genuine range—in personalities, abilities, backgrounds, and needs. They were aggressive and shy, giggly and reserved, eager and withdrawn. Several were prereaders learning their alphabet, while a few read Laura Ingalls Wilder favorites and other library books in place of basals. Some wore the latest clothing styles and brought trendy toys for sharing time. Others came to school wringing wet from the rain or arrived late because they'd overslept (their mothers had already left for work). A few were from well-to-do families, and some were children of laborers. With the turn of the seasons and the harvests came a change in the children, too, as some moved away in the fall, to be replaced by others in the spring.
Immediately after I was hired, my grandfather had checked his directory of Japanese Americans in Oregon and was surprised to find that I would be the only Asian American in this town. Although one-fourth of my 2nd graders were Hispanic, and one did not speak English, the community was predominantly white. Once I arrived, I heard stories of an unwritten city statute that denied residence to anyone who was not White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. (A Chinese restaurant was located outside the city limits, and I was told that the owners had been refused the opportunity to buy a home.)

Curiosity and the Curriculum

And so it was that I was an anomaly to my students and a stranger to my neighbors. I became so caught up with the teaching aspects of my new job, however, that I unconsciously dismissed this fact. Fortunately, the innocent curiosity of two students opened my eyes.
During a parent conference, a Hispanic couple confided that their daughter and their son had fought about me. “Why?” I asked in horror. Well, they explained, Rudy was sure I was from Texas, while Karen maintained I was from India. Clearly these two had identified issues that went beyond the curriculum: Who was their teacher? Where was she from? How was she different? And, most important, how could their teacher translate those questions into valuable lessons for her students?
The next day I arrived ready and eager to tackle these issues. First, I asked my students where they had been born, and we located all their birthplaces on the U.S. map. Then, I showed them my birthplace: Hood River, Oregon. “Now where do you think my grandparents were born?” I asked. They seemed unsure, so I pointed to Japan on the globe. I told the children about my grandparents' arduous voyage to America by cargo ship, and the challenges they faced in a country where the language and customs were so very different. As I spoke, the children eyed me intently and seemed to absorb each of my words.
Later that day, I began to reflect on my own childhood experiences. After the first day of 1st grade, my mom tells me, I came home discouraged: there was absolutely no one at my school to marry. I was the only Japanese American, until my sister joined me two years later. While students and teachers seemed to treat me equitably, subtle messages hinted that I was different.
The Alice-and-Jerry readers, for example, did not include anyone who looked like me. (I dreamed of having blonde hair and blue eyes like the popular characters in my books.) The school cook insisted that I remain in the cafeteria until I ate all my rice pudding, a sickeningly sweet dish that was unfamiliar to my palate. A well-meaning teacher pointed out to my classmates “all the beautiful colors” in my black hair, which made me feel like a freak and an outsider. And, throughout my schooling, lessons on Western civilizations and even American history left me wondering where my ancestors and I fit in.

Key Questions To Ask

One of my favorite posters from my youth, now tattered around the edges, still hangs prominently on my bulletin board. The lime green display shows two footprints facing three footprints. The message is simple but clear: “I like you. You're different.”
Thanks to the queries of Karen and Rudy, I've become more conscious of the importance of interpreting those differences for my students. In my efforts to focus on classroom skills, I had overlooked fundamental lessons about humankind. I had filed away the subtle messages that had disturbed me since childhood: the puzzled feeling I'd had when two preschoolers had giggled after seeing me, the gnawing insecurities that had plagued me when classmates poured sugar and milk on their rice and expected me to do so too.
These memories led me to realize that being a role model for my students meant more than how and what I taught. It meant taking a look at myself to see what I brought to the classroom. It meant reflecting on what I portrayed to my students. Whatever our ethnic or cultural backgrounds, we teachers bring our own views, values, and dreams to the classroom. At the same time, we tote our own cultural baggage—assumptions, interpretations, misconceptions, stereotypes, and prejudices.
  1. What do I represent? What symbols and values epitomize who I am? What personal experiences have shaped how I view myself and others around me? James Banks tells us that an Anglo-American teacher who is confused about his or her cultural identity.... will have a difficult time relating positively to outside ethnic groups (1991, p. 40).Simply put, we need to understand our own attitudes, anxieties, biases, and expectations before we can presume to understand, and attempt to meet, the needs of others.
  2. How do I view differences? Am I open to different ideas? Do I consciously examine both sides of an issue? Can I imagine what it might be like not to understand what others say and do—or not to feel welcome? A “Multicultural Person of the 21st Century,” notes Carlos Cortes, must learn “to judge on the basis of evidence, not reject on the basis of prejudice” (1994, p. 8). In our teaching and learning roles, this might mean accepting refried beans as part of a balanced breakfast or considering how westward expansion affected pioneers and American Indians.
  3. Do I recognize both differences and similarities? How am I different from others? How am I the same? How do these differences and similarities affect my view of myself? My relationships with others? As citizens of a nation whose heritage depicts e pluribus unum, we need to understand both the “Pluribus experiences of individual groups and the Unum experiences of Americans as a whole” (Cortes 1994, p. 8).At the same time, we must avoid getting so caught up with our diversity that we neglect our commonality. In other words, we need to balance they with we. Norah Dooley gives us a fine example in her children's book about a diverse neighborhood where, no matter how it is prepared, Everybody Cooks Rice (1991).

Strangers No More

Our schools are rapidly becoming more diverse. By the year 2020, 40 percent of our nation's school-age youth are expected to be persons of color (Zeichner 1992). All students—those who are minorities and those who are not—need to appreciate the impact of living in a multicultural society. Therefore, we teachers have important work to do: through the roles we portray, the lessons we teach, and the settings we create.
In White Teacher, Vivian Paley advises us that our goal is to find a way of communicating to each child the idea that his or her special quality is understood, is valued, and can be talked about. It is not easy, because we are influenced by the fears and prejudices, apprehensions and expectations which have become a carefully hidden part of every one of us (1979, xvi).Yet, Paley also urges us to create schools and societies where faces with many shapes and colors can feel an equal sense of belonging. Our children must grow up knowing and liking those who look and speak in different ways, or they will live as strangers in a hostile land (p. 139).The challenge is simple but significant: Can we create places of learning where students are no longer strangers—to themselves or to one another? The answer is clear: We must.

Banks, J. (1991). “Teaching Multicultural Literacy to Teachers.” Teaching Education 4:1.

Cortes, C. (May 1994). “A Curricular Basic for our Multiethnic Future.” ACCESS: 123.

Dooley, N. (1991). Everybody Cooks Rice. Minneapolis, Minn.: Carolrhoda Books.

Paley, V. G. (1979). White Teacher. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Zeichner, K. M. (March 1992). Educating Teachers for Cultural Diversity. East Lansing: National Center for Research on Teacher Learning, Michigan State University.

Linda Tamura has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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