As I head back to the classroom, I think about the last school year. In the second-to-last week of school, my fifth-grade classroom was 90 degrees, with no air conditioning. The students were working on a computer game site that allowed them to compete against children in other classes. On this day, the competitors were students in a class in England.
My students were sitting together, helping each other, laughing, struggling and having fun. At the beginning of the year, they were unsure of each other. They smiled politely but kept to themselves or the friends they knew and never asked for help. So what had changed?
To start, I should tell you a bit about my school district. This upper middle class suburban district is about 20 minutes east of New York City. The student body is approximately 35 percent Asian (Indian, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese), 15 percent Middle Eastern, 10 percent African American, 10 percent Latino and 30 percent white. My class reflects this mix quite accurately. At the beginning of the school year, students tend to separate by ethnicity.
So when school begins, we start building a community. I follow the Responsive Classroom method, which uses specific language, games and lessons to build respect and responsibility. And it works. Children learn to be respectful of each other, considerate and helpful. But the friendships still take time.
Then we begin our lessons on diversity and understanding. We start simply with comparison lessons. Who celebrates a harvest holiday? Who speaks another language at home? Who wears special clothes to pray? We even write compare-and-contrast essays about ourselves and others. Now we are starting to see how similar we really all are.
We take it a step further and look at the media. Students first explore gender through television commercials. They pay attention to who washes clothes, who buys financial magazines and who buys cars. They observe which commercials are geared to men and which to women and why. Finally, students watch television shows and look for people who share their background. They note who the characters are and what their role is in the show.
The analysis comes next. Why, the children want to know, does media portray people in such stereotypes? We start discussing the history of our country. We talk about immigration and how different immigrant groups have been treated in this country. Students work in groups to research immigration patterns in America, including a focus on the history of their own ethnic group. Students always want to know why we allow this behavior. That’s a hard question to answer. I respond, “My hope is that you will be different when you are adults and running the country.”
My students write persuasive letters to various media companies—magazine editors, advertising agencies, cartoon creators—explaining the results of their research and how it makes them feel not to see themselves portrayed well in the media. Then they create their own advertisements. Sometimes it is a public service announcement talking about how people should be portrayed and treated. Sometimes it’s a remake of a commercial they have seen, but showing different cultures in a positive way. The choice is theirs.
Our work to analyze and explore stereotypes allow students to move beyond superficial differences. And by the last few weeks of school, the children are friends. They call each other up over the weekend, get together after school and play at recess. They no longer break into exclusive ethnic groups. They appreciate and understand each other. They question and demonstrate respect and excitement when an Indian child comes in after a wedding with Henna-painted hands, or a Japanese child brings sushi for lunch or a Muslim child is fasting during Ramadan. They share foods, family stories and pictures. And they just enjoy each other, regardless of ethnicity. Maybe they really will grow up to run a world with more accepting and understanding people. I can only hope.
Parisi is an elementary school teacher in New York.