During the summer my friends and family from around the Southeast remind me that Hilton Head Island is, to some, just a resort town. They book weekly condo rentals, dolphin-watching tours and kayaking trips. But the low country—and especially HHI—has a rich African-American and Latino history. My school’s population is evenly split between African-American, Latino and white students. We are more diverse than the summer vacationers who come and go.
Schools on HHI take pride in our diversity and have evolved with our changing demographics. One way our school celebrates the cultural backgrounds and contributions of our students is planning activities for Hispanic Heritage Month, Sept. 15th to Oct. 15th this year. Even if a school does not have a Latino population, all students need opportunities to explore and celebrate multiple cultures. Understanding the presence of Latino influence in our society will help prepare them for participation in civic life and the global workforce.
Some events our school has hosted include a Parade of Cultures, traditional dancing by students during lunch, incentives to borrow books by Latino authors in the media center, and a Spanish-language movie viewing in the auditorium. We also facilitated a panel discussion by Latino community members, including a college admissions officer who reached out to the parents of our students.
Two Hispanic Heritage Month events evoked the strongest responses from teachers and students in my school.
First, the Parade of Cultures was an exhibit that featured historical and cultural information on our students’ countries of origin. From Costa Rica to Brazil, Spain to Mexico, students helped create these displays to showcase their roots, and teachers were invited to bring their classes to the exhibit. I made a scavenger hunt handout to engage them. It was a ton of work (that's why you have to start planning early), but it raised students' cultural awareness and gave many Latino students a stake in their school and education.
The other event—that brought tears to my eyes—was a traditional salsa and tango dance performance during lunch. The performers were Latino students, a few of whom were my ESOL students who were still struggling to learn English and find their niche in our big school. They were brave to share their talents, and I was so proud of the whistles and applause throughout the performances and costume changes. Lunchrooms can be divisive and intimidating places, but that day ours was warm and welcoming.
Through careful planning, my ESOL students learned they are more than just stereotypes or names on a roster. They know their peers and teachers think they are valuable and have much to offer the school. They, in turn, asked me several questions about my own upbringing. I learned that the more authentic information we exchange with all students, the better off they are as far as social, emotional and intellectual growth. We should never be the gatekeepers of information but rather the people who open as many doors as possible.
I take pride in connecting with my students. Respectfully celebrating all students' cultures—during heritage months and throughout the year—is an effective way to connect on a school-wide level and make everyone's school experience beneficial.
Caitlin George teaches high school journalism and English for speakers of other languages in South Carolina.