When Students Have Space to Talk About Their Cultures

An elementary school principal highlights what can happen when educators give students opportunities to talk about their cultures and to learn about the cultures of other students.

Given the issues of intolerance for differences in our country and in the rest of the world, teaching intercultural understanding and respect is paramount if we are to make the world a better place. The educators at my elementary school—which has a very linguistically diverse student population, including those whose families have recently immigrated to the United States—have been intentional in selecting materials for our Media Center and our classrooms that are representative of the student population and aligned with our mission to provide students a global understanding.

One resource that we have had available to us are Cultural Kits through Carolina Navigators, a service-learning program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Global Initiatives. Each kit includes artifacts of everyday life in a select country. Recently, I visited a classroom that was using a kit representing Iran. In the kit were handmade items, photos, currency and other objects, including traditional Muslim clothing. Three of the students in the class are Muslim, which led to a class discussion about the differences in two of these students’ clothing: One girl wears traditional clothing, including a hijab, and another wears “Western clothing.” The three students—including the boy, who is often reluctant to speak in class—were animated and excited to talk about their respective cultures and customs.

What happened the next day was powerful. The Muslim girl who wears Western clothing to school each day had gone home and told her parents she wanted to bring in her hijab to show the class. She came to school eager to share, and her teacher gave her time to show her classmates how she wears her hijab. She also explained that she wears her hijab when she’s out in public with her family, but not at home when she’s only with family members.

Of course, creating this space needs to be part of an ongoing, comprehensive approach to making sure all children have opportunities to share their cultures and learn about the cultures of other students. This particular vignette affirms the power of opening the doors to cultural understanding to our students.

Many people from the Middle East and other Muslim-majority regions living in the United States, including friends of mine, are experiencing increased fear and being more cautious because of the rhetoric and actions taken against people who are Muslim or perceived to be Muslim. Fueled by Islamophobia and very real terrorism on the part of a few, so many people have not learned that we need to accept each other as individuals and not lump people together in divisive, artificial and dangerous groupings. Educators need to provide room in our schools to recognize and to honor the reality that each individual is unique and needs to be judged as such. I celebrate that, in providing a climate of acceptance, we were able to provide a forum for one little girl to tell her classmates about her hijab.

Lewis is principal of Fox Road Magnet Elementary School in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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