I begin this post by saying I am by no means an expert teacher of different cultures. I teach in a community that does not offer many different perspectives racially or culturally so at times this topic coming up in class is trickier to navigate.
In university my mentor and Social Studies Guru Dr.Carla Peck once told us that to reduce items important to a groups culture to craft time is insensitive. I am sure the conversation came from the discussion around Pysanky eggs and looking at Ukraine in grade 3 Social Studies even though it seems EVERY grade in Canadian Elementary does them with little to no background for students other than “we are going to paint eggs”. I was guilty of that myself and doing some research maybe taking the “fun” easter egg decorating and discussing the fact that some believed their increased fertility would not be appropriate. Maybe the eggs are not the best example of cultural significance because it has changed so much over time and not something limited to one cultural group so let me try another.
Wampum Belts were used in First Nations culture as a way to record the history of significant events, tell stories and inform future generations. This was a sacred duty and calling to be the reader of the Wampum. Today I saw celebrated images from a grade 6 classroom in another community where all the children were hard at work making their own Wampum belts. Backed with a cut up cereal box for support students had crafted their own designs and were busy sliding beads on to strings in the pictures. I can help but feel sad as that cultural significant event was reduced to string and a cereal box. I can understand the teacher wanting students to know about Wampum Belts as it is both in their curriculum and a very important piece of North American history and First Nations culture. I cannot make sense of why we need it to become an art project or craft to fill time.
Perhaps a different option is looking at the purpose (telling their stories, saving them, record significant events) and creating an authentic exercise for students to reflect on. Write their own stories, share their important events. Sure it is not as flashy as a dollar store bead belt backed with a cereal box but a personal story surely could not offend an entire culture by taking something that is not ours and knocking it off for 2.99 a student.
I see this same thing happening in the United States as teachers try to teach slavery as a role-playing exercise (sigh) or have students arguing the merits of it (Seriously?). I do not think teachers have the tools or training to enter the waters of cultural different topics and teach them in a way that is authentic and does not step on the toes of those who celebrate those cultures. We need to look outside to our communities for this.
Adding books to classroom libraries that show diverse people is a start of course but it is not to the solution. I have diverse books and they tend to sit on the shelf as students prefer characters that look like them, that have struggles that they can relate to. I look at the idea of bringing in guest speakers. A blanket exercise to introduce units around first nations histories so my students can understand it from the point of view who lived it not just their teacher that has no connection to it beyond research and well-meaning.
Students understanding the diverse world around them is of paramount importance. The Global community is becoming a more diverse place every year as conflict and other events push people away from their homes to new homes and new communities. As teachers, it is our job to not only prepare our students but to do so respecting all cultures. Not through role play and arts and crafts, not through books just placed on a shelf but through conversations, through meeting the very people our students see and know nothing about.
Be authentic, be purposeful but most of all be respectful. Take the time to learn before you try to teach. And please don’t take culturally significant things and reduce them to arts and crafts.