Wednesday, April 16, 2008

"Chinese New Year Man"

The kids in the first-grade class I work with made me think about something yesterday.

One of our college instructors came in the classroom for a minute to observe and talk to us, and I believe he's Filipino. A few of the students asked who it was, and I told them he was our teacher.

One of the students then said, "He's Chinese New Year Man!"

Me: "No, I don't think so."

Her: "But he's Chinese."

Me: "I don't think he is. And why does that matter?"

Her: "I dunno."

Me: "I mean, I'm Italian and Norwegian..."

Her: "You're WEGIAN?"

Anyway, my best guess is that these kids had someone- probably a Chinese man- come in to talk to them about Chinese New Year. And that's great. But in this "diversity" education, what are we really promoting?

I guess I worry that these kids- at least the very young ones- might be using this new information to create stereotypes in their head. I think it's important to teach kids about other parts of the world and their cultures, but what if the way we go about it encourages these young students to make generalizations and assumptions about people?

I think it must be important to talk about cultures and traditions in a way that includes Americans, and a way that discusses what it means to have heritage of a certain country, so that students understand not everyone who looks "Chinese" to them may have ancestors from China, or may not be from China themselves. A person can look different, but still be an American who lives just like the students themselves do, and I think it's important for them to realize they can't make assumptions about how a person lives based on what they look like. Part of that might also come from being sure that they meet many people from many cultures, and that they talk about cultures where their own families might have come from. This way, students don't see different cultures as a necessarily foreign thing, but as a part of each person's heritage- including their own.

Maybe that's harder than it seems, especially with young children who often are within the first couple stages of cognitive development and (theoretically) learn by categorizing new information into existing schemata. I'm just a bit concerned that perhaps by trying to expose the students to diversity and multiculturalism (which are huge buzzwords today in both education and the world at large), we are creating a stereotypical association in their minds.

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