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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Teaching Students About Other Cultures...and Their Own

By Peter DeWitt — February 25, 2014 3 min read
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If you’ve ever been to the state of Hawaii, you already know of the beautiful mountains, warm climate, breathtaking lush green landscapes, and jaw-dropping ocean views. Within minutes of stepping off the plane, you also recognize how friendly and welcoming native Hawaiians and residents of Hawaii are to visitors. Whether it’s “Aloha” or “Mahalo” you feel a sense of warmth which does not just come from the weather.

In 2008, I first visited Hawaii to speak for their Department of Education. I was a bit overwhelmed by the scenery, which I had only seen on Magnum P.I. However, something else had a much deeper impact on me, and that was the respect that people of Hawaii have for their own culture. Mostly, it may stem from their own families, but the schools system in Hawaii focuses on culture as well.

In an effort to make sure all of their young people learn the roots of their culture, the public school system has a Hawaiian Studies program. According to a report,

During the late 1960s and early 70s, Hawai'i experienced a grassroots movement to revitalize the native Hawaiian culture. This also led to demands for Hawai'i-oriented courses in Hawai'i's public schools and colleges. At the same time, proponents of the movement acknowledged a risk of losing native knowledge of the Hawaiian language, culture, and history permanently with many traditional küpuna being of advanced age and rapidly dwindling in numbers. This prompted the 1978 Constitutional Convention to propose a Hawaiian Education Program, which, upon approval by the voters, became Article X, Section 4, of the State Constitution."

Jan Iwase, Principal of Hale Kula Elementary School says,

Whether it's teaching our youngest students through songs and books about the Hawaiian alphabet, colors, or numbers or retelling myths and legends about how our islands were created, our Hawaiian Studies Kupuna (grandparents) and Kumu (teacher) see themselves as essential bearers and sharers of knowledge about our unique history and culture. For a school like ours where 99% of our students are military dependents, the Hawaiian Studies program is much appreciated."

Iwase has a vision that, “Our students absorb the Hawaiian culture and the spirit of aloha and share it with others when they leave our school.” In a sense, it’s a version of “Paying it forward” as they move on in life.

Teaching Children About Culture

It’s quite popular for schools, especially those at the elementary level, to teach students how to respect other cultures. Our nation is diverse, and it’s important that students understand different cultures, not only because schools can help foster lifelong friendships, but because students will no doubt interact with people from diverse cultures throughout life.

Many schools have diversity fairs where students choose a country, and learn about the culture, food, clothing, climate and other aspects of that country. Stay At Home Mom has some good suggestions on how to teach children about culture, as does Scholastic. Both sites offer lesson plans, books to read, and other resources. In his Huffington Post blog, Matthew Lynch says,

Showing students everyday photographs of people of different ethnicities, shapes, sizes, and garb gives students the opportunity to see people that look very different from themselves and their family engaging in the same types of activities that they and their family participate in; this activity can help humanize types of people that a student has never had an opportunity to interact with personally. Welcoming guest speakers into the class that hail from differing backgrounds and have all made a positive contribution to important fields can also help dispel any preconceived notions that students might possess about the relative competence and value of people from different cultures."

You can read more of Lynch’s suggestions here.

Teaching Children About Their Own Culture

As important as it is to teach students about other cultures, what is happening in Hawaiian schools like Hale Kula is about teaching children to respect and celebrate their own. Teaching children about their own culture gives them the opportunity to respect themselves, but it also gives them a cultural base that they can take with them as they grown.

Perhaps, part of the issue we have in the U.S. is that children do not always have the opportunity to learn about their own roots, and this country is made up of children and families that all have different roots, which could provide them with a deeper understanding of themselves.

A way to combine the benefits of a diversity fair, and teach children about their own culture, is to encourage them to study their own roots for the fair. Yes, this may cause multiple students to focus on the same country, but it will also provide students with a deeper understanding of themselves.

The benefits of this self-discovery into their own roots are plentiful. It provides parents and children with the opportunity to go through old pictures, discuss the experiences they had growing up, and spark memories of family celebrations, favorite cultural foods, and perhaps provide an opening to delve deeper into their own culture.

In the End

If you ever get the opportunity to go to Hawaii...you should. The scenery, smell of the exotic flowers, and friendly people are overwhelmingly the best reasons to take the flight over the Pacific. However, some of the lessons they teach in their elementary schools are important for all of us. We should never forget where we came from, and should often take time to reflect on our past.

We all get busy with life and work. So many of us move in different directions, and only take a few days to relax and breathe. The “Aloha” spirit that Jan eludes to is about living in the moment, respecting our own culture along with others, and never forgetting where we come from as we move ahead.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.