232. Souvenirs, Stereotypes, and Substance

Young children spend time in school learning what it’s like in other parts of the world. I’m glad they do; I think the world will be safer and more pleasant if people know more about each other. And since children often operate best on a concrete level, and deal better with simplicity than complexity, teachers usually use simple, concrete materials to teach children about other places.
But something about that has always bothered me. When I taught children about Japan, for example, I didn’t want children to think of Japan simply as a place where people took off their shoes before entering a home, and made cute little animals by folding paper. I wanted them to know the Japan they might some day visit – the Japan from which their Japanese friends could come. Perhaps origami and taking off shoes would be part of their real experience with Japan, but there would be a lot more. It felt fake to stick with the aspects of Japanese life that set Japan apart.
Let’s try to imagine an elementary school unit about our own culture. What are some things that set us apart from the rest of the world? Westerns? Situation comedies? Rock and roll? Peanut butter? I’d be very interested in finding out what stereotypes and souvenirs are used to represent us to children around the world. We’ve got our cultural ideosyncrasies, I’m sure, but I’ll bet we’d be somewhat surprised to hear and see how our culture sounds and looks to children who are used to another culture.
And so I spent at least part of my units on Japan, Russia, and India, making sure children knew that there was more to these places than the
obvious souvenirs and stereotypes that were so often part of the units teachers used. I showed children photographs of Tokyo, Moscow, or New Delhi that made it clear that these were cities. I tried to keep the units balanced, so that children would get to know the real places and people. I tried to find penpals for the children. E-mail could have made that easier, but the timing of my teaching career wasn’t right; “snail-mail” was a very appropriate term for the process by which I tried to bring children closer to their penpals.
I still don’t know to what degree the typical elementary school units about other cultures are appropriate. The world is getting smaller; some of the bits of culture that used to give places and peoples their character are, to some degree, becoming anachronisms, and we sometimes have to stretch a point to make children aware of cultural differences. They can get typical American fast food in most parts of the world. English is an international language; though it’s the native language of only a small percentage of earth’s population, a large percentage can get along okay in English.
I offer these thoughts to parents and teachers who are struggling to balance emphases on diversity and commonality in presenting other cultures to children. I wish you success.

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