Cultural Navigation

I had an interesting experience this summer watching the musical Fiddler on the Roof.  Produced by one of our local community theatre groups, I had been following the rehearsal process with interest and was looking forward to finally seeing the show after hearing great reviews from friends.  Now, you should know that I’m Jewish and that I live in a small city where most people aren’t at all familiar with Judaism; for this Northern town, Jewish is exotic.

The show was very well done; beautifully staged and directed.  The performers were committed and deeply in role.  They were physically present and their characters were wonderfully embodied.  It was a great night of theatre.

But I had a strange reaction to the play, one I hadn’t expected.  At points during the evening, I felt very uncomfortable.  It was unsettling to watch actors pretending to light Shabbat candles and bless bread and wine as an act of entertainment.  These are rituals that I perform every week as part of our Shabbat meal either at home or at synagogue.  To see them on stage was very odd.

Later on in the play when Tevye’s third daughter, Chava, marries the non-Jewish Fyedka, the actor playing Tevye inserted the mourner’s kaddish prayer into the script, to make the point that Tevye now views his daughter as dead.  Again, I had that ticklish feeling of discomfort.  Here’s a very solemn prayer that we only say when we have a prayer quorum or minyan of 10 adult Jews (or 10 men, depending on your branch of Judaism) and there it was being performed on stage.  I found myself reflexively muttering “amein” under my breath at the appropriate moments.

My final moment of discomfort came during the scene when the soldiers arrive to advise the residents of Anatevka that they have to leave.  Behind me, a woman whispered “it’s the Germans.”  “No!”, I wanted to shout back… “It’s the Russians!”  Having that historical inaccuracy hang in the air, uncorrected, really bothered me.  It itched at me the whole way home.

Altogether, it was a revealing experience; this is what it’s like to have your culture on display, represented as entertainment… appropriated, to some extent.  Now, I’m not suggesting we halt all productions of Fiddler on the Roof.  It’s a great play; if I were a rich woman I’d see it again.  But I think it was a really good experience for me to go through that discomfort.

In the community where I teach, we are confronted daily with the legacy of First Nations residential schools.  We are struggling as a system to find ways to reach out to First Nations communities, to repair the damage that years of at best assimilationist and at worst genocidal policies has created.  One piece of that effort has been to ensure that there are opportunities for First Nations students attending our schools to have the opportunity to study their language and culture while at the same time building some cultural literacy among the non-native students too.  Sometimes, this work involves having First Nations teachers and elders presenting cultural teachings to classes, to familiarize all students with First Nations cultural beliefs and practices.

Last week, I was asked to come into a class to follow-up a cultural teaching with an arts-based activity.  Now, as far as I know, I have no First Nations heritage.  My children have Haudenosaunee heritage but, alas, not from me.  So it’s awkward, to say the least, to be in the position of having to support teachings that I’m not that familiar with and which don’t belong to me.  It’s additionally loaded with meaning because of the many ways that First Nations Art has been appropriated by the mainstream culture over the last several hundred years, including some particularly egregious examples in the past few years.  The optics of a white lady standing in front of a class “teaching” First Nations Art… it’s not good.

But there I was, trying to figure out a way to compliment a cultural teaching on the subject of long hair through a Visual Arts activity that wouldn’t just devolve into cultural theft.  I wanted to share with you what I came up with, not because I consider it some kind of authoritative solution to what will remain a challenge, but both because I think the wrestling itself is a meaningful process and because I think it’s important to share our discomfort and to respectfully ask for guidance.

One of the things I have taken away from my years in Kindergarten is a healthy respect for materials, guided by the practice in Reggio Emilia of establishing material-rich ateliers in schools.  I’ve been trying to position myself as an atelierista, a provider of materials, of techniques, of curation, but not an instructor with any particular end in mind.  So for a teaching about long hair (here are two videos if you want to learn more), I decided to work on the ideas of personal identity and expression of belonging that seemed central to the teaching while working with textiles, to link to the idea of hair.  I taught the students how to braid, presented the materials (beads, thread, pipe cleaners, and wicker) and off they went.   They produced amazing work that had symbolic meaning for them, using the cultural teaching as inspiration.  A perfect solution?  Likely no, but maybe a step forward.

long hair art

I will never forget the feeling of discomfort I experienced sitting in that darkened theatre watching Fiddler on the Roof.  I hope it remains fresh because it’s helping me to approach this aspect of my job with a greater sense of understanding and compassion.  I think it’s making me a better teacher.

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A good school

Earlier this week, I wrote about our children starting at a new school. It’s a “good school”, that’s what everyone says. About their old school, they said less flattering things; it’s a rough school, a bad school. I always felt like I was on some kind of affirmative action campaign, trying to dispel those myths because, well, we loved that school. It was a great school.

Now, the new school is a good school too but my point here is that the perceptions we have about our local schools are very often based on little more than dust in the wind, snippets of conversation and rumours.  Sometimes the perception is entirely based on standardized test scores and media reports about them – a very narrow window into a very big world.

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I spent this week working in a school that is very much like the school my children used to attend. If you asked around at swimming lessons, or on the side of the soccer field, you might hear that this school is a bad school. You might assume negative things about the students or the staff. You might avoid it for your own children.  You would be wrong, very wrong.

This is a great school. I have seen great teaching here this week and I have been so impressed by the ways that these teachers and administrators are carefully considering how to best serve their students. I haven’t heard a single disparaging comment about a child or a family and I have witnessed incredible compassion. These kids need great teachers and they have them.

We who hang out on the sides of soccer fields, holding Starbucks lattes in our hands need to think carefully about how we define good schools and how we talk about all schools. Is it really just about the test scores? Don’t we want more from schools than test scores? I know I sure do.

Maybe we should hold our opinions, like the foam on our lattes, until we’ve walked a mile in those hallways.

Oh very young one

Today while we were out and about, my son nuzzled into me, pushing my arm over his head and onto his back, demanding my closeness. He’s 7; every time he wants to be that close is a gift. I know that soon he’ll start pushing me away, he’ll start finding me embarrassing – and not just when I sing and dance in public.

He goes back to school tomorrow and so do I but, for the first time in my career, not to students of my own. There have been no cubbies to label with names, no parents to meet with, and no anxiety about the work of meeting the needs of 30 small people. Instead, I spent last week unpacking boxes, organizing a storage space, setting up a 4’x6′ cubicle, and learning about my new job. Unlike all of the years I spent in the classroom, I may actually sleep tonight.

For him, things are changing too. He starts in a new school tomorrow, away from his friends and the comfort of the teachers he’s always known. He’s been down the stairs three times tonight, unable to fall asleep. As I walked him back to bed this last time, he asked “Mommy, can you Google ways to help kids cope with starting in a new school?” My heart aches for him. I know how the system works, how hard it is to make friends sometimes, how slow things are to change. I want him to walk into a transformed school: experiential, experimental, expressive – I know that’s not what he’s getting. There will be too many worksheets and too much time in a desk. There won’t be enough Art or enough time spent outside.  He’s creative and kind, sensitive and imaginative, insightful and curious. Schools can be tough places for kids like him. They can be tough places for lots of kids.  We need to do better because, frankly, we know better.

I will catch my breath as he gets on the bus in the morning. I will mutter a prayer under my breath and wave goodbye. I know, in my teacher way, that he will probably be fine but, oh very young one, how I wish for something better than fine for you. I promise that I’ll keep working on it.

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High-Y-Nest

Kids are fascinating creatures.  They are perplexing and curious, bewildering and bewitching.  Frequently, when I document a conversation or an event, I look back at it and think: “What was that all about?”  It’s often not immediately clear; it may never be clear.

Yesterday, when we went into the greenspace, N.I. perched himself in the little rock alcove that they’ve all decided is their chair.

high-y-nest

M.P. said: “It’s the chair of high-y-nest.”

I thought at first he meant “highness” – like a throne for a king.

But when I asked him what he meant he told me “it’s because the rocks are high.”

Oh… okay.

Then, as we continued our walk, the children started to push their way through a dense patch of bush near the back of the property.  They said to each other: ” We’re going to the camp high-y-nest in the high-y-nest city.”

On our way to high-y-nest camp
On our way to high-y-nest camp

I’m standing there thinking: “Like hyenas? Does this have something to do with Africa? The Jungle?”

Then we got to the edge of the bush and a white dog dashed out and started barking at us.  His exuberance was met with a solemn: “Look, Madame, we found a high-y-nest dog.”

Of course you did.

high y nest dog

At this point, I probably looked a lot like a confused dog with my head cocked to one side and a perplexed look on my face.

Now, if there’s one thing that I wish I could change about school in the interest of furthering inquiry, it would be to remove the schedule.  I wish we could eat when we’re hungry, go outside when we like, and stay out as long as we want.  But, that’s not the reality of busing and contracts and bells.  Part of my perplexedness (it’s really a word – I checked) is because I can’t always stay with something as long as I would like to, as long as the kids probably needed to in order to develop this high-y-nest narrative to the point where it might have made sense to me (maybe it never would).  It was time to go in so we trooped back towards the school, with the world of high-y-nest remaining mysteriously elusive, at least for the adult among us.

PS: If you ever want to read a great story about ditching the schedule (and more), check out William Ayers’ To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher – fabulous book.

A Blank Slate

I’m starting at a new school this year.  New challenges, new kids, and ta-da… a new classroom!

Unfortunately, I’m only allowed to look at it from the doorway; like Romeo and Juliet in the balcony scene, I can only love it from afar.

Floors need to cure and a window needs to be installed.  These things take time and nothing is ever simple.  Hopefully, we can get it all together by the first day! Say a little prayer!

If you have any ideas for the space, please leave them in the comments.  We’re all ears!

That plywood will be a window soon!
That plywood will be a window soon!

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