Was Walt Whitman Wrong? (Do We Not Contain Multitudes?)

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An American Puzzle by Lloyd Schermer, from the Smithsonian American Museum

A couple of interesting moments in a postcolonial theory seminar, along with an indignant comment made by a six year-old of my acquaintance, have been making me think about the question of ethnicity, specifically in regard to how we identify ourselves.

First the seminar stories: in a discussion about gender and power, a woman in the class referenced the wealth and cultural influence of Jennifer Lopez and identified the performer as Puerto Rican. Another woman challenged that statement, asking “But where is she from? Is she from Puerto Rico? Where is her passport from? Does she even speak Spanish? She’s not Puerto Rican–she’s American.”

Of course, several folks in the class reminded the second woman that all Puerto Ricans are Americans and travel on American passports, but I understood the point she was trying to make. She had made a similar comment in a previous class, saying that she thought it was absurd that many Americans describe themselves as half-this and a-quarter-that. “They’re not Irish or French,” she insisted. “They’re American.

Well, yes, they’re certainly that. But are they really no longer Irish or French (or Kenyan or Vietnamese or Brazilian or…)? Does being American mean that if your family is not 100% Native American you forfeit any claim to the nationality or cultures of your ancestors?

Her contentions brought to mind Kwame Anthony Appiah who, in his book Cosmopolitanism, asks us to consider the following:

In an increasingly globalized world, where cultures mix and interact much more easily than in the past and where, as a result, people hail from increasingly hybrid backgrounds, with which “tribes” can, should, and do we identify?

Appiah himself is a cultural and racial hybrid. He was born and raised mainly in Ghana to a Ghanaian father and an English mother who, though she loved Ghana and still lives there, is also deeply connected to her family in England. Appiah says that his mixed ethnicity meant that he “always had a sense of family and tribe that was multiple and overlapping: nothing could have seemed more commonplace.” He identifies as Ghanaian and English–the very “half-this and half-that” that our irritated grad student dismissed.

And his father provides a good example of the perspective that the grad student who was championing J Lo held when she identified the singer as Puerto Rican: Appiah notes that his father “never saw a conflict between local partialities and a universal morality–between being part of the place you were and a part of a broader human community.”

There is no need, Appiah counsels, for us Americans who hail from multiple backgrounds to turn our backs on the countries and cultures of our families and identify as only American.

I myself was raised in a family of immigrants; my mother was from French Canada and my father’s father, who lived with us, was from Italy. We spoke French with the cousins in Quebec every summer–and in a memory that makes me smile, my mother always used French to quietly, but very firmly, reprimand us in front of other (English-speaking) people. On the other hand, the adults spoke Italian in the house when they didn’t want the children to know what they were saying. (Of course, after a certain age, we began to understand them, so they had to resort to whispering.) Because of this upbringing, I feel strong connections to both Italy and French Canada. Thus, I’m very American–born and raised and still living here–but I am also French Canadian, and I am also Italian. This is how I identify.

No one in my family, or in my very Italian neighborhood on the south shore of Long Island, ever saw a problem with this sort of multiple identity. I remember once in Spain telling a story to a Spaniard about “a Sicilian from Brooklyn,” and she laughed out loud. “Only an American would say that,” she chuckled. Being from New York, with its wide diversity of immigrants, and taking for granted my own hybridity, I didn’t see anything the least bit odd about the reference.

But don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying that every American must think of themselves as distinct hybrids. I have friends whose families have been in this country for hundreds of years, and though they’re vaguely aware that their names are Scotch-Irish or the like, they feel American to the core. All their family memories take place in the US. Their names are easy for most Americans to pronounce. They have no real connection to The Old Country that their ancestors left so long ago. And that’s fine. That’s sort of my point. We should be able to identify in the way that suits us and our situation best. For these friends, American is the only answer they give to the “What are you?” question. For me, my Italian and French-Canadian connections are close in time and are very dear to me; to disconnect myself from them would be to change fundamentally who I am.

Just yesterday I read an article in NatGeo Educator about Jenn Gilgan, a National Geographic Educator of the Week, who has her students explore the world by learning about the countries from which their families hail. They do some genealogical research and then they report on ecological and humanitarian issues affecting their ancestral nations today. This lesson emphasizes the connections that many of us have to other countries around the world–connections that make those places more real, especially for young people who may be quite unaware of the world outside US borders. I love this idea. It is a great example of making global education relevant to students who have little real experience interacting with other nationalities and cultures. It’s also a way of celebrating the diversity and hybridity that defines so many of us, whether our families arrived on these shores two weeks or two centuries ago.

So finally, the promised story about the bright little six year-old: A couple of months ago, I tried to explain what amounted to the gist of this essay to an indignant child at a family party who, though his mother was born in the Dominican Republic and his father is of Dominican descent, insisted to an older relative in a loud voice that he is NOT Dominican! He is American! I told him that we’re ALL American–but that I’m also Italian and French Canadian. Someone else in the room was American and Lithuanian. Another American and English. “Lots of us are American and something else–you are, too,” I said. He narrowed his eyes and considered this. Then he nodded and ran off to play, content now to identify with multiple tribes, to be a hybrid. To contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman wrote.

And though the irate grad student might have rolled her eyes at me, Kwame Appiah, I believe, would have approved.

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Presenting on Global Competence and Crankies

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I was delighted to present online today at the 8th annual Global Education Conference. The presentation was called “What’s a Crankie?? Using Creative Story Exchanges to Build Global Competence and Connect Students Across Borders,” and it showcased the process of an international collaboration between a class in Florida and one in Shanghai. Each group created a crankie, a backdrop scroll loaded onto two spindles and cranked from one side to the other, that told the story of their corner of world. Students made shadow puppets to populate the scenes on their backdrops, and wrote “postcards” or a script to accompany their art.

Today at the conference, which draws global educators from all over the world, we used the Blackboard Collaborate platform, where we were able to click through our PowerPoint presentation, show video clips on YouTube, and talk and type with our session participants. We had folks in our “room” from as near as Chicago and as far as Azerbaijan!

It was professional development about global education that used the very tools we are, or could be, using to connect our students to each other. So effective. And so interesting to sit in on other sessions and see what kinds of projects are going on in classrooms close by and far away. Kudos to the conference directors, Steve Hargadon and Lucy Gray, for the wonderful forum and community they’ve created.

The session was recorded and will soon be available as a downloadable file; once that happens, I’ll post it here so you, too, can learn how to teach about the world by using writing, art…and crankies.

 

What’s a Crankie? Log in and Find Out!

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Quick announcement: I’ll be presenting, along with Susan Gay Hyatt, my Blue Planet co-director, at the 8th annual Global Education Conference, a worldwide online event for educators and others interested in the world of benefits that global education can provide to students.

Join us–for free!–on Wednesday, November 15 at 2pm EST to hear us answer the burning question:

What’s a Crankie??

We’ll be showcasing a Crankie project that Blue Planet carried out between a school in South Florida and one in Shanghai, China, and teaching you how you can create a similar project in your own classroom. The presentation will be great for

  • Language arts teachers
  • Fine arts teachers
  • Social studies teachers
  • World language teachers
  • Teaching Artists
  • Cultural Educators

Attendance, which is completely online, is free. Go to the Conference schedule page here for information on how to join us and the other presenters for this fantastic conference!

Speak for Yourself: Dismantling Orientalism with First-Person Narratives

OrientalismI’ve just been reading Orientalism (the Vintage 1994 edition), Edward Said’s foundational 1978 text on how the West (what Said refers to in his historical moment as the Occident) has traditionally viewed the East (Asia, the Middle East, and Northern Africa, or “the Orient”). Said defines Orientalism as “a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient’s special place in European experience” (p. 1). In other words, an Orientalist perspective defines the West–by juxtaposing it with what it is not–as much as it purports to define the East.

This viewpoint doesn’t just define the East, though–it provides a foundation, a set of reasons and rationalizations, for the West to intervene in and dominate the East. It creates an unequal power structure, and it justifies this imbalance because of the negative profile it assigns the East.

Reading about the ways in which Europe and the US have defined and dealt with the other half of the world has left me, naturally, with some thoughts and questions that are especially relevant to the project of connecting students across borders through the device of first-person narratives.

Because of my own work, the moments in the book that most resonated for me were those that looked at the power structure of those-who-speak and those-who-are-spoken-for. In one especially important passage, Said argues that “in discussions of the Orient, the Orient is all absence, whereas one feels the Orientalist [the Westerner who studies the Orient] and what he says as presence” (p. 208; emphasis mine).

How does the Orient become absent? How does it disappear even as the Western scholar–or novelist or travel writer, even–is attempting to represent it? Said explains the process like this:

First, the West defines the Orient as the opposite of itself, as the Other. Four defining “dogmas” are established:

  1. The West is rational, developed, humane, superior; the Orient is irrational, undeveloped, and inferior.
  2. Abstract statements about the Orient, especially those that refer to a “classical” Orient of ancient times, are always preferable to present-day evidence we can see with our own eyes.
  3. The Orient is eternal, uniform, and–very important–incapable of defining itself; thus, Western writers must use a highly generalized and systematic vocabulary to describe it.
  4. The Orient is, at bottom, something either to be feared or controlled. (pp. 300-301)

These dogmas enable the West to establish the Orient–and all its many countries, cultures, and people–as an inferior, incapable bloc, a monolithic, homogenous region rather than a collection of diverse individuals.

And because the West perceives the Orient as incapable of speaking for itself, the West must speak for it. The West, Said contends, believes that it knows things about the Orient that the Orient, because of its primitive and backward nature, doesn’t even know about itself (p. 300). The West begins to deal with the Orient as a set of problems rather than people.

Let’s review quickly: how does the West know it’s superior to the Orient?

Well, it says so right in the dogmas.

The dogmas established by the West.

This is a tautology, of course–it’s circular reasoning. But because the West, in the past few centuries, has been home to the dominant military and financial powers in the world, it has gotten to say pretty much what it wanted about non-Western countries. Might lets you write the stories.

Thus, beginning in the 19th century, that era of European exploration and expansion into the Orient, practically everything people in the West “knew” about the Orient had been reported, written about, and filtered through the Western gaze and the position of Western privilege.

Let’s bring Carl Jung into the discussion for a moment now. Jung said, “The reason for evil in the world is that people are not able to tell their stories.”

This statement speaks directly to this process by which the West presumes to tell the stories of Eastern people, rather than inviting them to speak for themselves. They  are consigned to hearing themselves described as uncivilized, as irrational, as exotic, as outside of what is “normal.”

Perhaps, after a while, they even begin to believe the descriptions. I’m thinking of the heartbreaking moment in The Souls of Black Folks when W.E.B. Du Bois says, of African-Americans exhausted by the ways in which they have been represented by whites,

“Suppose, after all, the World is right and we are less than men?”

And so, the importance of first-person narrative becomes apparent. The importance of enabling people to speak for themselves rather than assuming the power to speak for them. Said himself extolled the power of narrative in countering the unchanging “encyclopedic or lexicographical vision” of the Orientalists toward their objects of study:

“Narrative,” he wrote, “asserts the power of men to be born, develop, and die, the tendency of institutions and actualities to change, the likelihood that modernity and contemporaneity will finally overtake ‘classical’ civilizations; above all, it asserts that the domination of reality by vision is no more than a will to power….”

He continues: “Narrative, in short, introduces an opposing point of view, perspective, consciousness to the unitary web of vision; it violates the serene Apollonian fictions asserted by vision.” (p. 240)

Narrative–especially first-person narrative–then, is key to learning about other people who live in other places, in other cultures. When students can learn about another part of the world through the stories shared by its inhabitants–and when they can teach about their own corner of the globe by sharing their own stories–everyone gets the chance to speak. No one is absent, no one is speaking for anyone else. Pre-constructed visions of the Other can be interrogated and refuted; reality can shine through.

Everyone gets a seat at the storytelling table. Everyone gets to share their own experience of what it is to be Chinese, or Swedish, or Ugandan…or American.

First-person narratives, shared across borders, can contribute to the questioning of pre-existing assumptions on all sides, about all sides. These stories are little nuggets of truth, in the sense that we all have our own truth, we all have our own experience of living in a particular country or culture at a particular moment, we all have knowledge to share. Rather than reading about another part of the world through a Western–or even Eastern–filter (constructed visions of the United States certainly exist, as we all know) or through a media-constructed narrative, or through government-sponsored propaganda, students can read the stories of actual human beings, written by the human beings themselves. Occident and Orient, Us and Them, become categories that are not quite as relevant when we realize that the Other is not monolithic, not homogenous. That countries and cultures are made up of people, so different from each other and yet sharing so many characteristics, as well.

So to end this post on using stories to dismantle Orientalism, you might listen to Leonardo by the Turkish artist Oceanvs Orientalis, otherwise known as Safak Oz Kutle. “My musical influences,” Kutle says in an interview with Ibiza Voice, “come from many different stories of man and nature.” A splendid source of inspiration.

 

Food, Glorious Food (or the Lack Thereof)

I’m thinking about food today.

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Prepping for the storm by…well, by cooking up a storm.

I just read this article in the New York Times about how cooks in Houston are still managing to prepare meals after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey, which flooded their homes and destroyed their kitchens. One man, Al Marcus, a 70-year old famous for his huge Thanksgiving feasts, went so far as to fire up his backyard smoker in the days after the storm and prepare 140 pounds of brisket for relief volunteers to enjoy.

Cooks, it seems, simply have to cook.

“What else was I going to do?” Mr. Marcus asked the Times reporter.

Here in South Florida, before Hurricane Irma bombarded us last week, I was asking myself the same question as I moved four bags of perishables over to my sister’s house in preparation for the storm. As the hurricane came closer, I set up shop in her kitchen, and I cooked. Three baked zitis. A mess of fried chicken cutlets. A pan of white beans sauteed in olive oil. This is what I do before a hurricane–I plan meals for when the power goes out, as it surely will, and I cook for the people I love. It calms me, it nourishes all of us, and it gives us little oases of normalcy to look forward to, little times of coming together to simply enjoy a meal and each other’s company, in the aftermath of a frightening storm.

This need to prepare food and to feed it to others whom we care about is universal. The enjoyment of a meal, whether a simple Tuesday night meatloaf or a gourmet extravaganza featuring twelve kinds of sea creatures, is also universal. Food and the kitchen are truly, as the cliché tells us, the heart of the home, and feasting with our families and friends makes up a big part of our sweetest memories.

This universality makes food a perfect subject for  a story exchange between students from different cultures. When you ask kids to talk about their favorite foods, or the foods they enjoy on various holidays, there’s always more to that story than what’s on their plates. As they talk about the meals they’ve had, they also talk about who was around the table with them. Grandparents, family friends, even pets enter the story. They talk about the other traditions that go along with their holiday meals–opening presents, going to worship, playing games. They tell us about how their parents prepare those special–or ordinary–meals. They share their emotions, their anticipation, their delight or disappointment.

And always, always, as they describe the succulent dishes that they love best, they end up crying out, “Oh my gosh, now I’m hungry!” Stories about food are always fun to share across borders, as we describe the deliciousness produced by our culture and learn about the delicacies prized by another.

In an international story exchange, of course, it’s also possible that you might be connecting with kids for whom food scarcity is, or has been, an issue. A few years ago, I was working with a group of high school students in an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) class, leading them in writing stories about their far-away hometowns. All of them were immigrants–from 11 different countries–and the story that the boy from Kenya wrote was about his country’s 2007 contested national election that spawned violence in the streets and a terrible food shortage.

How do you exchange stories about favorite foods when the students in the overseas group may not always have enough to eat? This is when it’s time to do more learning about another culture than teaching about our own. Let the overseas students be the teachers. Let them tell their stories of why food shortages exist in their country. Is it flood, or drought, or remote location, or the expense of civil war that keeps food from reaching them? Are their families able to work around the shortages somehow? Is relief aid available from NGOs or the government programs of other countries?

Have your students look at instances of food instability in the US. They can research how these problems are being addressed here, and have a conversation with their international partners about the methods being used in both countries to solve the problem of hunger. They can look up humanitarian organizations, such as Oxfam and Feed the Children, and learn how they themselves can help in the fight against hunger. They can take that extra step–a volunteer project or a class donation, for example–to not just learn about the issues facing another country but to be a part of the solution to those issues.

So, yes–whether you and your partners in an affluent country are going to trade stories of amazing holiday meals or you and your counterparts in a developing nation are going to address the issue of hunger together, food is a great foundation for the creation of an engaging and educational international project. What we eat is important, and interesting, to us all.

 

 

A Two-Word Lesson from Hurricane Irma

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Hurricanes in the Atlantic–awesome and fearsome.

Here in South Florida, we’ve just spent a couple of weeks with Hurricane Irma as a forbidding presence in our midst. We dreaded it, we prepped for it, we fled or hunkered down, we endured it–and now we’re recovering from it.

It’s been a long while since we last had a major hurricane tear through our state, and we’ve all learned lessons from the way it has disrupted our lives. One of the simplest lessons that I myself learned had its roots in two words that I heard repeated over and over as I shopped for water and batteries, filled the car with gas, and had one last meal at my favorite Greek restaurant before the onslaught.

The two words are “Stay safe.” And the response, also two words long, is “You, too.”

As the storm approached, this tiny benediction was intoned by all of us here in Florida. We traded this wish for safety with grocery cashiers, business associates, friends who were fleeing, friends who were staying put. Neighbors and strangers. And we seemed to mean it. We really wished each other well, wished that we would all be safe and dry, that all our homes would still be in one piece, after Irma had left us in her wake.

And the wish for safety had no conditions: none of us inquired about the other’s religion or politics or ethnic heritage. Those details had no place in the intense–and tense–buildup to the storm. It was simply human to human, a wish for good things to happen to a fellow inhabitant of the earth. Stay safe. You, too.

The warmth of this interpersonal exchange was on my mind, then, as I followed the news leading up to Irma’s arrival. In online publications and on social media sites, the comment sections were invariably filled with wishes for the storm to go somewhere else! Leave Florida alone! Hit the mountains of Cuba–that’ll slow it down! Turn and strike the Carolinas instead!

Do you see where I’m going with this? When looking at a map, we see only shapes, not people. And when a major hurricane is bearing down on the southeastern United States, for us Floridians, the peninsula-shape that represents Florida becomes the most important shape of all. Hit one of those other shapes, why don’t you? We beam directional thoughts from our brains to the storm. Hit one of those Carolina-shapes, or one of those shapes across the Gulf of Mexico. Or scrape across all those tiny island shapes–which are the Leeward and which are the Windward, anyway? Hit any shape but ours.

If we stop to think about what we’re saying, of course, we realize that we’re wishing death and destruction not on a bunch of colorful shapes, but on a bunch of fellow humans.

Does this make us terrible people? Tricky question.

Part of it is the survival instinct, of course: we all want to survive the storm. It’s natural to wish it away from us, to mentally send it anywhere but HERE.

But part of it may also be the tendency we have to think of people who are not us as a faceless, monolithic them. This perspective makes it easier to dismiss them. To mentally send a killer storm to their doorstep.

And when they’re very far away, in countries whose shapes we might not even be able to find on a map, it might make it easier to think of them as a little less human than we are. To imagine that their drought or flood or terrible storm is not quite as important as ours is. Sometimes it might even make it easier to drop a bomb on them.

Right here at home, in the context of the hurricane, we just might forget that all those people in the Carolinas, in Cuba, in the tiny islands, in the Gulf states, are human, and precious, just as we are. When we meet someone face to face, on the other hand–the grocery clerk or the neighbor–we recognize their humanity, and our wish for them in the face of a terrible storm is not “I hope it gets you and not me.” Our wish is “Stay safe.”

This realization reinforces my conviction that global story exchanges can make real changes in the way we, and our students, see the world. When we write or draw or dance our own stories and share them with people in another country, and those people share their own stories with us, we start to recognize the individuality, the humanity, in people we may never have given a second thought to. People we may have simply lumped together as one big group, people we may have previously identified only by their religion or their culture or the shape of the place they live. People we may have referred to simply as “one of those tiny island-shapes in the Caribbean.”

So be excited about the potential inherent in global story exchanges. Share your stories. Learn about the world through the stories of others. Discover the humanity in each of us. Take it from Irma: wish safety for all of us.

Bringing Your Own Travels Into the Classroom

Is your dedication to global education fueled in part by your love of international travel? Make use of those summer trips by finding inspiration for lesson plans everywhere you go!

PicabiaLast summer I spent a month traveling around Spain with my daughter (who teaches computer animation at an arts high school), and our visits to that country’s magnificent museums reaped lots of ideas for building global story exchanges around visual art. One evening, in Madrid’s Reina Sofia Museum, I discovered the pictured avant-garde “portrait” that Francis Picabia made of Tristan Tzara, and the wheels in my story-exchange-brain started turning.

I took some photos, scribbled some notes, and when I got home, I built an avant-garde self-portrait lesson around the piece. A few weeks later, I workshopped it with teachers at Blue Planet Writers’ Room’s Summer Institute. The lesson involves introducing students to the Picabia–and the avant-garde movement–and then having them create “self-portraits” in which they represent themselves through symbols, words, and images. They can draw the self-portraits–or they can cut out the various elements from magazines or colored paper. As part of a global story exchange with a group in another country, they can share these creations with their international partners as is, or with an “artist statement” that explains their choices. Or they can film each other explaining the self-portraits and exchange the video clips along with scans of the self-portraits.

However you customize it, the activity is a great way for students to introduce themselves to international peers in a surprising, creative fashion.

This is just one example of the inspiration that awaits you on your own jaunts around the globe. Take pictures, record videos, grab brochures. Keep a notebook with you and jot down your thoughts as you visit well-known sites and lesser-known finds. Keep the idea of “story exchange” in the back of your mind and think about how what you’re seeing and experiencing could make its way into your classroom.

By the way, I was at the Reina Sofia in the evening because many museums in Spain boast free admission from 6-8 pm every night. After buying a ticket and making an overview of the exhibits during the daytime hours, we went back three more times–for free!–in the evenings to visit or revisit smaller areas or particular works–like Picasso’s Guernica.

Yes, I love museums.

No, I don’t think four visits to the same museum in a week and a half is excessive.  🙂