I received a letter from an Orff colleague asking advice about how to advertise his potential contribution to a teaching situation. He wrote:
“Would it make sense to say that educators often lack the multicultural approach to teaching and that we don’t always embrace the cultures and traditions of immigrants in order to enhance their academic achievement?”
My first impulse from years of passionate curiosity about, respect for and interest in cultures worldwide trained me to say, “Absolutely! We don’t do well understanding cultures other than our own—and don’t even do that well understanding our own! And given our history and our least enlightened approach to immigrants surfacing with the present gang in Washington, it feels yet more important to 'embrace the cultures and traditions of immigrants.' "
But I surprised myself and said something quite different. As follows:
“Deep questions here. I participated in a class with some refugees in Germany recently and thought that if I got to teach something, that I should choose something that honored their roots. These were grown men coming from Gambia, Ethiopia, Syria and other places. But they were really there to learn German so that they could survive and assimilate somewhat into their new home. So mostly the class was about learning German through singing. They spent twenty minutes singing "Frere Jacque" in German and they were in heaven. No one, least of all them, felt a need to add African drums to the song. When I was invited to share something, I told them I only knew one German song, a very simply and silly one about counting to 7 and 3 in German. We made up a simple little dance and I introduced 3's and 7's in body percussion and again, they were so happy to be doing this simple thing.
So I don't think that in an educational setting that we have to embrace the traditions of immigrants, which we will never know as well as they do and are not qualified to lead. And I don't think we even have to unthinkingly embrace and respect the whole culture and traditions of immigrants, especially when they include things like keeping women in the house and not allowing them to go out or go to school or ride a bike and so on. You must know that I come from the place of respecting all cultures in some ways, but not in all ways according to their practices. What we need to do is respect the humanity of each person who stands before us and we certainly should never judge them or demean them or think them less worthy because of their cultural background, gender, sexual orientation, race, economic class, religion and so on. And I do think that it is our responsibility to investigate more of the culture that has helped shape them into who they are and approach it with open minds and a respectful attitude.
But only up to a point. Every culture has demeaning practices that need revision, their own particular ways to deny the full humanity of their own citizens or others outside of their culture and that certainly does not need to be unthinkingly embraced. It’s not our job to fix it—goodness knows we have enough work to do here in the U.S.! But yes, I do sign petitions against brutal treatment of gay people in Chechnya, clitorectomies in Uganda, government violence in Venezuela. But more important than embracing all cultures is embracing the humanistic triumphs within each culture.
Meanwhile, back to your situation. I think your best bet here is to emphasize the arts as a powerful tool for academic success, bringing as they do the fun, pleasure, communion, connection, imagination and intellectual understanding that arts well-taught offer. I think it would be safe to say that most educators often lack the artistic approach to teaching that can motivate and enhance student-learning. And that's where you come in. And your commitment to respecting the students and trying to understand everything that is part of their life might mean investigating the cultures and traditions they come from as part of your strategy to get to know them and learn to love them and figure out how to help them.
Thanks to my colleague for the opportunity to think deeper about this.