Beyond Culture Day

When I got home from Honduras, I took over for a teacher mid-year and promptly joined the building Diversity Committee. They were already well into the planning stage for their annual Culture Day. It was to be a schoolwide Amazing Race. Each grade level would take on a country or region, and each classroom in the grade level would present a food, story, or song or dance from that culture. All the students would be placed on mixed grade level teams and visit 6 destinations. It was a huge undertaking in terms of time and organization and already fraught with controversy. One grade level wanted to represent Ireland, but some teachers felt that European cultures were overrepresented. It seemed to me that all that time and energy could be better spent otherwise (more on that later).

I took issue with the event for several reasons. First, it’s a prime example of teaching the “tourist curriculum.” When we whittle a culture down to its food and festivals, we make it something superficial rather than a valued part of someone’s identity. Second, by having a one-day event, we reinforce “otherness” because we go back to our “normal” routine once it’s over. Diversity should not be a special unit but a part of the everyday classroom environment. Third, when we teach outside our own culture and experience, we can make misrepresentations. For example, the grade level that adopted the Middle East taught students a few bellydancing moves they learned on YouTube. The overall effect of this kind of activity, however well-intentioned, is to reinforce stereotypes. That is particularly distressing when you know the learning goal was for students to become more culturally competent.

My intent here is not to throw stones.  I have certainly been guilty of teaching the “tourist curriculum” in the past. It was through making mistakes, personal reflection, professional development, and reading that I came to these understandings. So while I want to point out the inherent problems in a traditional Culture Day, I also want to give you some ideas for what to try instead.

1)Mix It Up at Lunch: This is a Teaching Tolerance project, and they have tons of resources on their website (http://www.tolerance.org/mix-it-up/what-is-mix). The idea behind Mix It Up is for students to break down barriers by connecting with someone new over lunch. National Mix It Up at Lunch Day is the last Tuesday in October, but you can do it any time. I love it because you can adjust it to meet your needs. It works on a classroom level, across a grade level, or as a schoolwide event. My favorite iteration was a whole school event that we did in place of Culture Day (and that I borrowed from the Teaching Tolerance Mix Model Schools – take a look at their ideas and use one you like or come up with your own). We gave each student a Tootsie Pop, and the flavors corresponded with tables in the cafeteria. Adults helped students buddy up and facilitated “getting to know you” conversations. The kids loved it, and our new buddies even played with each other at recess! There are lots of fun ideas for how to run a Mix It Up event, from having students mix up their clothing to providing lunchtime entertainment. It can be as simple or elaborate as you want; either way, your students will get out of their comfort zones and be well on their way to eliminating biases.

2)Everyone’s Different…I’m Glad I’m Me: One year, our building Diversity Committee planned an all-school art project. There are any number of projects you could use, such as handprints or paper dolls; we chose to do faces. We put bags together for each classroom with pre-cut construction paper circles, multicultural crayons, yarn, etc. Every student in our building made their own face, and we created a bulletin board in the gym with all of them. Our talented principal made a huge banner that read “Everyone’s Different…I’m Glad I’m Me.” It was the background for all our school assemblies. The best part was that we could be sure that all our students saw themselves reflected and represented in our school.

3)Service Project: A great way to bring your school community together is to rally around a cause. There are endless possibilities for service projects, including community clean ups or singing at local retirement homes. I once planned a schoolwide Read-In for Charity. The set-up would work for any charity; ours was the organization I volunteered for, benefitting orphaned and abandoned children in Honduras. It functioned like a Walk-a-thon; students pledged to read a certain amount and collected flat or per hour donations. We filled the gym with comfy furniture, PTA donated snacks, and we even had a raffle. I personally donated for every one of my students who participated so no one was left out. It was so heartwarming to see teachers, parents, and children reading together for a good cause. The students were so proud when the principal announced our $1700 donation.

If your school has traditionally done a Culture Day, any of the above activities would be a great replacement. You can harness the energy of your staff to greater effect. Keep in mind, however, that there’s no such thing as a one day fix. Diversity should be integrated into everyday learning. Becoming culturally competent isn’t a race; it’s a journey, and these are just a few good stops on the way.