Michigan Education Association

Teaching the world’s children

Lansing teacher learns what tools her students need—no matter what culture they live in.

Lansing EA

Shirley HazlettIf “travel teaches tolerance,” as Benjamin Disraeli wrote, how then could a land-bound Michigander like me, of Scottish/Canadian descent, ever become competent to teach the world’s children in a sensitive and tolerant manner?

The short answer is that at some point the world quit waiting for a re-sponse and started delivering children from around the globe practically to my doorstep. As a teacher in the Lansing School District, it directed me to teach them the usual subjects, along with the English language, and to hit the ground running.

Struggling to meet their needs

As a new hire at The Center for Language, Culture and Communication Arts (CLCCA), I entered the stuffy gym on the first day of school and was struck by the odor of rancid cooking oil and fish.

A sea of children of every description fanned out before me. When the class lists were read, children with names like Mai Doua, Marisol, Jama, Silvan and Shaban lined up behind me as we began our ascent to the third floor of the elderly building. I must have looked nervous because Pedro, a returning fifth grader and Cuban refugee, smiled and said, “Mrs. Hazlett, you’re doing good.” And so the travel began.

Finding common ground

Through trial and error, I plunged into the concept of multicultural education at an immersion level and struggled to become competent at meeting the needs of my diverse students, many of whom had endured conditions of scarcity and war from 13 countries around the world. Soon the stories started to unfold and we began to find our common ground.

Since family is universally revered as a central bond, we worked in cooperative groups, and everyone held a weekly job as a way to make positive contributions to the new community we were building.

Because many students had lost contact with their extended families—essential in conveying cultural history and value—my own family stepped in and the children eagerly embraced my parents as Grandma and Grandpa. My grown children gave lessons in chess and soccer, which we discovered were games taught and played worldwide.

Breaking bread together

Of course, food is also an important element of culture, and sharing food together built familiarity. We held a Thanksgiving feast, and though the day was bitterly cold, we had established our own classroom family and February 10, 2009 , Hmong, Serbo-Croatian, Somalian, Arabic and Spanish interpreters quickly became my most valued resources in the effort to stay afloat those first years; we bonded instantly and forever.

During parent-teacher conferences, for example, they sometimes reworded my communications to avoid intercultural faux pas. They shared tales of scrimping and saving to build new homes in Bosnia only to have them completely destroyed in bombings, and of swimming across the Mekong Delta in the night to arrive soaking wet on the shores of freedom.

We even once got into a friendly but heated discussion over the meaning of the word Caucasian, while trying to figure out which box Iraqi children should check under “ethnicity” on the MEAP test.

Diversity in teaching

I sought diversity in my teaching methods as well. Although our texts were much too difficult for most of my students, I discovered that if we used a “read aloud” approach and stopped often enough to connect the material, students listened more attentively.

Their response indicated to me that storytelling was a familiar mode of passing down cultural information. I also kept a stock of artifacts and nature specimens available in my room to allow for hands-on investigation and provide instant props for our many skits and re-enactments.

We went on all the field trips the school would allow. I utilized the arts at every opportunity and taught my students to make observations and sketch them; later their captions grew into narratives.

Adaptations still needed

CLCCA is closed now, but I still keep up with several of my former students. I have since relocated to Pleasant View Magnet School for the Visual & Performing Arts.

In many ways, it’s the “normal” American school I used to fantasize about…the one that should be easier to teach in because all the kids speak English. But there’s the irony: the adaptations we created to get through to our ESL students are needed here, too, for all of our students to succeed.

Minority children don’t always speak standard English, and it’s so frustrating to see that the girl who’s writing a manuscript called, “Life in the ‘Hood,” complete with a dictionary of slang, has once again fallen short on the vocabulary section of the Gates-McGinitie test.

‘Salting their oats’

That tired adage about “leading a horse to water but not being able to make the darn thing drink” needs revision, and now. If they won’t drink, we must “salt their oats.” The “salt” in my classroom is made up of food, artifacts, field trips, rich discussions about words, connections to family, a sense of community and constant integration of the arts.

These are some of the tools my students need—no matter what culture they live in—as they construct knowledge about who they are, where their families have come from, and how it all affects their future role in the world.



Updated: February 10, 2009 4:43 PM