Friday, November 9, 2007

Cultural Immersion

I have been working on a post about multiculturalism gone awry. As I am finishing that post I am reminded of a positive "multicultural experience." I remember a cultural immersion activity on the High School level. (This was public school many years ago in the North East)
High School students chose a cultural experience that was completely foreign to them. It had to be approved by both teacher and parents.
The idea was for kids to chose an activity, ceremony, gathering or event that would immerse them into a totally new culture. We required that students learn the basic etiquette of their chosen culture so that they were respectful. Often a students' choice would require that they be invited or escorted. Teachers worked with parents to make sure that every cultural immersion activity was safe, acceptable to the parent and that the kids had adequate supervision. It was quite an undertaking, as you can imagine.
We wanted the kids to feel a bit of culture shock. We wanted them to experience being in the minority. We talked about this before their excursions to remind them that when some people feel uncomfortable their internal defense mechanisms kick in. We tried to prepare the kids as best we could and we stressed that they would be guests and to act accordingly.

The students' ideas of what would be EXTREMELY new and different varied immensely. Kids who had traveled, were well read for their age or who had racially mixed families took many of their everyday experiences, that others thought to be exotic, for granted.

It was fascinating to watch how it all came together to help students see that "normal" is usually that with which one is familiar. "Normal" is not defined as right or best or good.
This exercise really helps one understand how important it is to look to the Church for guidance in what is right and wrong. (Not TV, friends, movies or popular culture).

As I mentioned before, the students' ideas of what would be EXTREMELY new and different varied immensely.
Some examples of students' cultural immersion choices were:
Attending Mass
Attending a Spanish Mass
Going to services at a synagogue
Attending a Bar Mitvah
Attending a Raza Unida gathering (invited and escorted, of course)
Going to an exclusive Country Club restaurant
Going to China Town in NY and trying many different foods
Attending a Quincinero Mass and party
Attending a Black Student Union meeting (a Caucasian student, of course)
Going to a nursing home and helping on the hospital wing
Helping with a camp for the mentally retarded
Taking the train to downtown Philadelphia (escorted, of course)
Being a teacher's helper in a deaf class (where all the kids signed)
Attending an evangelical Baptist church service
Going to a Vietnamese Mass
Helping at a homeless shelter soup kitchen
One boy took Home Ec for a month
2 Girls took Shop for a semester

The results of this immersion exercise never cease to amaze me.
What I think I like best is that kids who have never been "in the minority" get such a sudden and overwhelming feeling of what that can be like.
Our discussions after the cultural immersions were wonderful. This was, of course, KEY in making the experiences work in a positive way for everyone!
Some of our discussion questions were:
What did it feet like to be in a situation that that was completely new?
Did you feel welcomed?
Did you feel people were judging you?
Did you think that any of your cultural faux pas were regarded as rude?
Are you usually sensitive to others who are in an uncomfortable situation?
What have you done to help someone who might feel "out of place"?
Do you think, in light of your cultural immersion," that you will be any more sensitive to another who is in an uncomfortable situation?
What emotions did you experience and why? (we tried to help students to take ownership of their own emotions here)
Did you remember that you were not "trapped" that you could leave (respectfully) at anytime?
How does this affect your outlook towards those who are in the minority where you are in the majority?
Did you enjoy your cultural immersion? Why or why not?

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