Monthly Archives: March 2014

Reflections on Culture

  • by Suzanne Stluka

    As I prepare to lead a group of New School students on a trip to France, I’m reminded of my own first visit abroad. I was 16 years old, and I signed up with an international agency to spend three weeks that summer in France. We would spend one week in Paris getting acclimated to the country and seeing some sights, and then we’d travel to a two-week homestay with our French host families.


    Surreal Paris

    During our week in Paris, my new friends and I visited local cafés and boulangeries, went to museums, and basically soaked in the vibrancy of a new culture.  By that time, I had had three years of French in junior high and high school, so I knew a lot of “textbook” French, but I had never had the chance to use it “in real life.” That first week, I got to use a lot of the language I had practiced: buying croissants and Metro tickets, asking for directions to the post office, and navigating my way through an unfamiliar city. But I was just starting to see the deeper aspects of French culture that I really couldn’t learn back in the U.S.


    Political passion in Marseille

    That week was my first experience with a French strike. For the French, a strike is as normal as a breakdown of a Metro escalator is for Washingtonians: it happens all the time, and you just learn to work around it. The French believe strongly in social justice, and feel that the strike is their rightful way to express their displeasure with a situation in their country, whether or not it achieves the change they seek. While people from other cultures may not understand the point of a French strike, it is a deeply important part of French culture.

    So all the language-learning I did in my French classes at school was important and valuable, but the truest part of my education came once I was immersed in their culture, seeing firsthand how others lived.


    Kicking back in the sty

    The cultural immersion deepened as I departed Paris for my homestay. Each of the students in my group stayed with a family in a rural part of France, near Le Mans. Apparently, the homestay coordinator was a bit desperate for host families, and my homestay ended up being two weeks on a pig farm. The plumbing was primitive, the food was unlike what I was used to, the family spoke no English, and there were no neighbors for miles. Compared to my comfortable suburban home in Fairfax County, it was quite a culture shock.


    It’s different!

    Culture is a soup that we are swimming in; we know it’s there because it’s all around us, but it’s constantly changing, being stirred up by new ingredients that are added. How do you characterize a soup to someone who hasn’t tasted it? You can tell them what the ingredients are, and compare it to other soups they may have tried, and even describe its color, flavor, texture, and consistency with the words you have in your vocabulary, but they really can’t understand what you mean until they’ve actually tasted it themselves. And THAT is the value of a study-abroad experience, particularly one with a homestay component.

    I had to learn how to interact–with real, live human beings–entirely in a language that I had previously only used in a classroom. I had to advocate for myself when I realized that my host family had no other children near my age, and make arrangements to spend some time with another host family nearby. I saw how a certain set of people–people completely unlike myself and my family in many ways–lived, every day, and realized that although their ways were different from what I knew, they were not wrong. And that is a very important concept, particularly in our politically divided society.

    I came back from that trip not with any particular love for pigs or for farming life, but with an appreciation that the world was bigger than the comfortable suburb I knew. And I could not have absorbed that just from reading a book, or even from talking with someone. Some things can only be learned through direct experience.

    A French friend of mine once told me how they could spot Americans a mile away, even if they weren’t wearing “fanny packs” and cameras around their necks:

    Americans always have beautiful, white teeth.dusty-sneakers-i-welcome

    Americans take up a lot of space.

    Americans always wear sneakers.

    Are those cultural stereotypes of the U.S.? Sure. Are they right? Not exactly, but they have enough truth in them to be recognizable. But the best way my friend could find out for herself was to actually come here and experience our culture, and draw her own conclusions.

    I can’t wait to see France through my students’ eyes on this trip, as they begin what will hopefully be a lifelong journey through the different cultural soups that surround us all, wherever we are.


    Engaging Students in Meaningful Dialogue

  • by Alan Villarreal

    I usually teach junior high English and history, but every year or two I like to step out of my comfort zone by teaching a high school class. I enjoy the high schoolers’ maturity and ability to deal with adult-level material, although they can sometimes be harder to win over, at least initially.

    This year I am teaching a US history course on the American West,w02_RA524337which focuses primarily on the 1800s and how various peoples have seen the West as a land of dreams, sometimes despite hard truths and messy realities. Our main “text” has been the PBS documentary The West (1996), produced by Stephen Ives. This is a remarkable documentary, not only because it is visually stunning and provides an easily accessible narrative, but also because it focuses on many different perspectives and individual stories. On most days, we watch a segment or two of the documentary, the students write impressions or questions in their journals, and we have short discussions about what we’ve seen. In addition, I often add background information and have them read and analyze primary source documents, usually in small groups.

    I planned and taught this class four years ago, and it went so well that I decided to repeat it this year. But as any teacher will tell you, every class has its own dynamics and develops its own identity, depending on the students who are “creating” it with you. Even the time of day and the room have their effects. This year, I haven’t had as many outgoing contributors to discussion, and so I have sometimes wondered how intellectually and emotionally engaged they have been with the material. And yet, something beautiful happened yesterday.


    Little Big Horn

    During the previous class, we had finished watching Episode 6 of The West, which deals with the Indian Wars of the 1870s: the Battle of Little Big Horn; the forcible transportation of the Plains Indians to reservations, where they were dependent on unreliable government food rations and supplies; the flight of Lakota Chief Sitting Bull to Canada; and most moving of all, the story of the Nez Perce and Chief Joseph, one of the most memorable Indian leaders in history. For those who aren’t familiar with it, here is the story of the Nez Perc in a nutshell (Good Words).


    The entire history of Native American contact with Europeans is a tragedy, and the events described in Episode 6 are particularly hard to take. If you care about people and human rights, and you also want to love your country, watching this part of the documentary is a punch in the gut. How could a country that professes to believe that all men are created equal, and which had recently freed its slaves, treat Native Americans like less-than-human aliens in their own land, destined to be swept aside, penned up, and forgotten? I could see the gloom spreading among the students, and I was worried about their getting too depressed to see what an amazing story of human resilience this was and how Chief Joseph’s life also represented hope for reconciliation.

    So I decided to begin the day by asking the students to recall the story of the Nez Perce, who after fighting well and leading the US Army on a wild goose chase across half of the West,


    The Nez Perce’s ill fated flight to Canada and Sitting Bull

    were herded onto a train and sent to a bleak reservation in Oklahoma. I asked them to imagine what American citizens might have thought of these events if they had read about them in the newspaper. One student responded that the newspaper stories were probably biased, and so most people probably thought the Indians had gotten what they deserved. Another student said that he might have admired the way the Nez Perce fought, especially how they didn’t attack civilians or desecrate bodies, as other rebellious tribes had done. Then I asked them whether they thought some people might have felt that the Indians had been treated unjustly, reminding them that some Americans had joined Abolitionist groups prior to the Civil War because they thought slavery was immoral. A few people nodded their heads and said they could imagine that.


    The Nez Perce delegation in Washington

    At this point, the entire class was awake and engaged. Next, I asked them to read a remarkable speech (IV) given by Chief Joseph in Washington, DC, two years after the Nez Perce had been defeated.

    In the speech, Chief Joseph says that he cannot understand why so many promises have been broken, and why, despite meeting the President and hearing sympathetic words from various government officials, nothing was being done for his people. He says he knows that the Indians must change, but that they ask for nothing more than to be treated as men, and to be judged equally under the law. After reading the speech, the students went off to discuss the document in small groups, and then returned to their desks to write a short interpretation of its meaning and significance in their journals. Finally, they shared their interpretations out loud and we had a general discussion.

    I was so impressed with the students’ thoughts. Here are a few of their responses:

    “This makes me so angry! This is my country, and this makes me so angry! I mean, we weren’t there when this happened, but the US was acting just like a bully–this is our land, and you Indians better get off it or else.”

    “Why haven’t we been taught about this? Why don’t people talk about this? We hear about the Civil War and slavery but not about this.”

    “I was shocked by how Chief Joseph spoke about equality and equal treatment under the law. I thought that’s what the US stood for, but the Indians weren’t treated that way and he’s pointing that out.”

    “Did this prick the Americans’ conscience? Was anything done after this?”

    “What’s happening with American Indians today? Are they still living on reservations? [Yes, but conditions aren’t good.] Well, they can leave, right?”

    There are good days and bad days as a teacher, but this was a good day. The true significance of these events was sinking in and having an impact on the students’ thinking. Tomorrow, we will watch more of The West and read a story entitled, “How Standing Bear Became a Person,” which is about the first time an Indian was recognized as having legal rights in 1879–ironically, the same year that Chief Joseph gave his speech.

    A Personal Meditation on Oppression in Schools Yesterday and Today

  • by John Potter


    The County Primary School in Cornwall

    For the full decade of the 1950s my elementary and secondary education took place in Cornwall, in southwest England, a remote and economically depressed region. I felt oppressed from beginning to end. I was not a happy camper. The majority of my classmates were sons and daughters of farmers and farmworkers and a constantly changing population of gypsies.

    oppression copy

    Although I was not especially silent when beaten

    Corporal punishment after the age of eight was routine, and not simply for misbehavior. If a student, in the eyes of the headmaster, consistently underperformed academically or spoke out of turn, he would be forced to bend over and hold his ankles while the headmaster beat him with a bamboo cane. Faced with this ongoing threat and consequent sense of disempowerment, students became indifferent to school, at best, and much more interested in developing their physical attributes. Boxing, for example, was a constant subject of both conversation and impromptu student-organized tournaments. If you stayed away from the tournaments you were rubbish; if you attended, you’d be browbeaten into taking part, prepared or not.

    By any modern measure, what happened to students in this particular school in Cornwall would be widely condemned. My formative academic years left me particularly sensitive to injustice, especially in educational settings, and led to me founding this school in which, I would argue, academic oppression is virtually nonexistent.


    This says it all!

    I frequently refer to our school as “dialogic,” a place where interpersonal communication is the lifeblood and where a unique state of equality exists within the community: students to teachers, students to students and so on. This dynamic is facilitated greatly by everyone being on a first name basis. Given the values we have come to represent, if there were ever a sense of oppression in this setting, the source would be rooted out quickly by students and teachers alike.

    And so we thrive.

    Because our school is located in affluent Fairfax County, adjacent to affluent Loudoun County and affluent Montgomery County, and because the nation’s capital is filled with the highly educated professionals it requires, the kind of oppression students here live with is the polar opposite of that with which I grew up. Much of the talk here is about the imperative of getting into an Ivy League school, or a “public Ivy,” a la William & Mary or UVA. The talk I grew up with was almost exclusively about football, boxing, cattle, sheep, chickens and so forth. (Amusingly, both now and then the weather was a constant topic of conversation. Then, because farming depended so heavily on the weather; now because it affects traffic so profoundly. It is no coincidence that weather and traffic are reported on many radio stations every ten minutes. But I digress.)


    College admissions are profoundly difficult to predict

    I am saddened when I hear about students who feel helpless in the face of constant academic pressure to gain admission to prestigious colleges and universities. It reminds me a bit of the pressure I felt, when I was growing up, to do well in the boxing tournaments. That, however, was peer driven. The obsession with prestigious colleges in the greater Washington area is, I believe, primarily parent driven and mostly misguided.

    At The New School we are quite clear, as a college prep school, that the imperative is finding the best college fit, and that calls for active student input and realistic expectations, usually determined by round table discussions among the major stakeholders—primarily the student, and secondarily the parents and the school.

    I use college admissions to illustrate my point about oppression because it is the front and center focus of fear and hope in this area. As a parent at a local public school lamented to one of our parents, “The principal only applauds the achievers. The parents only blame the teachers. The teachers only cater to the achievers. What’s in it for the “AVERAGE” student? Not much. When matriculating at James Madison University or Christopher Newport University is viewed as a career turn toward flipping burgers, the heated pot can boil over.”

    I close with a plea to families everywhere. We have great kids who need to find their own way. Let’s take the pressure off and let them do just that.