I teach in an international school in the London area. We have about forty nationalities among our students and faculty. The language of instruction is English, but we bring a broad range of perspectives and experiences to the work that we do here. The halls and cafeteria ring with the sounds of Japanese, Norwegian, Swedish, German, Spanish, Dutch, Italian, Danish, Chinese, Portuguese, Thai, Urdu, American, Canadian, British and many other languages.
In a previous unit in history class, the 8th graders had looked at factors which contribute to the identity of an individual or a country. They began to appreciate that they have been shaped by the customs, historical events, geography, economy, religions, language, traditions, foods, arts and goals of their countries.
In the last week they have begun a unit on Latin America with Mexico as a case study. This time, the uniting theme is diversity. The students decided that diversity means "difference". Instead of looking at all of Latin America as a single stereotype, they're looking for differences - in geographical features, resources, opportunities, histories, cultures, governments, economies, etc. Learning about Latin America is really a secondary goal.
It is this diversity which divides us as individuals and nations. But learning to accept, even celebrate these differences could go a long way towards solving our international problems. Unless we are able to accept that someone can be different from us, we will remain isolated by suspicion, judgement, misunderstanding and fear.
Students were asked to discuss what differences are easy to accept and which ones are not. Who cares if someone likes fish and another prefers chicken? Does it matter if one student likes hip-hop and another heavy metal? No, those differences were easy to ignore, but they acknowledged that it was more difficult to accept prosperity if you were poor, more difficult to accept another religion, and more difficult to accept clothing and behaviors which jarr against one's own culture.
We asked them to identify ways we currently honor our diversity - on a small scale - within our school. We host international foods day where everyone dresses in national costumes, mothers provide traditional foods and music from around the world plays in the background. It's a wonderful day where our differences take on real faces and we learn to appreciate, if not like, our differences. We acknowledge festivals and important holidays within our community. Some of our students fast for Ramadan. Classes came to a halt as we watched a procession of Scandinavian students singing songs and wearing white robes and a crown of candles for the Lucia festival.
There is a feeling of acceptance here, personal experience with real people from other cultures that drives away the judgement. When asked to identify how we can celebrate our diversity, they suggested visiting other countries and educational exchanges, passing laws to outlaw discrimination because of culture, encouraging education about other cultures. (Most Americans don't even own a passport. My students were stunned!)
These are our future leaders. It seems that our present ones could learn a lot from them.