Imagine … Diversity as Points of Light

“It is the function of art to renew our perception. What we are familiar with we cease to see. The writer shakes up the familiar scene, and, as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it.”   – Anais Nin, author of Henry and June

I am fascinated by impressionist painting, especially the work of French pointillist Georges Seurat.  If you have ever visited the Art Institute of Chicago, you undoubtedly spent several minutes gawking at Seurat’s enormous painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte – 1884.Seurat meticulously placed individual dots of color on a canvas knowing that the eyes would manipulate points of light in such a way that the colors would blend together to form discernable figures of life.  The whole IS greater than the sum of its parts, you know?  With your nose pressed close to the canvas, you see seemingly randomly placed multi-colored dots. But, from 10 steps away, your eyes adjust to see impressionist characters enjoying a Sunday afternoon in a park.

Close up Sunday

In many ways, pointillism painting serves as a metaphor for embracing and celebrating multiculturalism and diversity in a school community.  I’ve come to realize this through a global professional learning network of educator and parents.  Together we are currently reading and discussing the book, Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family / School Partnerships.  I cannot adequately describe how invigorating it has been to reflect and dream with these amazing people, seeking to build strong school-family partnerships for the benefit of student learning.  Chapter 6, “Addressing Differences: How Can You Deal With Issues of Race, Class, and Culture?” has presented somewhat of a challenge for me. I have always prided myself as a champion for parent engagement and empowerment.  However, I’ve regretfully discovered through this study that my leadership may neglect a focus on individual identities and school diversity from a multicultural or global competency perspective.  It pains me to think that my oversight may have actually created barriers to empowering parents rather than helping to tear those barriers down.

Being purposeful in the celebration of diverse of people in a school family – differences of race, language, income, religion, sexual orientation, occupation, ethnicity, class, disability, culture, and nationality – is like seeing a Seurat painting through a magnifying glass. With your nose pressed against the canvas, you see distinct specks of light and color.  But take 10 steps back and truly look at the canvas.  What do you see?  What are you purposefully looking for?  Because of my reflection in and the invaluable input from my PT Camp PLN, I am refocusing my gaze, looking for a beautiful picture created by the blending of light and color, a picture that is celebrated and valued as something bigger, something more meaningful and powerful than the individual dot occupying a singular space . That is ONENESS.  Like each speck of light, each family in the school community must be celebrated for uniqueness and valued for its integral role in teaching our children and ourselves the true meaning of multiculturalism and the necessity for pursuing a global perspective.

Easier said than done, right?  It is a journey, for sure.  No single stroke or dab of a paint brush can magically take us to our destination.  It will take time.  As the school leader and leader dreamer, I have to start somewhere:

  1. Promote an Understanding of Different Cultures. Understanding requires a certain level of inquiry and a “wanting to know” attitude.  I need to model this attitude for my school community, and begin the conversation with my faculty.  I will use Chapter 6 as a centerpiece for this discussion, and encourage teachers to engage in self-reflection regarding their own cultural competence, global perspective, and how this perspective strengthens the school-parent partnership.  This self-reflection will contribute to the requirements of the Kentucky’s Teacher Professional Growth and Effectiveness System.  We will survey our instructional units to find opportunities to meaningfully embed, not just knowledge about, but an enduring understanding and awareness of different cultures through Project Based Learning and arts integration.  Art is an authentic reflection of culture. We will utilize the rich Cincinnati regional arts communities as partners for assisting students in creating and responding to multicultural art forms.  We will also utilize exemplary children’s literature as a springboard for student and parent discussions about the contributions of the diverse cultures in our school community.  From there, we can reach out to the global community via Google Hangouts for discussions and debates with classrooms from around the world, and these can be streamed live via YouTube into homes for parent viewing.
  1. Recognize and Address Class and Language Differences. My school is experiencing swift changes in the demographics of our families. When I arrived at my school in 2010, the school free and reduced meal rate was 17%.  Today, it is close to 40%, and for the first time in its 23 years, the school will likely become a Title 1 school in the near future.  It would be irresponsible for me not to recognize and address class differences in the midst of such rapid change.  I believe this is best initiated in a public forum, opening avenues for dialogue and for families to express in their own words the impact of economic hardships on their ability to be engaged parents in the school.  The same question should be posed to families whose first language is something other than English.  In response, we will recruit our various parent groups to partner with faculty, and together we will attempt to provide remedies for barriers to parent engagement.  Some of these remedies might include bringing school functions to neighborhoods when transportation to school events is an issue, or flexing parent-teacher conference times to allow for parent attendance at different times necessitated by odd work shift hours.  We will also provide interpreters at school-wide events and for parents who do not speak English who simply wish to visit or volunteer in the classroom.  For example, I envision Literacy Studio reading conferences that are “triangulated” with the help of interpreters: English Language Learners engaging in discussion about literature in their home language with teachers and their non-English speaking parents with the aide of an interpreter.  For all of these strategies, success will depend on the authenticity of our extended hand and our desire to build relationships with families, regardless of class or the language spoken at home.
  1. Address Issues of Race and Racism. Of the four listed here, this may be the most difficult for me to address.  It would be naïve of me or of any school stakeholder to assert that issues of race and racism do not exist in our school community.  I am not sure that I have ever looked through the appropriate leadership lens to bring these possible issues into focus. In the process of bringing these issues to light, I imagine dialogue that is honest, compassionate, and exudes a sincere desire to build relationships is required.  This is an area that I will simply say, “the buck stops here.”  I am not equipped to address these issues alone.  For that reason, I will seek local advocacy groups and agencies to assist me and my school family.  One that immediately comes to mind is the Bowles Center for Diversity Outreach, Inc.  This organization holds an annual fall conference each year in Northern Kentucky, providing tools and strategies for school and community leaders to address issues of race and racism.  I will start here.  Hold me accountable for providing an update on my progress via a future blog!
  1. Welcome and Respect All Families. If I am nothing else, and if my school is nothing else, we are a welcoming school … at least in terms of how we see ourselves, and in terms of how we define our identity.  As the title of my blog implies, “This is where MY sidewalk ends…” we emulate the way children naturally dream, and we welcome dreamers and believers into our school community. It will take dreamers and believers to push global perspective and multiculturalism to the front of our mission.  We welcome all families. But, do we truly respect all families in a way that assists them in being engaged in schooling?  If not, I believe we have it in us to make it so.  From my vantage as lead dreamer, I will begin re-framing events and opportunities to simply ask all families, “How can we be of your service?”  This begins by building a foundation of trust.  For example, in Kentucky, we collect school fees to pay for a variety of learning materials.  Traditionally, we collect these fees during the first school event of the year, and it is called “Fee Night”.  This title alone sends the cold message, “Stand in this line and have your check ready.” Yuck. This year we will have a “Meet and Greet” night instead, and hopefully families will hear, “Welcome.  We want you to get to know us, trust us, and partner with us, because we value what you bring to your child’s education.”

As I reflect on these action steps, I am reminded of an incredible four weeks in 1996 when I visited schools in Japan with a delegation of American educators through a Fulbright Teacher’s Fellowship.  I kept a journal during that trip.  Excerpts from my final journal entry remind me that in the early days of my career, and on that incredible trip to Japan, I was formulating ideas about the purposes and necessity for the global perspective in schooling:

“Oneness.  Similarities.  Common goals. These are the lessons that I have learned on this journey to Japan.  I came to Japan thinking that I would learn about the differences in our two cultures and education systems.  I did.  But, I am also walking away with an overwhelming sense of universal respect for the education of children.  Our different cultures may approach the education process in different ways, but we still share the same goal of educating children.  At the conclusion of our farewell reception last evening, a teacher from Washington, D.C. spontaneously began signing John Lennon’s “Imagine”.  Simultaneously, all 200 educators formed a circle, held hands, and began singing, “Imagine all the people living in this world as ONE…” I took a moment, looked at the diverse faces around the room, closed my eyes, and enjoyed the moment – one occasion, one meeting.”

Imagine.  Today, I am imagining my school as a home, a safe place, for all diverse families to feel welcome.  We are one family, together seeking to understand the rich cultures and beliefs that comprise our school community. That is ONENESS.  Not sameness, not striving to be color-blind, but learning to see in Technicolor and celebrating the diversity of God’s peoples.  This appreciation of diversity in the school community is like viewing a Seurat painting: I can stand back and take in the beauty of the whole, but I must often step closer to the canvas and allow my eyes and soul to focus on the individual and diverse points of color and light to fully understand that it is the unique individuals that comprise the core strength of ONENESS.

 “It is the function of art to renew our perception. What we are familiar with we cease to see. The writer shakes up the familiar scene, and, as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it.”  – Anais Nin, author of Henry and June



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