Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Other Stuff I Do

I will just say that there is a lot in the works about this big ole Fulbright conference that just got finished here, but I'll give right now the highlight for me: the speech that I delivered at a panel called "Teaching diversity in Germany: A Success Story?" It was supposed to be me, this kid Andrew, and Ellen Lampert.

She is one of the smartest people about...anything. She has lots of degrees and works in the field of cross-cultural education, and all-around ninja, who lived here for some years. Not a week before the panel, Andrew backed out, leaving us to scramble for a new idea, which we found in the form of making the room help us to form a protocol for teaching diversity-related subjects and dealing with administrators and teachers unwilling to accommodate diverse needs. Ellen started off giving an intro to the whole thing and introducing me in a very flattering way, about how great my observations are and how impressed she was, which made my face turn red, but was still kind of awesome.

This was my opening speech, which got a lot of positive response from everyone there:

I will warn you that I'm just as ready for this speech as I was to be a diversity TA in the first place. Today, though, we are going to talk about and try to find workable solutions to some of the problems we collectively face. That having been said I also anticipate some jaw-dropping war stories along the way.

I want to begin by examining diversity as a concept in modern German society. We have all run into an eye-rolling disdain here for political correctness, percieved as a uniquely American habit. I will concede that while w might not have discovered it, we certainly popularized and ran with the notion. This is, however, closely tied in with American demographics. We are an increasingly heterogeneous society, for which we have constantly been developing coping strategies. We tried to deal with out differences by denying them, as in the case of the Native American genocide, by isolating and exploiting them, in the case of slavery and segregation, and after considerable public discourse we have developed, for better or worse, a strategy for attempting to accommodate--if only superficially--our differences. This was in some ways born of necessity, in a sense because if one makes an offensive comment in a diverse group, someone is bound to be offended, and we have come far enough that we are empowered to speak out against it. This is the background of the political correctness movement in the US.

Germans, however, are used--like many Europeans--to a more homogeneous society in which minorities were discouraged or intimidated from speaking out about their discomforts, engendering a society that scoffs at our albeit feeble attempts at inclusion. For them, diversity is often a buzzword, lumped in with such eye-rollers as "politisch korrekt" and "Multiculti." They are, however, living in a time of increasing diversity, with German birth-rates in extreme decline and immigration a fact of life. It is our job therefore to help Germany navigate this minefield, using our experiences as Americans.

There are, though, many obstacles in our paths, starting off with how we as Diversity Initiative TAs gauge diversity. German school administrators shy away from asking demographic questions like where their students are from and what their native languages or special needs are. Their databases, if existent, are also by virtue of being German rarely centralized. This has both a negative and positive effect. Positively, this sets up the principle that all students are the same, united by their school attendance. Negatively, this ameliorates differences and hinders consciousness of and accommodations for diverse needs.

The very definition of DIVERSITY is troublesome, because each category comes with its own set of assumptions and challenges. RELIGIOUS diversity can be the most visible (in, for example, the headscarf debates in the BaWu system) but also the least visible. Imagine at this point Catholics in Hessen forced to take Protestant Religionsunterricht, or Hindus forced to sit in classes with lit Advent wreaths. Teachers are often NOT trained to deal with or recognize these differences, denying Muslim students excused absences for some religious holidays, or not letting them out of class to pray.

In the case of PHYSICAL diversity there are different accommodations. In Germany there is no "citizens with disabilities act," and so students with physical or mental handicaps are often denied access to classrooms, courses, and sometimes even the right to take their Abitur or MSA.

Lastly we have ETHNIC and CULTURAL differences. As outlined earlier, it is often difficult to gage how much ethnic and cultural variety one encounters in a classroom short of asking the students themselves. There are also more ethnicities and short of asking the students themselves. There are also more elasticities and cultures than we as outsiders are often aware of, which can vary from one school to the next. Aggravatingly, this was one reason our preparations were so general. In Berlin, for example, there are Polish neighborhoods and French, Turkish and Persian, Russian and Italian. These are differences that are sometimes difficult to flush out and then to deal with, because (and this is something else we must be aware of) society here has different perceptions of each. When I was discussing Polaski day, for example, one of my year 10s raised his hand and shocked me by asking is Poles in the US "klau [steal] everything, a stereotype of which, though I've lived here for a year and a half, I was ignorant of.

Here we must as diversity TAs be more conscious and independently make ourselves aware of students' linguistic and migrant backgrounds, their levels of class integration, and the larger public's expectations for them.

Lastly, we run into obstacles built by the school administrators. Some of these are seemingly unavoidable, for instance the lack of time students have to take part in a diversity-themed AG. Others are seemingly more intentional:
the ignorance of school administrators regarding their student body
uninformed teachers
and the perception that we as Fulbright ETAs are merely teachers in training

These contribute to a culture in which school officials are unwilling and unable to step out and institute programs to improve their school's understanding and accommodation of diversity.

We are here today to help ourselves and future ETAs to solve these problems as much as possible by developing a protocol for future diversity participants, including
1. ways of gathering data about the school
2. how to approach the administration
3. how to in our own way cope with diversity of various kinds in our schools.


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