Embedding Cultural Awareness In Schools And At Home

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Embedding Cultural Awareness In Schools

Living in such a culturally diverse city like London makes it near impossible not to be inspired by everyone around you. If I lived in a remote village somewhere with one dominating culture, would celebrating and engaging with other cultures be as important to me?….I’d have to say I hope so.

I knew my ‘outstanding’ school needed a shakeup, students were polite and got on with work, but there were times when the spark was missing. As a Drama Teacher and Pastoral Leader, I yearn to see sparks in young people.

When a flower does not bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.
— Alexander Den Heijer

What is your cultural demographic? 

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I had to question; what are the needs of my young people? How can we share and celebrate beyond our academic achievements? Is culture something that should be saved for ‘home time’? Who do I celebrate and champion first? I knew one thing, that I’d start off with the minority or those who do not know their own voice yet…..

Black History Month 

I’d love to say I started this in my school, but it was happening in small pockets and almost as a small act of rebellion by older students who wanted to celebrate, like they did in more culturally diverse neighbouring communities. I’d like to say I galvanised the troops but I sent out a message “come and chat” and that was the catalyst for many conversations. The turning point is when Black History was put on the school agenda, written into “things we do” and this happened after one extremely wet October 10 years ago. The students in my year group put together an assembly based on the poem ‘Still I Rise’ by Maya Angelou. They spoke with passion and brought some to tears. Each year assembly became better and students wanted to do more ‘stuff’ and we did, here and there, with no focus or binding feature. Three years ago we found our rhythm: creating a theme to give the celebration a focus; inventors, entrepreneurs, technology, creativity. 

What worked?

  • Searching for the eldest and most autonomous groups of students in the school to lead, whilst I facilitated and championed (HEAVY ON BOTH)
  • Keeping our team diverse, someone to represent everyone in your school …
  • Capturing and advertising all the positive feedback. Evidence is everything!
  • Keep smiling. ‘Culture’ is still tense territory, comments from colleagues are an indicator of underlining feelings “I don’t feel comfortable” keep communicating.

10 years later Black History at our school looks like this: 

Assembly, Film Week , Culture Clash Quiz, Form Time Quizzes, African Cup of Nation Tournament, Cultural Breakfast (extended AM registration) and Wear Your Culture Day.

This is a staple list but activities are added to reflect whatever influence that year brings. Not bad for exploring a group of people that make up 5% of the school.

International Women’s Week

It was one of the brightest days and it was my day off! (or shall I say non-contact day!) I strolled in, in my jeans and blazer and hopped on my stall chatting to the other teachers who were nervous about their content and I clutched my photo of Joan Littlewoods, a pioneer of social theatre and the founder of Stratford Theatre Royal East - I felt at ease. I was not prepared for the goose bumps I would feel when the girls of our school entered. JUST the girls. I’d never seen them without the boys. They looked so strong, so in control and ready. This was the second time the school had done this, but my first time hosting and the air was thick with purpose. That is when you know you are at the start of something great.

The girls smiled, laughed and clapped autonomously. No polite displays of gratitude but more “tell me more, I'm loving it” They lingered around after, to soak up the buzz in the air and evade the last lesson of the day. The conversation:

Me: Guys, we have been studying women in some shape or form all year…

Girls: (genuinely perplexed)..Really Miss? 

Me: (also genuinely perplexed) Erm yeah….’The Disappeared’ a play about the mothers of Argentina in 1976 whose children went missing. The plight of The Woman in the play ‘Machinal’, who was forced to marry just to conform to 1920’s America?

Girls: Oh, yeah, we liked that one…

Me: And please do not get me started on the treatment of women in the Salem Witch trials via our work on The Crucible by Arthur Miller and ‘Vinegar Tom’ By Caryl Churchill”. 

Girls: Oh, yeah, Miss we know you do that stuff with us, but this day is just for us!

And there we have it! International Women’s Week is on the Agenda and already heating up with how to make it grow…..

Embrace Fear

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Feel the fear and do it anyway.

Not everyone will agree and not everyone will feel comfortable with sharing and exploring culture. They might think it brings division or that celebrating one culture is the brining down or snubbing of another. I say we have to start somewhere.  I work with some of the brightest minds in Britain (I know I'm being biased but, hey!) we cannot keep picking the fruit and not watering the (cultural) plant. We have to say, hey, I see you, let’s have a conversation, I want to know more about you….

Who next?

So I have some other groups I’d like to hold a microphone out for…I’m looking at those who have just arrived in the country, those students from Eastern Europe and those with invisible Special Educational Needs, those who seek creativity in a science/ tech school, the list goes on…..

 

When we stop talking, the ground becomes fertile for violence.
— Daryl Davis

Embedding Cultural Awareness at home

Carrying my eldest child Alexandra 11 years ago, I flooded the womb with Mozart and Jazz, just one of the many things I did to give her the “best possible start”. People looked on with arched eyebrows and gentle rolling of the eyes finding solace in my choice of child baking by whispering “she’s a new mum”.

I never questioned HOW I would ensure my children would be culturally aware because I regard myself as someone who appreciates people from all walks of life…surely this would naturally flow through me and they would pick up on it? Part of my job then and now was to direct plays. Creating soundtracks for culturally diverse plays was a real passion of mine. Sourcing authentic music for that time and place and then testing it out for a week in the car before I got a real feel for it. All this while Alexandra (by now a toddler) was in the car on our journeys to and from my mum’s house--about a 30 minute drive away. My mum commented ‘I think Alex has been around the world and back again, with your musical car journeys and she is only 2’. I did not know it at the time, but I was planting the seed and opening her mind up to the world around her. I was too busy thinking of all the things I wanted to fit into her life and managing the work–life balance. 

The Importance of Music

So I started buying world music for pleasure and not just for work and as a turn of events I began to choose plays based on the music I acquired. Six years ago I played ………….. in the car as I directed  'The Disappeared' a play about the mothers of Argentina in 1976 whose children went missing. Sitting down to watch Disney’s Co-Co three months ago, track 3 of that same CD is the theme music! Yes, we did a double take, we’ve been rocking this tune for years! That happened three months ago but as I sit here typing I feel like a cool mum for creating an environment where music explained so much more than I ever could and in such a way that will lay a path for both them and their children. I love Music, Art and Theatre and I realised that the way I explore culture with my children does not have to be taxing or an add-on…I could work from a medium that I felt most comfortable. 

And the beat played on….

My second daughter Isabella (6 years old) was born to dance; as I type she is twirling and attempting some sort of flip that still makes me break into a cool sweat. She has a natural rhythm and feeling for all types of music. She is learning musical dancing,  street dance and Irish dancing, but should an African beat drop or the tinker of classical keys play, she adapts and changes her movement to fit. I sit back and just think: how? She is so in tune…. Is it all the music she heard whilst in the womb or has she inherited the aptitude for dance seen in my sister and my husband’s brother and so many of his cousins…I will never know. So viewing the world through the medium of dance has been learning for both of us

Digging deeper

Once they had secured love and curiosity for the world in  which we live, it was a natural transgression, finding a giant puzzle map of the world made of foam with a shiny surface bursting with colour! Best toy ever. As a game one night I said ok the first one to jump on Peru…and they loved family games, so each night we jumped all over that map and their recognition for where countries are in the world became sharper… Alex would ask what is it like there and I would get out the encyclopaedia--the next best thing to taking a flight--and filled her in. Then she wanted to know about more places and more importantly she wanted to know about the people.

Difficult and Important conversations

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After a visit to the Maritime War Museum on Greenwich, London, England two years ago Alex and I took a walk into the transatlantic journey exhibition, words from the freed slave Olaudah Equiano were spoken as you entered a section and then the story of Bussa the Slave who led the largest slave revolt in Barbados (1816) the list went on. I looked at her and I thought is this too deep for her too much for her head to carry? We had, had the talk about the Civil Rights Movement, the affect that had on the world and I introduced her to key figures that made that time so important. It was a turning point explaining to her that at one point (that lasted a long time) people hated each other solely based on the colour of someone’s skin. I sat on the floor in that exhibition and put her on my lap, facing me, and spoke the only truth I knew at the time, something my mum had told me growing up: ‘People through time have wanted to be better, greater than their brothers and sisters, the lengths people went to, to have ultimate power, but they did not want to earn it because that road was too hard and virtuous. They took the easy way, a savage route… to humiliate and dehumanise anyone that threatened their desired way of life.’ You have to stand tall in your truth, reading about it will be hard but know you come from strong people who overcome and be proud stand tall in your truth.

I go back to this conversation any time we go on holiday and the tour guide gives us the history of its people. On every occasion after celebrating the culture, eating, visiting dancing they fill us in on the darker truth of their people and Alex looks at me and we acknowledge that it is another example that all over the world there is beauty that should be celebrated and that there are victims of the power hungry everywhere.

I have no doubt that as she grows so will the intensity of our conversation. I will as with all parenting find my way along the way. 

So I suppose what I’m trying to say is whether you like cooking, films, interior, travelling, reading….. keep it diverse, plant the seed,  open up the conversation, you don’t need to be an expert and as they grow inspire them to celebrate who they are and make celebrating culture fun and normal (whatever that word means).

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Hi! I am Antoinette (Toni)  Jackman. 

I have been teaching Drama in a really successful state school in London for 13 years. I am Mum to two girls, Alex is 10 and Izzy is 6.

I have been a coach and activist for health and cultural awareness at my school for a long time - leading key projects at school that promote harmony. I started working in transition as deputy of year 7 and loved it. I receive messages from parents or get stopped in my children's playground to discuss everything from SEN, bullying, school suppliers, educational days out and tuition. I enjoy empowering parents to ask questions and deal with some of the anxiety that occurs at that fragile time in their children's lives.

You can find me on IG @bigschoolready