Building Bridges Newsletter

Newsletter One

This is one of a series of newsletters written by Peter Porr and Paul Sjordal between September 1993 and December 1995 for the purpose of explaining the South-East Asia Center’s Building Bridge’s objectives, philosophy, and approach to learning.


How much does racial prejudice affect elementary classrooms in urban schools, especially the early grades?  There is much debate among elementary educators on the answer to that troubling question.  Some believe young children are still too innocent to be “corrupted” by America’s racial strife so early in life.  Others believe that parent and neighborhood prejudice is quickly absorbed by the children and infuses the classroom from the first day of school.

However, there is not much debate that most urban schools are too full of anger and violence and too void of cooperation and unity.  There is also not much debate that racism is a major problem in big cities like Chicago.

Not many educators would argue that an effective multicultural educational curriculum could help reduce racial strife and improve the educational environment.  Some schools do have multicultural curricula.  However, just having a curriculum doesn’t necessarily mean it is effective.

The Tourist Approach

The traditional multicultural educational curriculum tries to confront racial prejudice by teaching children about other cultures.  Supporters of the traditional approach, which some call the “tourist” approach, believe knowledge about and exposure to ethnic history, customs, dress, festivals and dance is sufficient to help children overcome prejudice and discrimination brought to the classroom.

Those who use this approach believe that exposure to such superficial differences leads to greater appreciation of the culture.  While the “tourist” approach can help members of ethnic groups grow in self-esteem as they feel more potently their own unique cultural heritage, this approach usually does not address the causes and impact of problems between racial groups.  It also reinforces ethnocentricity rather than unity among ethnic groups.

Most multicultural education experts stress that a multicultural curriculum will not be very effective unless it envelops the entire school, involves all teachers and staff and is a part of as many lessons as possible regardless of the subject.  This holistic approach shows the importance the school places on multicultural education, but is still limited if it uses predominantly the “tourist” approach.

A New Perspective on Multicultural Education

While appreciation of cultural differences is one of the steps toward deeper understanding and acceptance of another ethnic culture, a group of educators, at the South-East Asia Center in the Uptown area of Chicago, believe that a more in-depth, penetrating curriculum is needed to reduce prejudice, discrimination and violence.

These educators are trying, in two public elementary schools, a new multicultural curriculum which goes below the surface of cultural differences to the reasons for racial conflict.  The curriculum provides life skills to increase self-esteem andoffer alternatives to gangs, drugs, dropping out of school and violence, thus providing a firm foundation for healthy attitudes towards others.

The Center’s educators, with the support of the ChicagoYouth Delinquency Prevention Office, have developed a curriculum for first and second grades and seventh and eighth grades in the racially diverse Uptown-Edgewater communities.  The Center is testing and developing a model that can eventually be used for grades K-12.

The Center educators and teachers from Goudy and McCutcheon decided that first grade and second grade was the optimal level to begin to teach tolerance, cooperation and conflict resolution, because the gangs usually reach down into the earlier grades.  While prevention is much more difficult with seventh and eighth graders who have already made a decision about whether or not to take to the streets, the curriculum should help those youth, who chose to stay off the street.

SEAC’s self-esteem curriculum attempts to provide a secure foundation to help young people succeed in school and in life.  The best intentioned prevention program simply will not be effective when a child or youth has low self-esteem.  No matter how good an anti-violence, anti-bias, multicultural curriculum might be, a child with low self-esteem will not grasp much of it.  Students who improve in self-esteem also create a more cooperative educational environment and do better academically.

The Center’s motto of “building bridges” between ethnic groups is also a goal of the multicultural curriculum.  Self-discovery activities, cooperative games and anti-bias exercises are used to improve understanding and cooperation between ethnic groups.

Exercises and Self Discovery Examples

An example of self-discovery learning involves showing the children shoes from around the world.  Some foreign shoes and sandals, such as the Japanese wooden “Geta” sandal with its high ridges, can seem “weird ” or “stupid” when first encountered by children.  When children discover that the sandal keeps an expensive Kimono dress from getting dirty, especially when walking on a muddy path, they think the Geta is pretty “neatly” designed.  An American woman wears high heels with a formal dress for partly the same reason.  A similar discovery can occur with other foreign shoes or sandals.

The children learn that all people have the same basic needs, but fill those needs in different ways and that something new is not weird or stupid, just a different way of solving a common human need.

An example of an exercise for younger children on stereotyping is to show them a fancy wrapped box and a crumpled sack and ask them to decide which has a surprise in it.  The sack contains the surprise, demonstrating that you can’t always tell what is in the inside of a package or a person from outside appearances.

The surprise is a large picture of infants of different races and ethnic backgrounds.  Above the picture is the question posed by Rodney King in the aftermath of the South Central L.A. riots, “Can’t We All Get Along?”  Below the picture is the reply, “Yes We Can!”  The picture, question and reply are used at the beginning and end of every lesson.  The question can take various forms depending on the lesson for that day.  The answer is always a loud and affirming “Yes We Can!”

The SEAC curriculum encourages students to learn why people do things and how we can all get along better.  Similarities and human commonalities among peoples, rather than differences are emphasized.  Ultimately, it seeks to bring about a sense of unity and a desire for cooperation and harmonious living in multicultural communities.

High Marks From Teachers

The curriculum was taught by Center staff members last spring for ten weeks in McCutcheon and Goudy schools.  The school’s teachers and staff gave it high marks for content, approach and results.  The teaching resumed this fall.

 Future issues of this newsletter will provide more details on the curriculum and the Center’s Explorers Club, a community-based component of this youth delinquency prevention program.

This edition of BUILDING BRIDGES was originally published quarterly by the South-East Asia Center, 1124 West Ainslie, Chicago, Illinois, 60640, (312) 989-6927, with partial funding by the Chicago Department of Human Services, Youth Delinquency Division.

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