Between Home and School:
Cultural Interchange in an Elementary Classroom

Kathe Jervis



Questions About Thinking in Racial and Ethnic “Types”

To move, then, from the particularities to wider and wider graspings is, in part, a matter of looking through more and more particularities, to discover in others’ questions and visions more and more ways of transcending one-dimensional grasping.

Maxine Greene (1995, p. 69)

Diane responded to individuals by giving extra conference time to the guardian of a previously home-schooled child whose single mother had just died. She nurtured Kristian and his parent through an eviction hearing, and confronted the children who teased a cross-dressing father—all functions she regarded as part of her role as a teacher. Her point was that she saw individuals as individuals whatever their life circumstances, but their cultural differences were not the center of her focus.

My Questions/Another Teacher’s Classroom

Diane has an unconflicted aversion to “thinking in types”—indeed she is opposed to anything that categorizes children. For Diane, race and ethnicity matter—she is not color blind (Schofield, 1986)—but she believes human variations matter differently to different children. Her highest priority is responding to what the children bring. Society’s categorical imposition of “worse than” or “better than” judgments about individuals based on race, ethnicity, and power makes her angry (Pinderhughes, 1989). Nonetheless, I am raising the question: How can teachers see the child before them and still keep a child’s cultural background prominently in view, especially when the cultural elements are either invisible (like religion) or all too visible (like skin color)? I believe teaching practices and school structures that “type” some children risk sensationalizing their daily lives, especially when students and their families do not fit easily into the mainstream middle class culture.23 Yet the habit of not “thinking in types” may lead to ignoring certain signals about a child’s family that might be helpful in school. Teasing out what is gained and lost by “thinking in types” is one of my persistent occupations. Given children’s young ages in second/third grade, should their teachers bring up race or ethnicity if the children do not? One may disagree with the details of Diane’s practice as I have described them, but posing questions about “thinking in types” brings dilemmas to the surface for discussion.

Diane took a strong stand: “Cultural interchange,” she said, “is human interchange. It happens wherever people are together.” That is not to say it happens naturally in classrooms; cultural interchange in pluralistic educational settings depends on adults taking responsibility, but what is it the adults should do?

What Happened to Talk About Race and Ethnicity?

Old ways of thinking judged assimilation best. Newer possibilities for a multiracial/multicultural democracy—admittedly “utopian” (Perry and Fraser, 1993, p. 20)—require digging deep into complex and contradictory assumptions about daily classroom life. Since treatment by the larger society is highly charged with judgments about skin color—the highest privilege accrues to people with the lightest skin, and darker-skinned children face insidious barriers of institutional and societal racism—running a classroom requires thinking about race and ethnicity. Children in Diane’s class came from so many cultures that ascertaining who was “White” provoked hard thinking and confounded the numerical categories disseminated by the Board of Education forms. In this classroom, children’s skin colors varied (transracial adoption, intermarriage, genetics) and were not necessarily connected to parents’ visible ethnic heritages. Even though no one racial or ethnic group predominated, and multiracial families were the norm, I expected race and ethnicity to stand out in the classroom more prominently than it did. Although Diane and I listened carefully for children to offer signs that skin color and ethnic heritages were on their minds, and we watched for the charged conversation that often makes adults uncomfortable, I rarely heard the intense responses to the racial observations and exclusion that I remembered from middle school (Jervis, 1996).

When a child’s questions came to the surface, Diane did not hesitate to act, but she left unvoiced topics alone. From my notes, 6/19/97:

It is Tuesday morning and the class is at their weekly swimming session at the local pool. In the girls’ locker room is an African-American woman wanting to interact with the kids. I am engrossed in my own clothes-changing agenda, and Diane alerts me to pay attention because she knows I would be interested. I hear a woman asking multiracial Mirasol, whose hair is braided in corn rows: “Who is Black in your family? Who is White? Do you ever wear your hair out?” Mirasol looks this woman directly in the eye, and answers, “Sometimes.” The woman keeps on: “But I bet it is nappy and you don’t like to comb it.” Mirasol maintains respectful eye contact, but draws her body away.

Whether Mirasol wanted to talk about hair to any adult was not clear. Diane and I already knew Mirasol was uneasy about her hair. Days after Mirasol’s White mother had left town after separating from her African-American husband, Mirasol came to school with her hair braided in corn rows for the first time. Then she wore a heavy knit cap that covered her whole head of braids, refusing to take it off ever, despite the fact (not the rule) that no one wore hats in class, that the room was often overheated, and that for several weeks the hat prevented her from joining the class at swimming. When her father mentioned the hat at the parent conference, Diane speculated that perhaps “the hat is helping Mirasol keep her life a lid.” I wondered later whether Mirasol or her father considered Diane’s whiteness a disqualifier for hair discussion, and I speculated that Diane had not wanted to broach the subject because it might be seen as awkward. Diane acknowledged it had not occurred to her to suggest any racial interpretations to Mirasol or her father.

Later, Mirasol told Deborah, who is Black, who told me (4/14/97), in answer to my direct question: “Mirasol didn’t like the way her scalp showed.” Plausible. Diane heard Mirasol’s unhappiness and safeguarded her hat-wearing, but she did not filter any of what happened through a racial lens. Mirasol visibly needed (and got) support from Diane at this tender time in her life, but whether introducing a conversation about her Black hairstyle would have released Mirasol’s discomfort or been an intrusion is not so easily answered.24

Despite the infrequency of children’s spontaneous mention of race, children were attuned to skin color. When I asked a group of multiracial children whose mother I would be at a “pretend” birthday party, they knew immediately whose skin color matched mine. Asked a direct question by me about who had skin the same color as his, Joel answered precisely, noting children in other classes whose names he did not know. But he and others rarely, if ever, brought talk to class of differences in hair, skin color, language, or accents. Although Diane created time and opportunity for children to make themselves and their thinking known, she did not introduce these topics. Yet comparison talk was everywhere. Children constantly compared physical attributes related to size. Talk about height, foot length, hand span, ear size, and hair length (especially related to gender) was often charged with feeling. Comparative scatology was a popular topic (“poo-gas,” farting). Comparative family configurations—who lived with whom, how half-siblings came to be (“my father was with her before my mother”), and siblings for a short time (“my brothers who used to live with me”) went with the divorce, separation, and relationship talk.

Who Am I?

That the question of race did not stand out for the children was confirmed when, in March, Diane asked children to write a paragraph on “I am...” and read it aloud. Diane gave no hints of how to go about this task—which I thought was excruciatingly hard and said so inadvertently with my body language. My atypical overresponsiveness prompted Diane to comment on it the next day in the circle before she posted my typed copy of their writing (3/11/97):

I could tell from Kathe’s response that it was a hard thing I asked you to do. I didn’t give you any direction—which is especially hard—because I wanted you to find your own direction and describe yourself so that when you read these papers, you will see that you are both different from each other and the same. I don’t know how you all felt about it, but the writing showed you did some good work.

Of twenty-five papers, only Linda (Latina) mentioned skin color. In a short contribution, which she struggled to make legible, she wrote, “I have brown eyes and brown hair and white skin and white nails.” More typically, children described their eye color (eight did), which only adults would see as a code word for race when children’s eyes are not brown. Luke (White) began: “I am Luke. I like soccer, baseball, basketball and football, too. I have blue eyes and blond hair....” Lucy (White), the only other child who did not have brown eyes, wrote among other things, “ I have three colors in my eyes: blue, yellow, and green....” Allysa (Middle-eastern father, White-American mother) wrote, “I am different from Lucy because she has blue and green and yellow eyes....” An African-American boy began: “I am a kid who has two feet, two arms, one head and my name is Daniel....” Another African-American boy wrote, “I’m LaShawn. I like drawing Spiderman, X-men, batman. I am good at running. I am good at relay racing. I am good at doing backflips.” Joetta (Latina) wrote, “Hi. My name is Joetta. I love to play. I have brown eyes. I am OK at kickball and I’m great at climbing trees.”

The entire set of papers conveyed optimism, enthusiasm, and energy for school and life as children detailed what they liked and what they were good at doing. Five children (including Joel) described themselves as either a kid, a human being, or a person. Here is a characteristic contribution from multiracial Joel:

I am a human being. I am someone who does things. I am someone who is healthy. I am 7 years old. I read a lot. I write a lot. I even do my homework a lot. My class is on the 3rd floor of PS 3. My name is Joel. I am interested in geography. I like playing and I never give up hope. I am good at math and I read a lot. I help my mom do dishes. Sometimes I have to set the table.

Mirasol wrote:

I’m 8 years old. I have two sisters and one brother. I live in New York. I have lots of friends. I enjoy kickball, talking, and shopping. The things I like to shop for are stationery, shoes, bags, and clothes. I go to PS 3. The class I’m in is Diane’s. In school I enjoy math, recess and talking. I live with my dad, my brother and with my sister. At home I enjoy playing on the computer, talking on the phone, and practicing gymnastics....

Then she launched into a long description of her half-sisters and their half-siblings, where in the United States they lived, and how often she saw them. She ended with a description of her favorite movies and songs. While the location of her recently separated family was clearly on her mind, race and ethnicity were not at the center of Mirasol’s thought.

Race and ethnicity were not first and foremost in Diane’s thinking. Is she operating from innocence or knowledge (Audrey Thompson, 1998)? The relative absence of spontaneous talk about race may be the consequence of Diane’s pedagogical choice to listen to children; she dwelt on few—if any—topics that children did not initiate. Or perhaps her aversion to thinking in types rubbed off on children and, rather than silencing them, she allowed them to see each other without resorting to comparative racial and ethnic categories?25 There are alternative explanations. If children see numerous others around them who are different, they are less likely to see themselves in terms of a single characteristic that sets them off as distinct. The majority of children did not belong to one ethnic or racial group, so individuals did not bump up against differences that required them to see their ethnicity as salient. They lacked the sharp lines and simple divisions that could seize their attentions and shape their conceptions of self. Or, coming back to the teacher, perhaps Diane’s whiteness kept children’s questions underground, and these children might have felt safer risking discussion of race with a teacher of color (Delpit, 1990). How does a teacher promote the soundest self?

How can teachers resolve this complex dilemma to promote learning and ensure that all children feel they belong in schools? Pedagogical variables confound the issue. I had the chance to see the class exposed to a more direct teaching style about ethnicity, when twice weekly during Diane’s prep period, the teacher read quality multicultural literature to the class. She highlighted individual children (“Joel, I bet you know this folk tale because your mother is Moroccan”) and taught by moral fiat (“You must sit cross-legged in the circle or you aren’t part of us”). Her spotlighting children when they were not necessarily receptive to being on public display, and her insistence on rigid discipline, replete with offender’s names on the blackboard, came to little good. Although the academic stars answered her recitation questions, children gave her generalized grief and she filled up so much space herself that no discussion of the sensitive facets of race or ethnicity took place in her class.

A further complication in discussing race is that White teachers can stumble when they take on racially loaded topics. A dispute was in the news recently: A White teacher read her third grade class Nappy Hair by Carolivia Herron (1997), a book about a Black girl with “the kinkiest, the nappiest, the fuzziest, the most screwed up, squeezed up, knotted up, twisted up hair.” A parent protested, leading to community infighting, verbal threats, and reassignment of the teacher to another school. According to the press, the teacher sought to “help black children feel good about their hair.” The parent retorted, “Who said my child had problems with her hair?” (“Unswayed by Debate on Children’s Book,” 1998). Overlay these two opposite understandings with Jill Nelson’s Op Ed article in the New York Times (1998), “Stumbling Upon a Race Secret”: “[The teacher] may have been armed with good intentions, but in using Nappy Hair in the classroom...this young woman had no inkling that sometimes barriers to that self-esteem are perpetuated not by the white community but by the black one.” The teacher “inadvertently exposed both the depth and absurdity of a race secret.”

The take-home lesson: White teachers talk with children about racial topics at each other’s peril. Diane’s response to the above news item assumed that a child in the teacher’s class must have had a question about hair or the teacher never would have chosen that book, “otherwise...,” and her voice trailed off to nothing. If teachers honor children’s questions with careful attention rather than assume them, such incidents as this might not ignite. But what’s a teacher to do? In most schools, including Diane’s, forums for working out answers do not exist.

How Deep Should Social Critique Be in Second/Third Grade?

While Diane did not take up a discussion about hair with Mirasol, she did address the discomfort she sensed in the locker room. While she was dressing, Diane purposely initiated a conversation with the woman who interrogated Marisol so she could have a conversation with the girls later on. From my notes that same day:

After swimming the class goes to the park, and without explanation, Diane stops everyone at the playground gate and gestures some kids to enter (“in,” she says dramatically) and others she motions to the park bench (“out”). Boys, it happens, are “in” and girls are “out.” Diane sits down in the middle of the bench and girls wait for Diane to begin. No one has a clue what this is going to be about.

Diane begins softly, “There was a woman in the locker room named Gayle. G-a-y-l-e.” “A teacher at PS 3?” someone asks. “No, she went to the school across the street,” and Diane points to it. For a change, Diane poses a question:

Diane: Where do you think she lives?

Liza: She said she lives in heaven, that she lives in God’s house.

Deborah: That’s ridiculous. Where does she really live?

Mirasol: She’s homeless.

There is a long pause while children take in the magnitude of that revelation.

Liza: But she was in her bra. You don’t meet people in your bra.

Diane: Well, she doesn’t have a place to wash like you do and she was getting herself together. You know, she has a mother and a grandmother....

Nell: Why doesn’t she live with them?

Kids list reasons: “There is no room...she ran away...they had a fight.”

Diane: So maybe she lives here one night and somewhere else the next night. Go play.

Diane has created a context to treat Gayle as a person with a family, a name, a school, and a need to be clean and “together.”

Diane did not end there. In the locker room, she had overheard Liza (Latina) whispering conspiratorially to Deborah (African-Caribbean) about Gayle in a tone she found distressing. Diane addressed Liza privately with “a quiet punch in the belly” (Diane’s phrase for startling someone) so Liza would see Gayle in a new light and begin to reconsider her own taunting behavior and insulting tone. Diane began:

So I met a person, Gayle, who said, “The smart one told the other one what to say,” and I said to her, “All my kids are smart.” Gayle said, “No, I mean smart ass.” Diane pauses to let Liza take in that Gayle had seen her behavior as smart ass.

Liza understands that she is being asked to account for herself: “I was just getting dressed. I didn’t want her to touch my bathing suit and she wanted to rinse it out for me.”

Diane: “You were making fun of her and you embarrassed her, but because Gayle likes kids and is the daughter of a teacher, she told me.”

Liza persists: “But she was touching my stuff. She put my bathing suit in a bag.”

Diane answers, “I thought she was taking care of us. She asked me about my suit in the sink. If you didn’t like her touching your things, at least you didn’t have to make fun of her. You hurt people sometimes. And you get people in trouble. If you want to ask a question, then ask it, but don’t have other people ask your questions for you.”

Diane does not run a classroom where children analyze systemic injustice through teacher-introduced curriculum, sometimes called a “critical pedagogy” classroom, where the emphasis is on critiquing the status quo to achieve a more just world. Rather, she makes use of what actually happens and follows the children’s leads. Although she confronted Liza directly about her teasing tone, Diane’s discussion with the girls was short and relatively undidactic; she did not prompt children to address homelessness as a social issue, but had any child shown a spark of interest, I suspect that Diane would have instantly offered support.

Diane believes that what has no meaning for a child amounts to nothing. A student of Maxine Greene, she agrees with Greene (1995) that disconnected critique can press practitioners toward manipulation and compulsion: “They may intervene from without in accord with standards that seem better than (or higher than) those prevailing in the society at hand; they may coerce and even demean” (p. 62). Diane is unwilling to use her power to push an adult social agenda. This is not to say that she never does something startling to disrupt the status quo. For instance (my notes of 5/13/97), she suddenly asked all of the children to leave the room and return to the circle without sitting in same-sex groups, but she does it without extended discussion. “Kids get the point of the gesture,” she says.

When the direction comes from a child, Diane moves fast. One day in early September, Mirasol suggested that instead of every child bringing a personal snack, each day three different children could bring a healthy snack for the whole group. Diane threw the full weight of her authority into supporting Marisol’s idea of daily communal snack. She helped children form planning committees, design monthly calendars, and resolve snags. From the moment of Mirasol’s suggestion, three families each day provided the snack. I predict communal snack—which fits Diane’s values exactly—will be a permanent feature in her class for years to come.

Diane helped Dov master his anger about Mayor Giuliani’s threat to take away a local soccer field and channel it into a protest by organizing a classroom letter-writing campaign and then a school-wide petition. She supported several outraged class members who wanted to lobby the principal when the computer teacher was fired. Not for Diane, however, is the concerted effort made by Mrs. Pat, a second grade teacher described by Shirley Brice Heath (1983, pp. 327–334), who planned for her class to become ethnographers (“detectives”) in the summer. Their production of “staggering” numbers of records of diverse language usage would only have happened in Diane’s classroom if the children themselves became interested in varieties of literacy.

When preparing for a visit to the New York Historical Society exhibit about people on the Underground Railroad who settled on the land that is now Central Park and then had their houses, schools, and churches taken away from them, Diane raised the general question of who owns the land.26 At the same time, she showed a video on the Underground Railroad that children thought was possibly too “violent when a master split a slave’s head open,” as James M. put it. The discussion of who owns land and why got lost; rather the children’s talk turned to whether they should watch this disturbing video that included, aside from the violence, “mean language from the slave owners about the slaves” and the observation that “being a slave is nasty and harsh because you are doing other people’s work.”

Diane restated the children’s concerns: “I think everybody in this class was disturbed in some way. Everybody should have been disturbed; it was a disturbing time in our country. Nobody should have to see those things, but those events happened because people like our grandmothers—whom we love—treated others like that in those days.” While Diane made it clear that this history was disturbing, she did not explicate who were the people doing what to whom. In her view, grandmothers, “whom we love,” were part of that unsettling time, and she did not distinguish between the children whose families were slaves or those who were slave owners. In a classroom centered more on critical pedagogy than on children’s individual questions, the teacher (or maybe even the children) would have been more ready to hold up Diane’s statement to critique.

How much critique the teacher should encourage for six- to eight-year olds remains an open question. Diane believes that without a child’s own expressed question about race or ethnicity, the child is neither open nor ready to consider a decontextualized imposed perspective. It is also a genuine teaching dilemma whether White children or children of color need different responses than those children with shared heritages (“a child of color[s],” as Robert Elliot Fox [1996] puts it). Is Diane’s vagueness a service to multiracial children at this age or not? These hard topics are not yet sufficiently explored in schools.

Diane did not ask children to bring in cultural artifacts, nor did she enact curriculum that introduced differences in background. This study implies that cultural interchange can happen without a teacher asking children and families to share their backgrounds as did, for example, Vivian Paley (1995). Although Diane asked children to share their thoughts and experiences, she did not prompt them to include explicitly cultural material. About Thanksgiving time, when she asked children to reflect on “gathering” when they were in the circle, some mentioned family gatherings, but holiday traditions were not the focus.

That explicit teacher talk of race, ethnicity, hair, and skin color was absent in Diane’s predominately multiracial class did not seem to present problems for children. Diane’s stance may even be appropriate for six- to eight-year olds if they don’t bring those issues forward. It is possible that Diane’s reliance on children’s expressed interests covers up both children’s hidden feelings and the propensity for adults to be silent, thus reinforcing the status quo and failing to further the development of children’s solid cultural identities. I have no answers from this study about how to treat race and ethnicity in a second/third grade classroom, just my sense that glib responses to the questions I have raised do not serve children.

While my study did not turn up any evidence about racial incidents that might have answered my questions, religion was another matter. I now shift the focus to illuminate a piece of the world where secular-minded teachers rarely go.

23By “White,” I mean that position intertwined with privilege, rather than the more specific European-American designation. By “sensationalize,” I mean, for instance, that wide-eyed response of a White middle-class person who focuses on jail or drugs or who ignores or downplays family strengths. “Sensationalizing” can cause the observer to fail to appreciate that children’s daily lives are what they are, and an outsider’s interpretation and overreaction is not helpful. Another aspect of sensationalizing is when Whites overreact to a person of color: “You’re so articulate” or “You speak so well,” as if their speaking standard English well is an out-of-the-ordinary accomplishment. return to text

24African-American readers respond strongly to this vignette. For instance, “Children of color cannot feel truly valued if the teacher avoids introducing racial topics. All children are strengthened when they are helped to sort out and articulate their unspoken feelings about the diversity of their world,” wrote one reader. Another African-American colleague suggests that because children of color are subject to such devastating attacks by the media, where they are entirely absent except in subservient, devalued roles, teachers must initiate discussion about appearance. White readers, on the other hand, often do not single out this incident for comment. (Typically, it is in the margins, like this footnote, that many of the should-race-be-at-the-center conversations currently take place.) return to text

25See Diane Hoffman (1998). In her article, “A Therapeutic Moment: Identity, Self, and Culture,” Hoffman asks, “Need one insist on a separate psychology for every distinctive ethnic group?...The task would seem to be negotiating borderlands...where neither excessive generalization nor particularism accurately captures the nature of social life” (p. 329). I am asking, what does that perspective look like in practice? return to text

26In the end, the exhibit aroused little interest, and the highlight of the trip turned out to be the children’s risk-taking on a rope apparatus in the park. Diane and the children thought it was a wonderful trip. return to text

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