A family connection…

When our Year 6 kids first Skyped with Raj in Chennai, India, for an inquiry into our Asian neighbours, it was a something out of the ordinary. Raj dressed in a special shirt for the occasion and the children sat politely in their seats, venturing to the microphone when it was their turn to speak.

A couple of years later, this is nothing unusual any more. Various classes have communicated via Skype with individuals and classes in other countries. Students and teachers alike have learned a great deal about different people, countries and cultures through these personal connections.

From 4G’s room in Melbourne to the living-room in Chennai.

Today Year 4G is interacting with Raj for an inquiry into cultural beliefs and traditions. It’s completely relaxed. There are groups of Aussie kids moving around, chatting about what Raj is saying, a core group is on the floor at the front lapping up every word and some serious inquirers sit at their tables taking notes. It doesn’t matter that some kids drift in and out of out of the conversation… so does Raj. It’s a holiday and he’s talking from home, with his son Aditya chiming in from time to time. It’s not the first time Adi has joined a session, but this time Raj is in the living-room and we can see the rest of the family going about their business in the background.

This is the week of Raj’s father’s Sadhabhishekam, a Hindu commemoration of the 80th birthday. The Year 4s explored photos from the occasion, before the session, and have loads of questions about the clothing, the food, the rituals… and about the values and beliefs underlying these. They are familiar with the iceberg model of culture and know that there’s much more to explore than what you can see above the surface. They have even classified their questions in this way, and one class has a paper model of an iceberg, with sand at the bottom, where they place their ‘very deep’ questions!

The engaging thing is that Raj draws in whichever family member the question relates to. The children meet his father, in traditional Brahmin dress. He demonstrates the application of the holy ash on his forehead and shows them the thread he has worn since his coming of age. His mother brings the box of vermillion, used to apply her bindee and she opens her hands to reveal the henna patterns applied for the birthday celebration. Raj’s wife Radha, demonstrates how she draws the kolam, a welcome pattern symbolizing ‘no end no beginning’, usually drawn on the floor outside the house.

They show the children ritual items and artefacts and almost share some traditional Indian sweets… It’s a shame we’re more than 8000 Km away! I have to say… it feels as if we are in the living-room in Chennai.

Below the tip of the iceberg…

Culture is often compared to an iceberg which has both visible  and invisible  parts. The tip of the iceberg represents the elements of culture which we can see, such as food, language and customs. Those elements which are less obvious, such as values, beliefs and world view, comprise the much larger portion of the iceberg underwater. We discussed this model recently when planning a Year 4 unit of inquiry on understanding other cultures.

In Desiree’s class,  students classified their questions about other cultures into ‘above and below’ the tip of the iceberg. They were surprised to discover that all their early questions related to the tip of the iceberg, but have gradually developed an understanding that there’s more to culture than the 3 F’s. (food, flags and festivals!)

To further support their learning, they have opportunities to interact with people of other cultures. Raj, his son Aditya and a colleague Deepali chatted with them and answered their questions live from Chennai, India via Skype last week. Next week they will Skype with Corinne in Japan. Another class will engage with students in New Zealand, some of whom are Maori and Pacific Islanders. (Remember the days when you could only learn about other cultures from books?)

After the session with Raj, students explored some differences and similarities. While Hindu beliefs and customs and the way of life in Chennai are very different from theirs, they found plenty of commonalities. We too have a festival of lights, we too eat traditional foods at festivals, we too have an interest in sport and in particular they could identify with the relationship between father and son!

I was reminded of a presentation by Ruth Van Reken at the IBAP conference. In her talk on inter-cultural understanding, she  suggested adding a third level to the iceberg, the qualities that make us human. She further suggested turning the model upside down. By starting with the human qualities, finding what we have in common, we can more easily relate to and connect with people of different cultures.

Rather than focusing only on the tip of the iceberg, we need to make this kind of understanding our goal in teaching and learning about other cultures!