Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Melting Pot Holiday

He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. . . . The Americans were once scattered all over . . . here they are incorporated into one of the finest systems of population which has ever appeared. − J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur

I've posted the last few days about Martin Luther King Day and our related activities and achievements. I've spilled so much "ink" on it because this important celebration marks the beginning of the Woodland Park Cooperative Preschool's high holidays.

Other than Halloween (which is the best holiday of all), we don't really do anything special for the big fall holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Hannukah. I think of those as self-perpetuating events in that the children bring their own families' celebrations into the school, spontaneously sharing about their feasts, presents, decorations, parties, and relatives. They tell us about menorahs and trees and turkeys unprompted. There is already so much going on in their lives that I tend to think of our little school as a sort of haven from the madness, where the kids get to pursue the parts of those celebrations that have meaning to them, and for a few hours disregard the rest.

For instance, once they start talking about presents, we might have boxes and bows around so that they again and again experience the joy of giving a receiving gifts. And they're usually quite enthusiastic about holiday lights, which gives me a chance to string our own lights around the room, then lead discussions about the scientific fact of the Winter Solstice and our need for extra light to help us through the longer and longer nights. One year, Calvin could not contain his excitement about his advent calendar, telling us several times a day about the joy of opening those little doors, so we made our own "advent calendar" with many doors, except instead of treats we found photos of our friends.

In other words, these holidays are such cultural phenomena that they emerge quite naturally, with my role being to just try to keep up.

Other very exciting and broadening holidays, however, need a little boost. That's why our school's high holidays are comprised of the magnificent trinity of MLK Day, Chinese New Year, and Valentine's Day, each in its own way a celebration of love and community. We normally just cruise through this part of the year, going straight from the brotherly love of MLK, to the giddy "big love" of the new year, to the saccherine-y sweet expressions of love associated with Valentine's Day, rushing from one celebration to the next in one huge sweep of emotion and creativity.

This year will be different. I've just realized that the lunar calendar has conspired to land Chinese New Year on February 14, the same day as Valentine's Day, with a big gap between now and then. Will our dragons wear hearts? Will we deliver our valentines in red envelopes? Will we be picking up candy hearts with chopsticks?

This morning I'm entertaining ideas for how to intertwine these two celebrations, one with its roots in ancient Asia, the other in ancient Europe, coming as they are on the heels of our week of contemplating our struggle to integrate the descendants of ancient Africa. When I attended public schools, a time when civics was not a taboo subject, I remember learning about the concept of the "melting pot." It's a metaphor that expresses the ideals and promise of America. It is the true utopian vision that underlies our nation: together we are better.

We don't hear about the "melting pot" much any more. I doubt it shows up in textbooks. But it's happening anyway. I saw it last night as the children at a Bat Mitzvah party danced to swing and hip hop, sharing the dance floor with the "woman" of honor's Chinese grandparents. My daughter of Jewish-Hungarian-English-French-Danish-Irish decent danced with boys named Mustafa and Keshev whose ancestors lived in Africa and India. We ate food inspired by cuisines from around the globe and laughed and danced and sweat together. It was America at its best.

I can't wait to celebrate our new melting pot holiday in preschool.

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Jenny said...

When I read your comment about civics being a taboo subject now my immediate reaction was shock and disbelief. Upon reflection I see another perspective and can, at least somewhat, agree. However, I'd be curious to know more about your thinking on the subject.

Floor Pie said...

When I was taking teaching classes in the PC early 90's, I remember someone suggesting that the "melting pot" metaphor should be changed to "salad." (The person argued that with "salad," each individual component maintains its identity while contributing to the whole.)

Whichever metaphor you prefer, it's a wonderful notion and I love how you describe it here. Looking forward to the "high holidays" in preschool!

Teacher Tom said...

@ Jenny . . . I can really only answer your question by getting all political. =)

First of all, I'm not blaming teachers for this. It is a byproduct, in my view, of the political situation over the past 30 or so years.

Civics education in public schools has been "shrunk" dramatically since the 1980's. I graduated from high school in 1980. During that time our civics education included significant units on things like the labor movement, how to affect change in our own government through both sanctioned and non-sanctioned means, and comparative examinations of alternative governmental forms such as socialism/communism.

When Reagan was elected he was famously anti-union and his administration felt that unionized teachers were educating public school children to be "enemies of America." When they failed to eliminate the department of education, they set about stripping textbooks of references to anything deemed "radical." It's not an accident that I rarely meet anyone under the age of about 45 who knows the significance of phrases like, "Pullman Porter," "Haymarket Square," or "The Great Flint Sit Down." These are examples of major events in our history that have been virtually erased from our schools.

The emphasis in most civics education, it seems to me, is on the responsibilities of citizenship, with little mention of rights. Which, I believe, is an intentional attempt to make "good" citizenship seem akin to loyalty to the government. This is the kind of citizen best suited to conformity and compliance, which reduces the chance that we will take a stand for our rights. It is no accident, I feel, that we are now the least socially mobile country in the industrialized world, whereas the exact opposite was true 30 years ago. Our civics education seems to be teaching citizens to just quietly accept their place in society. Not many MLKs will emerge from this environment.

Beyond that, most of our schools have become so focused on standardized testing, that non-testable subjects like civics, history, and the rest of the humanities are being minimized.

I could go on, Jenny, and you may have other ideas, but this is what I was talking about. =)

Floor Pie said...

Reagan! He also appointed Mr. Anti-Head-Start William Bennett to secretary of education. Nice.

From what I can remember, my public school civics education was shaped pretty liberally by each teacher's individual politics (which could be enlightening or downright deplorable, depending on the teacher). I do remember my 12th grade teacher handing out voter registration forms in class and urging us to fill them out. So, that's something.

Unknown said...

I love that you celebrated in this way. You inspire me. On so many levels.

Jenny said...

Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts on the civics question. You've given me a lot to think about.

As an elementary teacher I don't feel like I know a lot about what is taught in middle and high school. My husband is a college history professor so I have some faith in what is going on at that level. I think you have a sound argument here about how this has changed.

And I know that standardized testing is sucking all the time.