For More Information
Orilla a Orilla
Figueroa, Kristin Brown, and
Rivera, Technical Support
Global learning networks as a catalyst for change
Confronting prejudice between "minority" groups
Over forty years ago, the landmark Brown v Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional "separate but equal" schools for African-American children. This decision drew public attention to the challenges of racial integration and set in motion within the U.S. educational system a search for instructional approaches to address racist and prejudicial attitudes among school children. In that charged context, the "Contact Theory" of social pyschologist Gordon Allport --that prejudice could be reduced in small mixed-race groups working interdependently to achieve a common academic goal-- served to lay the theoretical basis for cooperative learning practices designed to reduce prejudice. As a result, generations of teachers and researchers have explored the potential of cooperative learning techniques as a means of prejudice reduction, of bridging centuries old distances between different ethnic groups.
This article describes a project in which computer networking and video technologies were employed to reduce prejudice in a federally- mandated desegregated school. In today's urban schools, racism is complicated by tensions between ethnic groups. In many cases few white families are left in the inner cities and mistrust has grown among minority groups who see themselves competing for resources in a struggle against the harsh realities of urban life. This project employed a special brand of cooperative learning made possible through global learning networks, one that changes attitudes and fosters learning not only within classes, but also through dialogue between classes - across cultures, distances and differences.
Sheridan Elementary is located in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in San Francisco. A few years ago a court case challenging the segregated schools in San Francisco Unified School District and led to a Consent Decree Mandate for racial integration. As a result, immigrant students from the primarily Latino "Mission District" are bussed to Sheridan. Teachers at Sheridan face the tremendous challenge of teaching an increasingly diverse student population while at the same time counteracting negative attitudes among the different ethnic groups at their school. Relations are most strained between the two largest groups at the school, the African-Americans and the immigrant Latinos. Placement is difficult with students of varying levels of English fluency and differing requirements for primary language instruction. At Sheridan, as at other desegregated schools in the district, the Latinos are usually placed in bilingual classes while the African Americans are placed either in "regular" or "English Language Development" classes along with other linguistic minorities (Asians, Russians, Philipinos, and students of European descent). The social distance between the African-American and Latino students is exacerbated at Sheridan because the school is under construction, with portable classrooms nearly filling the playground. Students have little chance to meet even during recess.
The Latino students, already nervous about entering the African-American community, are not only isolated but fearful, conscious of the resentment their presence causes in the neighborhood and in the schools. Anti-immigrant sentiment, particularly toward Mexican and Central American immigrants, has recently been fueled by the passage of Proposition 187, which seeks to deny undocumented immigrants access to social services, including schooling, and would require teachers to report any students who they suspect were not documented. Ms. Tracy Miller, a teacher at Sheridan, reports overhearing on the playground such negative comments from African-American children as "you can't sit here because you're Latina," and Latinos reacting with "you can't play because the black might rub off on me." Miller feels these prejudices stem from attitudes learned at home and worsened through non-productive interactions during school hours.
In the fall of 1993 the authors of this article met to explore the role that telecommunications might play in addressing the academic and social problems in San Francisco's desegregated schools. Juan Carlos Cuéllar is a bilingual resource specialist for the San Francisco Unified School District and Kristin Brown is a telecomputing consultant for California school districts and co-director of "De Orilla a Orilla", a multilingual network for intercultural learning. Previous research conducted in Orillas classrooms showed that carefully designed networking projects could reverse negative attitudes toward recently-arrived Puerto Rican students among U.S.-born Latinos.
"As we considered Orillas' many contacts in Puerto Rico and New York we began to envision long-distance team-teaching partnerships that held potential not only for developing literacy skills and self-esteem but also for opening the door to improved social relations between Latino and African-American students. We would match Latino classes in San Francisco with African- Latino classes in New York and Puerto Rico. In this way the San Francisco Latino students would have a chance to work closely with faraway colleagues who in many ways were like them --students who spoke the same mother tongue and shared the experience of learning English as a second language-- but whose physical attributes and pride in their African heritage more closely resembled their African-American schoolmates. In so doing, we hoped to provide a bridge between the African-Americans and the Latinos who saw one another every day at school but whose interactions were distorted by deep-seated prejudice."
At Sheridan Elementary, Tracy Miller's third/fourth grade bilingual class was paired with Anne-Marie Riveaux's third grade bilingual class at P.S. 19 in Brooklyn, New York. The teachers would stay in touch using a variety of technologies including computers and electronic mail, fax, telephone, videotapes, audiotapes, and photos. Ms. Miller's class was composed entirely of Latino students from Mexico and Central America while Ms. Riveaux's class in New York was composed predominantly of Afro-Caribbean students from the Dominican Republic,with a few students from Puerto Rico, Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela in the class as well. Both teachers felt that a video exchange could accomplish several goals. Videos would allow students to introduce themselves while providing an informal setting for students to draw comparisons between Latin American and Caribbean cultural traditions. Together they decided that Ms. Miller's students would create a video about indigenous celebrations of the Day of the Dead and Ms. Riveaux's students would create a video about traditional games passed down through oral traditions within their families and communities.
It was at the end of October in 1993 when Tracy Miller's class, excited about the upcoming cultural activities they had planned for El Día de Los Muertos on November 2, began planning their video. The Latino students in Ms. Miller's class realized that Ms. Riveaux' class might not know about the Day of the Dead and composed an explanation to read at the beginning of their video: In California the Latin American communities celebrate the Day of the Dead by making altars in cultural centers and organizing processions through the community at night. The participants carry lit candles and wear skeleton costumes representing death. Children make their own masks and designs out of "papel picado" [paper cut-outs] for the altar. We place food and whatever the dead would like on the altar. Activity in the classroom took on a new level of excitement as the students created a brightly colored altar in the corner of their classroom, covering cardboard boxes with fuschia and blue fadeless paper and cut tissue paper designs and then balancing hand-made skeleton puppets on top. On the front of the altar they prominently displayed one of the well-known Day of the Dead prints by Guadalupe Posada, a Mexican artist from the early 20th century. The print the students chose was La Catrina, the prototype of an aristocrat -- a fancy lady with feathers and flowers in her hat -- "a fancy dead lady" the students liked to point out, adding "because everybody dies".
This flurry of activity and excitement caught the attention of others at Sheridan and in the teachers' lounge Ms. Miller discussed the video exchange with Ms. Hornsby, an African-American teacher of a second-grade class composed predominantly of African- American students with a few Chinese and Filipino students and one Native American child. These teachers were good friends and were both interested in improving race relations at the school. Both saw an opportunity for bringing their classes together and expanding the original scope of the project in order to get the African-American students into direct, productive contact with the Latino students. They began to envision how the computer and video networking project could also act as a catalyst for change at the local level. And so Ms. Miller's class ("Room 17") formally invited the students from Ms. Hornsby's second grade class ("Room 7") to see their altar and to help them film the video for the partner class.
While Mr. Cuellar set up the video camera, Ms. Miller - taking advantage of a teachable moment - taught the students in Room 7 to say "ofrenda" and "pan de muerto" in Spanish. The students of Room 17 then proudly taught the students in Room 7 the words to "Naranja Dulce" so the two classes could sing it together on the video. As the tape rolled, Ms. Miller announced, "We are here today with Ms. Hornsby's class to talk to you about our altar." She continued: A lot of people call this "ofrenda". In many countries in Latin American and in Mexico this is a national holiday. People don't have to go to school or work because on this day they visit the cemeteries and they decorate the graves with skeletons and candles and bread of the dead, or "pan de muerto," which is supposed to look like a mummy. My students have brought things to the altar remembering the people they knew who have died.
At this point Ms. Miller picked up one of the items on the altar and signalled to a young girl from Mexico. Coralia jumped up and explained in Spanish that she brought a little house she made of cardboard and a little figure of a chicken because her grandfather liked to paint houses and her grandmother liked to feed chickens. "Next Jesse will explain what he brought and Jessica will tell how they celebrate in Guatemala," Ms. Miller says as the tape continues. Jesse: I brought this photo of my grandfather that died. That's him. He died because he had a heart attack. Tomorrow I'm going to bring a little plastic horse for the altar because he liked to ride a horse. Jessica: In Guatemala they celebrate the Day of the Dead with food, water and flowers and they go to Chichicastenango where the Indians are. They go to the cemetery where the old people died. After that they go to the church and put food and water.
Everyone notices that this time it is not one of Ms. Miller's students who has her hand raised to speak but a student from Ms. Hornsby's class. Ms. Miller calls on Winnie saying, "Winnie Young will tell us how they remember the dead in her homeland, China". Winnie begins shyly, We have the same thing but it's not the same. We got two days in our family. One is to go to the cemetery to put some food and flowers. At home the people who died, we put their picture on the top of the wall and we put the food and flowers by this. The other day when we celebrate we put some paper things in the fire to burn. The ice broken by Winnie, an African-American boy from Room 7 raises his hand. Ms. Miller calls on him and Renell says his uncle has died. Renell continues: What we do is call all our family up and send them invitations to come over to the city of San Francisco. They come on Friday and first we do fun things together but on Saturday morning about 11 we go to the graveyard and give my uncle flowers and after that we stare at the grave and then we just leave and go have a barbecue and other good things. I like remembering my uncle... some people don't like to remember in my family because they think it's tragic but it's a good thing to remember your family because they'll always be dead. Except for the spirit, he'll always be dead. It's a good thing to remember your family.
Everyone in the two classes at Sheridan was interested to know if Ms. Riveaux's class in New York would like their video. Soon a package arrived in the mail from New York, telling how excited the partner class was to receive the video. The video had inspired Anne-Marie Riveax's third graders to also create a class altar and discuss the universal theme of life and death. The students in Ms. Riveaux's class had taped students playing games they had learned from their families and parents. Ms. Miller's students watched animatedly, taking delight in seeing games that they were familiar with, games that they had played in Mexico before they arrived in the U.S. The partner teachers (now expanded to include Ms. Riveaux in New York and Ms. Miller and Ms. Hornsby in San Francisco) decided that their next joint project would be to make a book of games collected from the families in all three classes.
Ms. Riveaux wrote: When I first introduced the idea to my students they were so excited about the idea of playing games. Little did they know that we were going to be learning so much. On open school night, the parents showed much enthusiasm also. The children worked with parents on writing up their reports. When they brought them in, the children came in front of the classroom and told us about their game: how to play it, their experience working with a relative on the project, and memories of when they played the game in their homeland. Ms. Riveaux faced a difficult situation at the beginning of the year with students being moved in and out of her class so frequently that any sense of community she could create was undermined. She shared with the other teachers the value of the games project, describing it as "great community-building activity with my class."
For the teachers at Sheridan, the games project provided an ideal opportunity provided for drawing parents' traditional knowledge into their curriculum. Ms. Hornsby was already doing a thematic unit on "Ancestors"; what better way to complement her unit than asking children, equipped with tape recorders, to interview their parents about the games they played as children, folk games passed down through countless generations? And since folk games were universal while remaining culture-specific, what more powerful way to help their students discover a common humanity across cultural differences?
The hardest part at both schools was finding a place to teach one another the games they were collecting. New York City public schools are often without playgrounds, whether of asphalt or grass; Ms. Riveaux's was no exception. Sheridan was "under construction" that year. The common area at both schools turned out to be the cafeteria. The teachers at Sheridan re-arranged their schedules so that they could take their classes together to the cafeteria in the mornings.
They carefully assigned their students to small groups, each of which included some African-American and some Latino students. In these small groups, the students taught each other folk games, with the "expert" bilingual students doing the translating -- causing their status to soar among their peers. Ms. Hornsby's class began by showing Ms. Miller's students how to play Mancala, a game from Africa. Then Ms. Miller's class showed Ms. Hornsby's students how to play "Haciendo Cuadritos," a pencil and paper strategy game. Day after day, the students moved from cross-cultural marbles, to jacks, tops, and hopscotch, all simple, enjoyable games that didn't require much language.
Here is what the students wrote about what it meant to them to share them: We like to learn the customs of other students. For this reason, the unit on "folk games" is perfect for our class. We share games from Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala with Room 7 while they teach us games originating in Africa. Another student wrote: We have learned that many of the games have something in common. In fact, we all have something in common and we all can be friends. After participating in this project, Mario Riva expressed what he learned in this way: "In this world there is a friend for everyone!" And the African-American students in Room 7 also knew they were doing something important while enjoying the pleasure of sharing folk games. They wrote: We began our games unit to help us with social studies, multiculturalism, and conflict resolution. By sharing games with one another we have learned that we all have something in common - we like to have fun together! We have all made new friends through sharing the games our parents played as children. This is a project we'd like to continue.
But their teachers knew the real question was: would their newfound friendships, based on short-term intercultural sharing, actually last longer than the school year? There were some signs it did. A year later, Ms. Hornsby and Ms. Miller continue to collaborate. Ms. Miller now has two African-American girls in her bilingual class (former pupils of Ms. Hornsby) since their parents insisted that their children be given the opportunity to learn Spanish by studying with Spanish-speaking students. Last reports were that the two girls were learning Spanish as a second language, and according to Ms. Miller, "they love it and think it's great." And for the first time ever at Sheridan Elementary, Latina girls have joined the Girl Scout troop, organized by African-American and European-American mothers. Who are the new recruits? Every single girl in Ms. Miller's bilingual class this year. Perhaps Tracy Miller deserves the last word on the potential of global learning networks for reducing prejudice: We still need to do so much more, to integrate the classes themselves, to have afterschool programs where all students play and work together. It's a very slow process, but there was real understanding, and one thing leads to another. Some schools don't do anything. But this was a very good starting point.