Monday, January 13, 2020

Roots and Wings: Southpoint from the Perspective of a Multicultural Family

A few weeks ago I came across a story in a children’s magazine and read it with my son: a yellow paint drop lives in the land where everything is yellow, but one day a blue paint drop falls there and some things start getting painted blue. The yellow paint drop and the blue paint drop decide to mix, and a green paint drop is born. Now, the land of yellow also has blue and green and becomes more beautiful.
I would add to the story, in my own mind, that the land of yellow also becomes more fluid and complex, and this is not always welcomed by those who prefer that things remain the same, simple, predictable. Also, being green in the land of yellow (or the land of blue) can make the green feel lonely, or too noticeable, or just too green, as it tries to adapt to the yellow and blue!
Coming from a family with mixed cultural backgrounds can be a blessing, but also a challenge. I come from such a background, with parents from different countries, ethnicities, languages (Mexican father and American mother). In addition, I was partly raised in a third country and language (Switzerland) and then married my husband, who is Indian from this region of Uttar Pradesh. Our son Andrés, who joined Southpoint’s preschool in August, is Indian, Mexican and American.
When we began looking for schooling options for him, I was discouraged by several aspects of the “mainstream” school choices available in Varanasi, which to my mind would not help Andrés to adapt, but might rather alienate him. Indeed, as an educator in the field of international education, I found the basic premises of these schools problematic for all children, not just my own child. The most problematic of these is the tendency to equate “global” learning with the intensive use of new technologies or with superficial partnerships with foreign countries or accrediting agencies, while – in my view – still being essentially boxed in by a very parochial, homogenous mindset. This mindset is largely the result of these schools charging such high fees that they effectively bar students from many social classes and communities from attending, thus limiting diversity a great deal. Finally, many schools seem to adopt a model of industrial production of students – large class sizes, intense competition with “toppers” listed even at the preschool level, and an emphasis on publicizing high results on national examinations and assessments.
This schooling model is of course not unique to Banaras or to India; indeed, it is a blight on education all over the world. To what extent can schools produce truly “globally-minded” students of they are not given the time and space to think critically, the support to develop individually, or enough contact with different types of children, beginning at the local level, in their own neighborhood and city? 
Southpoint stood out as a good alternative for us, as a multicultural family, particularly for the following three extremely valuable attributes:

An “Integrated School” that values diversity
The fact that Southpoint welcomes and supports students from all social, economic and national backgrounds makes it a school with a truly “global” ethos, in the sense of breaking down barriers and welcoming diversity. From the beginning I felt that Andrés will have the opportunity to interact with local children from all walks of life, as well as with some other international children, both of which are greatly needed to expand his world beyond the rather sheltered BHU environment where we live and work.
The corollary to welcoming diversity is emphasizing equality of all children, educating them as human beings who share universal values. I feel that Southpoint actively strives for this on a daily basis, making school a place where children are not “labelled” according to any ethnic, religious, national or socioeconomic category, but rather encouraged to relate to each other as individual children on a level playing field. Unfortunately, we live in societies (here and abroad) that can be quick to label, to categorize, to stereotype…and these messages, whether obvious or subliminal, are easily imbibed by children. A school like Southpoint plays a key role in neutralizing these messages and presenting an alternative narrative of equality. Again, this is very important to us for Andrés’ process of socialization.
Finally, Southpoint clearly values knowledge of the local culture while also being open to learning about the wider world, which should be the real measure of a “global” school. As someone famously noted, “there are two lasting gifts we can give our children: one is roots, and the other wings”. In this case the roots imply being grounded in our local reality, in order to be able to fly securely to other destinations. I was fortunate in my own education to have a family and schools that provided me with a strong sense of belonging to a local community, so that I could also embrace other communities with confidence; I hope Andrés may also have this with the help of balanced schooling.

A Child-Centered School, focused on holistic development
The task of breaking down cultural barriers, understanding diversity and making children aware of their shared values is undoubtedly a very complex one, which is much more effectively done by focusing on individual children. It is wonderful that Southpoint has small class sizes and believes in placing the focus squarely on each child’s development – there can be no better way of learning for a child than being in an environment where he or she feels individually valued, understood and cared for. This pedagogical approach also naturally does away with labels – Andrés or any of his classmates are not categorized but rather seen as children with individual character traits, behaviors and moods who need to be supported in their individual development as human beings.  
Individual development, in turn, is viewed at Southpoint in a holistic way – it includes social, emotional, and physical aspects as well as intellectual or academic ones. This is essential for raising well-rounded human beings who have a civic sense and a feeling of solidarity with others, rather than of competition. The current waves of intolerance that can be seen in various parts of the world today may at least partly be the result, in my view, of a narrow form of learning that does not leave space for trying to understand ourselves completely, much less others in their diversity.
Finally, Southpoint encourages children to learn by using their own curiosity as a springboard, by exploring their creativity, and by connecting what they are learning to real-life problems and experiences. Children learn by using traditional materials and by making things themselves; I believe this serves an essential role in deepening “roots” to the local community -and indeed, to the basic tasks that unite us as human beings, such as planting crops, cooking, etc. - which should be firmly in place before children learn to “fly” on the internet and other technologies (I thoroughly agree with another parent’s blog post on this issue – please see Evelyn’s reflection below).
The center of all these pedagogical approaches are the teachers, who at Southpoint are caring, experienced and clearly open to continuous learning. “Mainstream” schools generally value highly “trained” teachers (those with perhaps many years of formal training and degrees), but it is important to widen this recognition to teachers who are highly “skilled”, meaning that they have the ability to relate to children in a caring way, experience in dealing with different backgrounds, and willingness to adapt their teaching styles. 

A School with a sense of community
Aside from my personal multicultural background, I have been fortunate to have worked in various areas of education; these experiences have given me insights that have perhaps helped me to become critical of “mainstream” schools and to see the value of Southpoint. For example, I observed the positive effects of individual attention and care when I worked as a literacy tutor for marginalized children in U.S. government schools. I carried out PhD research on the biases of teachers in rural Mexico towards migrant children, which has heightened my respect for “skilled” teachers who are open to change. I have also been a longtime consultant for the International Baccalaureate, which specializes in multicultural pedagogy, and this has taught me about the importance of “inquiry-based” learning – the kind of child-driven, interconnective, discovery oriented approach that Southpoint adopts, which is so essential for developing the ability to think critically and become open to diversity.
Regardless of these experiences, however, becoming a parent is the most humbling experience of all, which has often overturned any of my previously held beliefs or theories about education. Our children are undoubtedly our most important teachers! And raising them to be happy, cooperative, generous and tolerant human beings is our most challenging responsibility. At the end of the day, as parents our main concern is to adequately address the daily needs of our children, who are all struggling with similar internal challenges – learning to deal with their emotions, to relate with others, to test their strengths and limits – as well as external pressures imposed by the often unequal, stratified, divisive world in which we live. It helps enormously to feel that there are supportive, like-minded people who also care about our children and can help to guide us along the rewarding, but also bumpy, road of raising them. At Southpoint, there is a sense of shared responsibility and community that is often lost in larger schools. It is clear that teachers and staff share the worldview that “it takes a village to raise a child”, and they are willing to go the extra mile to work with parents from different backgrounds to understand each child’s context, resolve issues, and strengthen both their roots and their wings. For this, I am most thankful to have found Southpoint.

-          Adriana Alcántara
(Mother of Andrés, Preschool)

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