Crossroads Seattle

A new approach to multicultural education

One of the articles in Being Global Neighbors (IC#17)
Originally published in Summer 1987 on page 44
Copyright (c)1987, 1997 by Context Institute

What can be done to make multicultural awareness more widespread in our society? Crossroads Seattle is one attempt to do this through the public schools. Jim Grob is the Project Manager for Multicultural Education in the Seattle Public Schools. He can be reached at 815 4th Ave North, Seattle, WA 98109; 206/281-6577.

– Robert Gilman

What is the Crossroads Seattle Project?

Jim: It got started about three years ago when a group of us here in the Seattle School District decided we would like to take a look at our world history program and do something about it, because it was not satisfactory from anyone’s point of view. So a committee was put together and a proposal written to examine the world history program and make a decision as to whether to revise it or rewrite it, with the assistance of local universities. The proposal got foundation funding, beginning with April 1985, which gave us the time to say, "Well, we’re not going to do anything yet, because we don’t know what to do." We just received notice that we’re funded for the third year.

We are now well along, more than halfway through the process of totally rewriting the world history curriculum. We started with a summer workshop, at which we had 17 consultants, people from local universities, from New York, California, and various places. They were interested in having the chance to talk to a group about what you might do with a world history program. We got about a dozen different specific suggestions about how to do it. By the time all the consultants had done their number, it became clear that certain things were common to pretty much everybody.

By the end of that first summer workshop, we had produced a small booklet stating what was to be done, namely to rewrite the 15-unit, 3-semester world history program completely. There were whole areas of the world left out of the existing world history program. The world below the Rio Grande River doesn’t exist, for example; Mexico, South and Central America are not in there at all. Russia is not in there at all; most of Africa is not in there at all, and so on. What we’re looking at now is including most of the significant countries of the world at one point or another in 15 units, and usually in talking about any one country in any historical period, there will be a comparison of similarities and differences with another country, perhaps from another period.

Then after two months on the project, our assistant superintendent called me and asked, "Is there any reason why we can’t extend to, if not the whole rewriting of curriculum, at least building more global, international, and local, regional, state, and national multicultural content into all of the curriculum, K-12?" No, there’s no logical reason; we just need more money to do it. So we rather quickly got a $25,000 one-time-only grant from Danforth Foundation in St. Louis. With their money, we were able to state by June of 1985 that this was now a K-12 project covering all subject areas.

For areas other than world history (in which we’re doing a complete rewrite), we’re using the term "infusion", meaning that we will keep the curriculum outlines and guidelines that we currently have, but we will infuse into them appropriate content and new approaches to teaching and learning that will bring them into a better balance from the multicultural and international point of view.

The immediate, most difficult question at the beginning was how to do this. There’s no-one around the country who had an answer to that question. There are various places that have done things – Philadelphia, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Ohio State, and even here in Seattle. The most common approach has been simply to prepare new "multicultural teaching units". Such units have often been quite well done and are a great step forward. The problem, however, is that they are usually presented apart from the regular curriculum, and so they have the effect of portraying multicultural content as something other than regular learning material. We wanted to more authentically infuse multicultural content so that students would get it simply by being involved in the "regular" daily program, and nobody knew how to do that. When I talked to people, they would always turn the thing back on me and say, "What do you have to send us?"

So infusion was one thing, but we also realized that multicultural content could be successfully infused and still be of little value. If the content was randomly selected merely for the sake of assuring that we have some multicultural content in every subject and level, we would have lost a major opportunity.

We decided to base the infusion process on a conceptual approach. We wanted the kids to come to really understand a handful of concepts in great depth and to apply those concepts in all different subject areas and to all different content, as they went through from K through 12. So the question then was, "What concepts?" You get any 10 people together, and you’ve got 10 versions, but there are some in common. Words like similarities and differences, patterns, and on so started cropping up.

Last fall we had Dr. Ghanchi, a Fullbright Travelling Scholar from India, here with us. He’s President of the teacher’s college in the state of Gujurat, India. Along with Dr. Wayne Williams from the University of Washington, who’s the chair of the Black Studies Department there, and Alan Neeman of our school district, he was part of a small team that tried to crack this nut. What is this conceptual thing going to be?

They developed what we call a conceptual matrix. It still needs to be revised somewhat, but we’re going to start working from it. It is a three-dimensional matrix. Running along one side, we start with objective description, because everyone in the group finally agreed that a great deal of the confusion and problems in the world come from the fact that we usually don’t know what it is that we’re talking about. We glance at something, and we think we know it, and then we build all kinds of elaborate reactions based on our misunderstanding of what it was we saw in the first place.

Moving from that through the similarities and differences between that particular thing and some other things, gets you moving into larger concepts. You start looking for patterns that can crop up, interaction, interrelation between things, continuity, adaptation, change.

The last two are justice equity and bias, but we feel strongly that if we can get kids looking at whatever content they’re studying – in science and art and music and social studies and language arts, from kindergarten through high school – from the points of view of objective description, patterns, interrelations, and so on, that we will have eliminated a need to study about justice equity or bias. We feel that the problems of justice and equity and bias flow from the lack of understanding of the prior concepts.

Lila: So rather than just being the study of other cultures, this is really a program to teach people to think and look at things in a different way?

Jim: Yes. That’s why we call these "processing concepts". But process needs something to work on. We can’t just walk into a science class and say, "Well, let’s talk more about interaction today." So we have another type of concept that we refer to as content concepts – such things as institutions, governance, language, information systems, art and symbolism, world views, earth and space, and things like that.

Each of those items comes and bumps into each of the processing concepts, and it’s at that point that the sparks begin to appear and help us to see that, "Hey, we could do something with this particular intersecting point here". At some point in developing the structure, we’re going to need to say what content are we going to look at. So we have a commitment, for example, from the UW Dept. of American Ethnic Studies that they will prepare for us, for all the major minority groups that they represent, a prioritized content list of the things that must be inserted into the curriculum. And we’ll be finding other similar agencies that will be able to write other, similar lists. So the content we’re reaching for will have been validated for us by appropriate non-school district institutions.

Now we’re talking about massive curriculum change, and to go with this, we’ve got to have massive teacher development and training. We’re looking now at developing our own Seattle staff development model. We want included in it things like the ability to work with students with different learning styles. Each teacher has a tendency to teach in one particular way, which might be wonderful for the kids who learn primarily through listening, but maybe someone who’s more visually oriented doesn’t learn too well from that teacher, so we want to get at all teachers being able to present lessons in a way that gives access to all the kids, whatever learning style they have. We want to make sure that all teachers are able to communicate effectively with kids of whatever ethnic or social background.

For example, research shows the student who comes to a teacher with the reputation of being very bright, gets called on more frequently, is given more time to think of a response and more clues toward a good answer. That’s something that no teacher admits to, because they know they don’t do it. We’re using two programs now that come from Los Angeles: Gender Expectations and Student Achievement, and Teacher Expectations and Student Achievement. They take a team approach to training; a team of teachers from the same school works together, watching each other and noting things down. Then they see, "Oh, my God, you mean I did that seven times in that last hour?" Then they come back to class with this awareness that they, too, are doing these kinds of things, and work on them and coach each other and help each other. It’s very effective.

Our goal is to work with roughly 20% of our schools each year over a 5 year period. That is, we will start with 20% and add another 20% each year, so that each school ends up getting about 5 years of intensive special handling. We would have simultaneously the entire teaching staff of Seattle receiving parallel training in the staff development model, in their own schools, on school district time, training by their own peers, all aspects of which are unheard of nationally. I’m holding my breath and have all my fingers crossed, on this whole thing, because it’s all incredibly huge.

A very significant factor in all of this is that over the next eight years, we will have approximately a 40% replacement of teachers through retirement. I think that’s a nationwide phenomenon. The teachers that are now approaching retirement are the crest of a giant wave from when we had the largest number of kids in public schools. So if we get this staff development model in and are really quite far along with the curriculum development eight years from now, we will be looking at darn close to half of the teaching staff being new. And if all those teachers come in and spend the first two or three years of their teaching careers being trained and coached in their own classrooms and on school time in this model, it will transform education just through that factor alone.

We also want to have a Multicultural Education Center. I think it’s important to have a physical plant which exemplifies what the project is all about and which keeps it going. We are talking with the Ethnic Heritage Council in Seattle, which is interested in developing a multicultural education center themselves, and they’ve asked Superintendent Kendrick if we could do this jointly, and the answer was very positive. We’re working now to make this a joint school district/community effort.

The Center ideally would contain a research library for multicultural and international education, and it would be a field trip center with display and performance space, where local museums, school districts, and agencies could put on displays relating to different countries and different ethnic groups in this country. There could be student displays and performances for the adult population and vice versa. Each year one of our sister cities could come in with a three-month exhibit, hopefully sending a mentor or docent along with it. It would be the center in the city where something was always happening related to expanding people’s horizons in terms of ethnicity and the variety of countries in the world.

We would like to have housed in that same building a Parent Education Coordinator because we’d like to come at the students through the parents also. We want some kind of comprehensive parent education approach which would make it impossible to be a parent of a school-age child in Seattle without being badgered constantly by good advice on how to help your kid succeed in school. Handouts in the mailbox every few months: "Five tips on how to help your kindergarten child succeed better in school. Do these five things tonight and see what happens tomorrow morning." A series of media spots through the year. Ads on metro buses regularly: "Two more tips on helping your kid with math." Free or inexpensive booklets. A series of video tapes showing parents actually doing these things with their kids. These would be available to the public, delivered to a home with just a phone call. We’d like to have trained teams of volunteer parents in each section of the city that would offer workshops in people’s homes or in church basements, and so forth. So as you can see, it’s just a modest plan. Actually, it’s looking very positive. I can’t believe how hopeful it’s looking.

Lila: It sounds like one of the revolutionary aspects of this program is that it not only brings multicultural education to all the children; it helps the children from all cultural groups to receive a better education.

Jim: At least most of the teachers would be much better prepared to respond to what, from their point of view, are tremendous differences in the way kids act. I’m constantly finding out new examples of this. I was talking to some Samoan people, and it was pointed out to me that in the Samoan culture, it’s considered a great honor to be called by your first name, regardless of age difference. If a third grader stands up in a classroom and say, "Charlene, can I please do that task?", Charlene is liable to blow her top and take her by the curls down to the principal’s office and say, "I don’t know where she thinks she’s coming from, but I don’t like third graders calling me by my first name." From that particular third grader’s point of view, she was saying, "Teacher, I love you, I respect you, and I’m going to show it by referring to you by your first name." There are all kinds of things like that that most people simply don’t even know about. We’ve got a long way to go, but we’re trying to make a serious total effort for as long as it takes to get the whole job done.

Lila: We have a lot of teachers who read IN CONTEXT, and some of them are going to get very excited about what you’re doing. What of this can they have access to when it’s ready?

Jim: As we get world history units completed, tried in classrooms, and they’re to the point where we feel pretty good with them, we’ll make them available to anybody who wants them. And as soon as we have the conceptual matrix for curriculum development somewhat field-tested and revised, we will certainly make that available to anybody.

Lila: Can you give a guess as to when that might be?

Jim: Yes, we’ll be using it in the early fall.

Lila: Could you describe what skills and general areas of content you feel that children going through the school system will get with the new approach that they’re not getting now?

Jim: I would go back to that matrix. We have severe problems of bias now: gender, racial, religious, and geopolitical bias. I went to the Soviet Union recently and found out that a lot of the things I had been told to expect were no longer true, if they ever were true.

The whole question of even having to think about justice and equity should not really much exist for the graduates of this new program, because when they look at something, whether it’s a person or a country or a new idea or a book or whatever, they will be accustomed to starting very carefully and very slowly until they’re confident that they really understand what this thing is that they’re looking at and they have an objective description pinned down. Then they’ll start looking for the similarities between it and something similar or related that they’re already familiar with, so that they can find entry points where they can begin to feel comfortable with it. Then they’ll look for the differences, not from the point of view of "Oh, my God, look at these ridiculous differences" that we all laugh at now, but, "Oh, how wonderful that they also have these different things that we don’t have, that we can all delight in and rejoice in and add to our own knowledge."

There’s a very strong strand all through this of taking learning beyond the simple rote memory level to the development of thinking skills, getting kids to apply what they’re learning, to compare one concept with another, to be able to take a complex concept and analyze it, or to take parts of something and synthesize it into a whole. If this thing works, we’re going to produce a generation of the kind of people we always wanted and always thought that we were, but really, when it comes right down to it, turn out not to be. So we’re looking at producing balanced human beings who are eager to learn and who know how to approach new learning situations in an open, appreciative kind of way.

Lila: It sounds to me like if you’re successful, you’re going to have people moving to the Northwest because they want their children educated here.

Jim: Well, we want to move it out. Dr. Ghanchi is on the governing boards for both the state of Gujurat and for all of India, and when he returned to India, the state of Gujurat decided to adopt this conceptual matrix approach to infusing multicultural content into all of their curricula. James Lynch at Southern Polytechnic in England, a consultant on multicultural and international education (apparently most heavily used by France, Australia, New Zealand, and Saudi Arabia) is dying to see what we’re producing. So we have a network going. It would be fabulous to get a few other countries and cities involved and have a biannual get-together where we could look at the revisions each group has done and keep refining a basic document and a basic process down to what really, really works.

Lila: Are there channels of communication within this country so that other school districts will find out about this program?

Jim: Yes. First, the foundations do a lot of network stuff, bringing their people together for at least one annual conference to make sure everybody knows what everyone else is doing. Philadelphia has been inspired by our attempts in world history and is starting a rewrite of their own. So maybe some significant changes are beginning to take place in the seemingly hopeless world of public schools. I get up in the morning and think, "How can I go back to that immense task?" It’s really scary, but by about 2 o’clock every afternoon, I’m usually about 2 feet off the ground, talking to people and working on this stuff, because the potential is so fantastic.

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