Monday, August 18, 2014

A Cure for Cultural Incompetence?

Okay, not to get too preachy here, or start a political debate or anything like that, but you have to admit that most of us Americans are horribly ethnocentric and pretty weak in cultural competence. Speaking of cultural competence, I had mentioned in a previous post that I was working on a masters in education and my teacher credential in social science. For educators, cultural competence has got to be part of their fundamental skill set. (For those interested, here is a link to a great Ted Talk video on the subject.)

I'll give you a personal example of the need for cultural competence. I have been substitute teaching since last January at a rural high school here in Fresno County, where (in this particular high school) about 77% of the students are Hispanic, and approximately 10% are Asian, which in this case that statistic means a large number of immigrants from India. Better than 14% of the students are designated as English Language Learners (ELL). Most are native Spanish speakers, but there are a variety of other primary languages like Punjabi or Hindi. I have spent a great deal of time thinking about how to make American history interesting and relevant to these students. That is a subject for another post, but the point is that I came to realize that I know very little about the history of their native countries (like Mexico and India) and their relationship with the United States.

So of course being the way I am (obsessive about knowing things?), I have to set this right. We'll start with Mexico, as a majority of the students I encounter are of Mexican heritage. I want to begin with learning the language. I purchased and started working with Fluenz software which I highly recommend; it is not fluff, there is some serious workouts in this learning program. But of course that wasn't enough. Now we have to tackle the history and culture. My first go-to is the local library. I've got a list, but I'll share the first book with you here: "A Brief History of Mexico" by Lynn V. Foster.

Now, I knew that Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Mexican victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla in 1862, but what the heck was a French army doing in Mexico? And who was this Maximilian guy? I knew about Pancho Villa's raid on Columbus, New Mexico. But what was the course of events in Mexico that brought that about? How about a little background on the Bracero program, and immigration to the United States? Wouldn't you like to know how NAFTA has affected Mexico? (Hint: it hurt their working class too.) This book will answer these questions and give you the bottom line in a very readable style. It's not a page turner, but it's not a dry textbook either.

Foster provides what I found to be an amazing statistic. That in 2002, one in every three adult Mexicans has been in the United States and twenty-one million people in the U.S. have family in Mexico and only half of those have been in the U.S. for over five years (p. 251). Another interesting tidbit, those with ties to Mexico are sending a lot of money home, in excess of $13 billion in 2002. This "Remittance" is the third largest source of foreign income after manufactured goods and oil exports (p. 259). Does it sound like we should be more familiar with Mexican history, politics, and current events? I certainly think so.

Can working with language programs and reading books cure a lack of cultural competency? Not completely, of course. We need to travel. We need to meet people and talk. But in lieu of that, head to your local library and invest in a few hours of personal/professional development. It is just amazing what you can learn.

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