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Story 10: Cultural Learning - Two Models

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China and Chinese American Studies

Written by Leslie Swartz

The Harvard East Asian Program at The Children's Museum focused on East Asia, and specifically on Japan and China. In academe, Asian-American studies was thought to be the purview of another department—American studies, or ethnic studies, or sociology. However, TCM was evolving from a regional studies and international point of view to a multicultural one. In 1965, U.S. immigration law changed, resulting in an influx of many new populations, including Chinese. The newly resumed diplomatic ties between the United States and China made family reunification a possibility. As a result, the Chinese-American population of the U.S. and Greater Boston grew exponentially. I started to focus my efforts on curriculum, teacher training, and public programs, all of which combined Chinese and Chinese-American studies and involved collaborative efforts with communities.

In 1979, the Greater Boston Chinese Cultural Association (GBCCA) received an ethnic studies grant from the U.S. Office of Education to develop, evaluate, and disseminate curricula on Chinese culture. The GBCCA contracted with the museum to serve as educational consultant and distribution system. I become the museum's consultant to this project and over the next couple of years worked intensively with the Chinese-American committee to develop Echoes of China, seven curriculum units on Chinese culture. Highly acclaimed as some of the most innovative curricula on China, the Echoes units introduced students to topics ranging from daily life in thirteenth century China, to geography, fine and folk arts, architecture, the history of Chinese in America, games, and celebrations.

Developing curriculum with the GBCCA members was a humbling experience. I thought I knew a lot about China, Chinese history and culture, and I had a degree from a good university to prove it. The committee members did not share this view. Further, as products of the traditional Chinese educational system, the committee members only knew the standard pedagogical methods of rote memorization and recitation. I, on the other hand, thought I could take the museum's approach of learning by doing and make valuable contributions that would make their curricula engaging and memorable. We were completely at odds over content and methodology.

I worked with seven different people on the seven different units, editing every word many times over. Through perseverance and growing humility, I gradually convinced them to give experiential learning a try. We discovered that we could make superb curriculum activities out of the games, crafts, and family activities from their own childhoods. The collaborative development process of Echoes of China was a major innovation: Chinese people presented their personal experiences of their culture within the context of an authentic educational experience with broader and more contemporary application. Echoes became a nationally respected curriculum for this reason.

In the process I gained a far more intimate understanding of Chinese culture than I had ever gotten through formal education. This changed two things: 1) museum staff deepened their understanding of what it meant to be a cultural intermediary; and 2) I broadened my scope from China to Chinese Americans. A cultural intermediary helps to translate original cultural practices, as reported by people of the culture, into a practice that engages kids in formal and informal educational settings. Everything I had learned about China had been from books—until I traveled in China and worked intensively with Chinese people. This was a transformative experience for me and I wanted to share this method of learning. Not everyone will be able to visit China, but the Chinese culture was represented in the many Chinatowns across the United States, including a large one in Boston. So I wrote A Visit to Chinatown, a guidebook designed to help non-Chinese people learn how to visit Chinatown. My intention was to propose meaningful personal and cultural experiences through which non-Chinese could learn about Chinese culture as it is lived in America.

This was not without controversy both within the museum and in the community. How could a non-Chinese person teach or write about Chinese culture in an authentic way? Did you have to be Chinese to introduce Chinese culture? How can non-Chinese learn best about China? No issue of this magnitude was resolved easily—then or now.

Next: Community Engagement through Chinese Festivals