Story 10: Cultural Learning - Two Models

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Sidebar: Multicultural Depth: Programs, Celebrations and Resources

Written by Leslie Bedford and Leslie Swartz

Boston has always been a city of immigrants, and in the 1980s the population was evolving again with the influx of new immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and African countries. In 1989, the museum initiated the Multicultural Summer Institutes (MSI) for which Teacher Services Manager Linda Warner designed rich experiences for teachers, most of whom were from the Boston Public Schools. Over a course of two to three weeks for several summers, teachers attended scholarly lectures that expanded their knowledge about cultures present in the Boston area. They engaged in activities designed to get them involved and comfortable with specific cultures. A key program feature, walking tours of Boston neighborhoods, became the highpoint of the institutes. Museum staff worked with neighborhood organizations guiding the teachers through their neighborhoods and offering their own commentary as they walked. In the course of these tours, teachers confronted their attitudes toward the neighborhoods, their teen guides, and the culture. The program offered lots of opportunities for everyone to reflect on these experiences, sometimes with the guides. The institutes had a major impact on the museum and on the teachers, their curriculum, and, to some extent, on the Boston Public School system

The museum's multicultural work was cumulative. In the late 1980s TCM received a grant from the Hitachi Foundation to create a multicultural curriculum, which I described as a "multicultural vegimatic"—slice, dice and be all things about all groups for all people. As we developed the first six titles, I reconnected with a textbook editor who wanted to publish a multicultural series for a publishing company to which she had recently moved. Together, we developed the concept for what became the Multicultural Celebrations series, which eventually consisted of eighteen illustrated stories about different families in the United States. The series was unique because each story was written and illustrated by people of the culture. Some titles went through more than twenty revisions before the editor and the author were satisfied. The series, which included teacher guides, audiotapes, and posters, sold more than 500,000 titles primarily to schools, making it a financial success for the museum.

The Multicultural Celebration series was groundbreaking: it offered the first multicultural materials from a mainstream publisher and received numerous awards for content and design. Later, the series would be criticized for reducing cultural differences to foods and festivals and for minimizing prejudice, discrimination, and racism. I thought that teachers and students needed a hook, a way into a culture, and that these materials met the audience where it was. Teachers were comfortable with the stories. Multicultural Celebrations addressed sensitive issues in ways that stimulated conversations and presented activities that could be easily shared reflecting the museum's own multicultural curriculum and professional development work all of which invited diverse audiences into conversations. In many formats—from exhibits to programs to festivals to books—the museum tried to serve as a meeting ground to help welcome people from all communities.

As more Lao and Hmong people started arriving in the United States and especially in Boston, teachers called the museum's East Asian department asking if we could help them figure out the national origin of their kids based on their last names. Other teachers reported that they had grouped all the Southeast Asia kids together so that they could support each other, a misguided if well-intentioned thought. Cambodians, Lao, Vietnamese, and Hmong were a unitary group only in Western eyes. This presented a new opportunity for TCM to find out about the new families, collaborate with them to share their stories, and offer programs for teachers and museum visitors so that everyone could learn about their new neighbors. The museum hosted Common Threads, a major conference that focused on Southeast Asia and included speakers, activities, and resources for schools. Conference preparation involved research into the many new Southeast Asian communities from Lowell, Massachusetts, to Pawtucket, Rhode Island—and beyond—and gave staff a solid foundation upon which to build future work with the new immigrants from Southeast Asia.

Next: Going Forward