This is part of my final project for my Literacy and Cultural Diversity course. Don't let it scare you!! Its not really an essay, more of just a journal of my experiences at this school. If the first part bores you, skip down to part 3 or 4... I only posted the interesting sections, the rest deal with specifics that have only been dealt with in the class...
Part II MNIC—How it Works
The MNIC is an organization that is set up for students who do not function at their highest potential at traditional schools. The MNIC location that I have been working at is the South High School, which focuses mainly on ESL students. When I started at MNIC, it was set up in the traditional classroom style, but the teaching style is somewhat varied. However, there was a major change in the program very recently. Now the students are working in more selective circles. The reason that this change was made was to give students the opportunity to learn about things that they are very interested in, to allow more students to work while attending school, and to allow for a specified internship possibility. The students and teachers deal with a language barrier and funding issues everyday, but they somehow work through this to allow for learning to take place.
The actual architecture of the school is not much different than a traditional school other than the size. It is a rather small building. There are classrooms, a lunch room, a gymnasium, and a library, just as in most other schools. The library is more adapted to fit the students though. There are multicultural books and pictures surrounding the room. There are plenty of tables where studying and tutoring takes place almost constantly. And there is even information available on getting a green card.
Most of the students work in addition to attending school. The program is very lenient in allowing students to have jobs and still attend. The learning circles make this process easier; however, there are still many students that drop out because work is more important than learning. It is a constant struggle to keep students enrolled in this high school, and work is one of the main reasons. It is important to remember that these students are just kids. They are taking on more responsibility that many white students of the same age. Poverty strongly affects them. It is more important to have a roof over their head and a meal every day than it is to attend school. The internship aspect of MNIC is supposed to counteract this.
Giving the students at MNIC an opportunity to work in an internship is one large incentive to attend. Many of the students are very driven, and understand that an education is necessary for them to do what they want in life. MNIC provides an opportunity for these students who seek to excel. However, there is a constant struggle to allow these students to learn when there are students who are not so excited to learn.
One of most predominant problems that the teachers face every day is keeping the attention of all students in their classroom. This has seemed to be a large issue for students driven to succeed as well. They have a hard time focusing and learning English when their peers speak in different languages louder than the teacher. This is not to say that the students who disrupt the classrooms are not driven to learn, but they, for many reasons, are struggling to learn and ignore the problem. The fact is, that even though many students speak English proficiently, there is an enormous language and cultural barrier between the teachers or tutors and the students.
Even with all of these problems, and a lower than ideal graduation rate, MNIC is an important facet in this community. It gives many students the opportunity to excel when they may not have at a traditional school. The program allows for a community of learning to be built within it, between teachers and students. In allowing the students to have jobs, MNIC is allowing more people to attend school that would not even be able to attend a traditional school. Even if every student at MNIC does not graduate, some do. Some go on to college. Some go on to get great jobs. And most importantly, all go on knowing more than they did when they started.
Part III The Struggle to Learn
One of the first days that I was volunteering at MNIC a class that I was helping out with was studying ancient China. Many of the students talked about other things when they were supposed to be working on an assignment. Some even said out loud that they did not care about this subject. Why did they have to learn about something that happened so long ago in a different country in which none of them have lived or ever plan to live? How was this going to help them become a citizen of the United States? Why was this pertinent to their graduation? As some of these questions were brought up, I realized that I did not have an answer, so I waited for the teacher.
Most importantly, he said, is that this information will be on the GRAD test. It may not be this specific information, but a knowledge of history was necessary for graduation. For some students this was sufficient. Some did not need to question why in order to understand. But I did. Why do we teach such ancient topics? What can be taken away from this class? Other students wanted to know.
The world may be made up of many different countries, many different nationalities, languages, governments, but we are all people. We are all humans. We can learn from different cultures and societies, but we need to know their history. We need to know how the world came to be how it is today. The teacher explained that through learning history, we can know what works and what does not work. He used government as an example. He asked who would want to live in a Monarchy, or in a society where the ruler's son became ruler no matter what he was like. Many of us began to understand, and his answers sufficed for the time being.
This is just one example of a common occurrence at MNIC. The students very often are not interested in what they are learning. They really have no solid incentive to learn it, other than for the GRAD test. But, as we have talked about in class, this type of learning is not very helpful in the long run. It is not really learning. This is not a problem that is unique to MNIC. There are many high school students in many communities that feel exactly the same way. In fact, there are even college students that learn this way. So how do we change it? How do we change the learning process of students who have grown up in a completely different culture, when we can hardly change the students of our own communities?
In another class that I help with, the teacher addresses this exact problem almost daily. He constantly asks the class why they are there. He says that if they don't want to learn, they should not be there. They can just spend the day working instead of coming in to school. I have yet to hear a student answer these questions. It is usually enough to shut them up and make them pay attention. This teacher openly expresses the view that if you don't want to learn you can still find jobs. They may not be as high paying, but hey, he's a low payed teacher—he doesn't make much either. He says that learning is about wanting to absorb more information. He has even inspired some students to join the newspaper even though they are completely busy with things outside of school as well as within.
It seems like, as with all teenagers, these students need to be checked frequently. They need to be reminded why they are there. They need to be challenged in relevant ways. The teachers at MNIC generally do a good job of this. After all, learning is not just a necessity to them, it is a way of life.
Part IV My Experience
I was a bit nervous to start at MNIC. In the orientation, the volunteer coordinator Amy advised me not to try to shake hands with the male students. This was because the majority of the students are strict Muslim and can not touch a person of the opposite sex who is not a family member. This little difference made me realize that I don't have that much experience with really devout people of a religion other than Christianity. I grew up attending a Christian private school until a enrolled in college. I was immersed in the society of white Christians. I was taught to not accept other religions. My views on this have changed extremely since I graduated high school, but the fact remains that this was how I was brought up.
I only know generic facts about Islam, and minimal at best. The fact that many of the students had grown up in a country where Islam is a national religion, or it is at least very connected with their culture sets them apart from me. In class we talked about this mentality and how detrimental it can be. There should be no “them” and no “us,” but we are different. This was a hard thing for me to get used to, even though I am not a devout Christian.
Well, it turns out that the students at MNIC are a very accepting and open community. They quelled my fears of being an outsider within the first day. Everybody greeted me. The students in my classes seemed genuinely interested in where I was coming from, and enjoyed sharing with me where they had come from. They seemed to easily accept that we may have different backgrounds, but we are not really that different, and we can learn things from one another. Now it is fun for me to talk about the differences between our two countries and cultures with the students. Just before Thanksgiving, I had a conversation with a few girls about traditional foods from their country. They had actually brought it up in saying that they hated turkey; they much prefer camel. And I learned a bit more than I wanted to about what parts of the camel are used for what.
Another thing that I was apprehensive about was that I would be a minority. I did not know how the students would view me. As I said though, they were very friendly. However, it seemed sad to me that they so often would just turn to the first white person that they saw for help with homework. It seemed clear to them that if you were white, you were a teacher or a tutor. I have often had students, who are not in any of my classes, ask me questions as they pass me in the hall that I do not know the answer to, or cannot help them with. For example, the lunchroom, where the vending machines are, remains locked after lunch. More than once a student has asked me to open it for them, but I do not have the key, nor do any of the tutors. To explain myself more clearly, I need to use another specific example that may not seem very politically correct, but it just is how it is. Some of the tutors are black. Some are even from Somalia and speak one or more of the languages that the students speak. These tutors are not asked for help as frequently as the white students. It seems as if the first thing the students learned upon arriving the United States is that white people are superior.
Saying that the Somali and Ethiopian students think that white people are superior may be somewhat of an exaggeration. It is possible that they simply know that the majority of people in the United States are white, and therefore assume that any white person at MNIC is not there to learn, but rather teach. And similarly that if a person is black, they may be there to learn. This was something that bothered me the entire time that I was working at MNIC, but I was not sure how to address it. I was always nervous about sounding racist. We also talked a bit about white guilt in class. That is something that I experienced during my volunteer work, only it was more than that.
I felt guilty for growing up as a white, middle class citizen of the United States. I felt guilty for previously complaining about certain aspects of our government or society, when situations here are much better than what some of these students have experienced. Even though I never expressed this guilt or shame that I felt with any student at MNIC, I learned to just be thankful that I have had the opportunities that I have had, and thankful that these students also have an opportunity.