- part one
It was my priveledge to work for 4 years at Delaware Pre-K Center in Syracuse, New York as a teacher of 3 and 4 year old children. This poverty-intervention program, administered through the Syraucse School System, served the inner city poor. Most of the children in the program were black, American Indian, of Spanish sur-name, or Vietnamese. The program itself, was structured similarly to Head Start, that is, the program had has a parent involvement component, health, social service , as well as the educational component. The class of 18 children was taught by myself, an aide and a paid parent. The parents were on a rotating schedule, so that the monetary and educational benefits of being in the classroom were shared by all parents who wished to participate in this aspect of the program...ergo, we had a different parent each day working for us.
There were 2 half-day sessions, 5 days a week. I taught the afternoon session and another teacher taught the morning session.
Administrative offices were in another building, so We functioned self contained. However, central staff were always available by telephone. We also had a regular staff meeting once a month. Totalof 12 classrooms, their staff and central staff met several times a year, so communication channels were efficient and misunderstandings were at a minimum. The Central staff consisted of the director, social worker, educational specialist, speech pathologist, nurse, parent coordinator, and psychologist. Minority Groups
There were no Vietnamese children in my classroom. They were placed in other centers nearer their homes. The older Vietnamese children were placed in the regular school system. They attended elementary school in the morning and in the afternnon, were bussed to a central location for special tutoring in subject areas and English. Each Vietnamese family was sponsored by a community religious group. The sponsors visited with each family and helped them with the practical problems that arise when one resettles in a new country...problems such as finding employment, housing, social services, need for friendship, communication problems, help in shopping and transportation. I was struck that the Vietnamese fathers were well educated. One was an attorney. However, they were all working at low paying jobs outside their professional area because of language difficulties and different professional licensing requirements. Each family unit was an extended family that included aunts, uncles, and grandparents. They lived in very crowded conditions because of the comfort of having kin close by, because this type of crowding is natural in the Vietnamese culture, and because of economic reasons.
The black families in my classroom were classic in socio-economic reports you've read. A few were inner-city poor working families with father present. Many more were young women raising their children alone. Because Syracuse University has a good early childhood program slanted to researching poverty intervention, there was an excellent program available to pregnant girls in the city. It was called "Y-Med". An Entire building was set aside as a special high school program and infant care center. Pregnant girls continued with their high school classes stressing nutrition and infant care. When the baby was born, both mother and child continued to go to school. The child was sent to the nursery where it was cared for by staff, trained in infant care. The mother went to her regular classes. At lunchtime or during any free period, she came to the nursery and had lunch with her baby, or they played together.
When the mother graduated from high school, she could enroll her child in Syracuse University's infant-toddler program. This was a bussed, day care center for children up to 4 years of age. At 4, they transferred to Syracuse University's regular day care center.
So children could be "in school" from before they are born until kindergarten. Research is published yearlyon the effects of this type of intervention program for mother and child.
The minority group I wish to discuss are the Onondaga Indians. The relationship between the city of Syracuse and the Onondaga Indian Reservation, located just south of the city, is complex. The land is strategically located. Syracuse would like to expand in that direction, but is legally prevented from doing so. The Indians have a love-hate feeling for Syracusians. On one hand, they allow whites to rent property on the reservation. Then they evict them all in one gesture. This included whites who were married to Indians. The half Indian children were allowed to stay. The issue of a Route 8 expansion project...a major highway running through the reservation...brought about a blockade of cars and an Indian picket line with guns. This led to the State Police illegally arresting Indians on the reservation. State Police have no jurisidiction on the reservation. The Onondagans are economically dependent upon the city. Many are farmers or lumbermen. Some of them are construction workers, working on steel bridges and tall buildings high above the ground. Many Onondagans end up living in Syraucse and going on welfare because opportunities to earn a living on the reservation are few.
Like the Vietnamese, they have a sense of family, as well as nationhood. Theylive near their relatives. This tends to socially isolate them from the rest of the community. Discouraged, they drop out of school, continuing the povery cycle.
The Importance of Cultural Awareness
I shall confine the discussion in this section of my paper to the Indian problem, even though much will be relevent to the other groups discussed.
Because their feelings about themselves are negative in part, their socio-economic, political and person problems are plentiful. Alcoholism, wife beating, abandonment, low education levels, welfare, unemployment are all found among the Onondagans. Many young people, ashamed to be Indian, migrate to the city where they try to merge with the general population. They dress and act as "white" as possible.
On the other hand, others have firmly grapsed their heritage and work hard to preserve it. There is a boys club near Delaware Pre-K center that teaches Indian lore. They have Indian dances, have field trips to the reservation for farm projects and special events, wear buckskin, etc. The Corn Festival, sponsored by the Indian community is televised yearly. Ther are several herds of buffalo owned privately and by the tribe, grazing south of the city.
The city school system is also aware of the Indian culture contribution to the city. Syracuse Schools "special programs" has an Indian cultural component. Indian dancers visit the elementary and secondary schools in the area and perform dances from the Onondaga culture.
The tribe's council is very strong in guilding the communal affairs for the tribe. For example, the land is owned and managed by the council, as are other tribal affairs. When litigation is necessary, the council's lawyers represent the Onondaga tribe with skill and vigor. Solidarity and group cooperation is often demonstrated.
Through my envolvement in Delaware Pre-K, the local newspaper covering Indian affairs, and my religious group's commitment to justice for the Onondagan, I became aware of "the Indian problem". My feelings were that the problem must at attacked on the community level, but it could also be touched by reaching out one to one on the personel level. I felt I was in a good position for the "1 to1" approach.
What could i do in my class to promote a good self-concept for my 4 year old Indian children? A review of early childhood literature in the area of self concept, gave me a start.
Children are incapable of seeing themselves except through the mirror that society and the people around them hold up for viewing. They accept without question what "the mirror" proposes. "You're bad", "you're incompetent", "You're talented in music", "You're competent", "you're pretty", "You're smart", "It's great to be a girl (a boy)" "It's great to be an Indian (an Italian, black, etc.)" To generalize, children accept Values attached to the nationality they belong to, their sex role, as well as to their individualness. It is just as bad to have no awareness about these areas of self concept as to have negative awareness.
Perhaps once a state of maturity is reached, a person may have the ability to analyze, "Hey, wait a minute, perhaps society has a vested interest in convincing me that I'm incompetent." Then comes much work in analyzing one's self to see if it is true. Are they incompetnet? (in a skill area, for example) or perhaps the concept is untrue. Many adults are unwilling to put in this type of work for analysis, for it constitutes a personal crisis. This is difficult for an adult to do. It is impossible for a 4 year old to do this, given that their level of development does not permit abstract reasoning.
Then, the responsibility for developing a good self-concept in young children belongs to the adults around them.
A good pre-school program should have as a goal to promote a good self-concept in each child in 4 areas: sex identification, social competency, individual skills and identification with an ethnic group. Included in the 4 catagories is the area of body awareness.
Since the topic of this paper is cultural awareness, I shall confine myself to this rea, noting only in passing, that as much thoughtfulness and effort must be expanded in the other areas as in the area of ethnic group identification, since we are dealing with the whole child. All four areas are integrated into the child's self-concept. (to be continued)