Dressed in a French beret, tall socks and a vintage, knit suit carrying nothing but my Pépère’s old leather handbag and a tupperware filled with my Mémère’s minced-meat pie, I walked nervously through Ellis Island determined to pass the English literacy exams and correctly answer demanding questions about my health. Inside, I was freaking out but on the outside I tried to remain calm, cool and collected for my friends behind me. It was 1895 and I, a 32 year old French Canadian wanted nothing more than to successfully make it through the grueling immigration process and enter America as a U.S. citizen.
Of course, this all took place in the gymnasium of my New Hampshire elementary school and the ‘immigration officers’ were just my teachers and parent volunteers dressed in fancy suits. My mincemeat pie was happily ‘confiscated’ for a ‘post-immigration’ party in which all of us ‘new citizens’ shared our ancestral food traditions with the other ‘immigrants.’ And oh yes, my ‘passport’ was nothing more than a flimsy piece of paper. But still, I, a fourth-grade student with a reputation to uphold, wanted nothing more than to make it through Ellis Island without being sent to the back of the line. In the weeks preceding this event, I spent hours researching the history of Quebec, interviewing my grandparents about their experiences growing up with family in both Canada and New Hampshire and learning about the dress, food, music and work of my French-Canadian ancestors. To put it mildly, I felt engaged. I felt passionate. I felt intrigued. This simple reenactment not only allowed my 8-year-old brain to consider the people and experiences behind the United States immigration history, but it also jump-started my future interests in both migration and childhood education.
Much like my elementary school’s attempt to make my education personal, my project over the next nine months with the American India Foundation seeks to incorporate culturally and socially relevant information into a local government school’s primary school curriculum. My host organization, the Aga Khan Development Network’s (AKDN) Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative, restores and preserves a variety of Sufi and Mughal tombs, vast gardens, world heritage sites and other culturally rich artifacts of Islamic heritage in the Nizamuddin area of Delhi. However, just as importantly, AKDN also seeks to uplift the livelihoods of the people who live in the areas surrounding these important heritage sites. As such, they invest in public health, women’s livelihoods, housing development and most relevant to my work: education.
While some individuals may argue that simply making a curriculum more personally relevant cannot possibly make such a powerful impact on a child, a variety of academic and community studies around the world have already demonstrated the importance of incorporating ‘local knowledge’ into schools. In fact, Robert Balfanz references a variety of studies from Brazil, Liberia and Chicago that demonstrate the extent to which students begin learning complex math by simply playing in their community or cooking with their parents. Like Balfanz, An Fuhai’s observations in Tibetan classrooms draw a contrast between those schools that use Chinese-government prescribed texts and those that incorporate Tibetan literature, agriculture and other traditionally ‘non-academic’ activities as a means of teaching environmental education, literacy and mathematics. Not only did students absorb more of the local knowledge but also they expressed more excitement for learning. This sense of engagement that Fuhai describes echoes so much of my own experience learning in New Hampshire. I felt excited, nervous, challenged and impassioned simply as a result of a day of interactive education. When I think about my own experience and the ways in which it seems to support these scholars’ research, I can’t help but imagine what could happen for students like myself if every lesson was like Ellis Island Day.
Each day, as I walk through the Nizamuddin Basti, I am struck by just how many priceless historical artifacts are weaved into the day-to-day motion of the neighborhood. During my first few days, I was often lost and confused by the winding streets. Now, I am beginning to see how 400 (or more) year-old shrines, tombs and monuments intelligently divide and enhance its layout. Quite literally, the Nizamuddin Basti is an example of living, tangible, and purposely designed history. While many of the students that I have spoken with know that these sites exist, they do not comprehend the cultural significance, mathematical relevance or architectural beauty that exist in the stories behind them.
Much like my experience in New Hampshire, I hope that I can use the Nizamuddin Basti’s rich history to encourage the students’ interest in their math, Hindi, English and environmental science classes. While a textbook can be useful and important for creating a common set of knowledge among a large group of diverse children, this project is already reaffirming my belief that our communities can be our textbooks. In addition to telling children important information, we can also show it to them. For nearly 14 years, I have benefited from and dwelled on the lessons I learned under the faint glow of a gymnasium light and the harsh glance of a teacher turned immigration officer. Now, I am excited and nervous to be that immigration officer: to have the opportunity to develop a curriculum that shows rather than tells.
- Balfanz, Robert. “Elementary School Quality, the Mathematics Curriculum and the Role of
Local Knowledge.” International Review of Education 36, no. 1 (1990): 43-56.
- Fuhai, An. “The Basis for Integrating Local Knowledge into the School Curriculum for Tibetans
in Southern Gansu.” Chinese Education and Society 50. (2017): 13.