Annette John-Hall: Lessons in diversity for aspiring teachers

Student teachers Kaylin Womack (left) and Meg Parks work with first graders at Greenfield Elementary School.
Student teachers Kaylin Womack (left) and Meg Parks work with first graders at Greenfield Elementary School. (ELISE WRABETZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 21, 2012

Here's a foolproof recipe for understanding: Take two African American big-city education majors from Temple, combine them with two white small-town education majors from Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, toss them all together in a dorm, blend their disparate teaching experiences, and bake for about, oh, four weeks.

What you get is an invaluable appreciation for cultural diversity.

That's what students who have interned at the Simpson-Temple Cultural Exchange Program have learned. The program, started in 2009 by forward-thinking Temple alumna Carol Zahn Booth (Class of '47), was designed for participants to experience teaching in classrooms outside their cultural comfort zones.

The primary goal is to better equip aspiring teachers to instruct in diverse classroom settings, and to help them determine where they would like to teach after they graduate.

But the bonus points, at least from the perspectives of participants Cora Musfeldt, Kashonda Mann, Kaylin Womack, and Meg Parks, are the friendships they quickly forged, along with misconceptions they quickly shattered through their cross-cultural experiences.

And that's an education you can't always get in a classroom.

Getting a taste of Philadelphia

I recently caught up with the four, who were winding down their internships with two weeks in Philadelphia observing and teaching at the Academy at Palumbo High School in South Philly and Greenfield Elementary in Rittenhouse Square.

Out of the classroom, Parks and Musfeldt, the Simpson students, relished a whirlwind of experiences they could never have had in Iowa: Cheesesteaks, cannoli ("Yummy!" said Musfeldt, 21, of Lacona, Iowa). They also got around on SEPTA and attended Odunde, considered one of the largest African American street festivals in the country.

Womack and Mann prepared their Iowa roommates for Odunde by telling them it was like the farmer's market in Des Moines, except with different people.

"And it was," said Parks, a 21-year-old senior from Kearney, Mo. "Everybody said 'Odunde' [adapted from the Nigerian Yoruba greeting for "happy new year"] to us and we said 'Odunde' back."

On matters of practicality, the urbanites taught their rural counterparts Philly do's and don'ts, such as: Do try to sit in the back of the bus when riding SEPTA (so you can see everyone), and don't sit on the bed in your subway clothes (grimy).

"We got scolded for that," Parks says.

It would be wrong to paint the internship as some kind of Petticoat Junction meets Good Times scenario, because it isn't. Part of the beauty of the program is that it enables students to see how their own perceptions can get turned completely on their heads.

Like the night out at a Simpson College comedy show during the two weeks the interns spent in Indianola, a town of 15,000 residents, 97 percent of whom are white.

"The very first comic up was an African American woman, from the Bronx of all places, who was making disparaging jokes about black folks," said Womack, 28, of Lansdowne. "It was the only time I felt uncomfortable."

Said Mann, 21, of Olney: "She shouted us out. I wanted to die."

The young women laugh at the memory, one of many they've made in their time together. The four plan to take a trip to Canada or Florida; that's how close they've become.

Professionally, the geographic switch has also helped them crystallize their professional aspirations. Before, Womack wanted to teach inner-city kids, but now, "I want to teach everybody's kids, because we learn from everybody's cultures," she says.

A lesson that every workplace should learn.


Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986, Ajohnhall@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Annettejh.

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