18 December 2011

American Identities and American Education: Keeping the Melting Pot Simmering

Here's an Identification Project from Catherine Kilian!

American Identities and American Education:  Keeping the Melting Pot Simmering

A. Perception of My Identity:  “My Childhood Has Defined My Life”

            Intrinsic self-exploration for the sake of discovering personal identity has existed through all of time. Individuals and citizens from all types of societies with varying natures have long contemplated the question “who am I?” Throughout my life, I am convinced that I have a basic understanding of what defines me. I believe that within the timeframe of my lifetime, I have become familiar with some of the characteristics that distinguish me as who I am. These perceptions of my identity were most likely shaped by the same factors I am going to use in an attempt to explore who I am.

            I am part of a family. I am a daughter, an older sister, a cousin, a niece, a granddaughter, and a friend. I am part of a closely-knit family system. My entire family was born and raised in western New York. I have four younger siblings; two brothers and two sisters. My siblings and I have always been extremely close to one another, our parents and the rest of our extended family.

            My parents gave me a variety of experiences that provided me with ample opportunities to explore myself as a person and develop my own identity. There are various pieces of my life that I strongly value, that hold importance and guide my actions and decisions. First and foremost, my family, friends and boyfriend serve as the fence around the perimeters of my life. Like fence posts, they are grounded, stable and reliable. I depend on my family because they have never been undependable. These people are the most valuable part of my life and they have made the largest impact in it. They influenced the development of my values, morals, beliefs and principles.

            Since last summer when I adopted my dog, I have become more aware of what it requires to provide for and have complete responsibility of someone else (I say someone because I pretty much consider Tiko a person trapped in a chihuahua's body). He looks to me while trying to express his wants and needs because he knows I'll understand him best. He understands that I am the one who will get him water from the sink. He understands that his dog food is in the bottom drawer of my dresser and I need to get it out for him. He understands that when he barks near a door that I know he has to go outside. He understands that when I'm not home, he doesn't have the support necessary to fulfill some of his needs.

            I am a very important part of Tiko's life. Tiko's dependency provides some explanation of the excitement he experiences when I walk through my front door. Playing that crucial of a role in my little dog's life (the kind where when they see you they're so overwhelmed with good feelings they can't breathe), brought me to the realization that I strongly value compassion, understanding, dependability and providing for others. This instance was additional support of my choice to further my education and become an elementary school teacher.

            In today's world it is often easy to forget about your heritage and what it means to be who we are. We celebrate American unity claiming that our country's boundaries combine individuals from all walks of life into our “melting pot” society. Are we straying from our roots and leaning towards the belief that we're all simply just, American?

            I hope I never lose the interest I have towards my heritage and my family's history. I am German, Irish and Lebanese. My last name represents my family’s ties with Germany. As opposed to the likes of the Irish and their beer, “Killian's Red,” Kilian, with one L, is the German spelling of our name. My mother has curly red hair and I'm sure I've inherited my own curly hair and freckles from our Irish ancestors. My grandmother was one hundred percent Lebanese. She was a very important part of my life.

            Through her passing during recent years, I came to the harsh realization that she would no longer be here to help carry on some of the traditions and customs that she had shared and passed down to us. She left a bit of our heritage in our family and my father, which he passed on to me. I see her in myself through my dark eyes, my olive-colored skin and my inexplicable interest towards the customs and cultures of the Middle East.

            I intend to celebrate all of my ethnic roots through the constant exploration of my family, their predecessors and our history. Another ambition of mine, to celebrate my grandmother and our Lebanese heritage, is to further my ethnic cooking abilities. I am going to pass down the tradition of my favorite Lebanese foods. I will become more familiar with traditional Lebanese foods like seasoned rice pilaf, which is given texture and flavor from pine nuts, and stuffed grape leaves, which are filled with a rice-ground beef mixture. I also have high hopes and ambitions to travel to these three countries, to explore the places and people that have defined my heritage and sculpted my identity, as a person and an American.

            It is important to note that being an American citizen has played a role in my identity. The acquisition of American citizenship is sought after by many individuals. The government gently steers my actions towards our country's main interests and priorities. Regardless, I am appreciative of the many rights and freedoms my citizenship entitles me to. Many other nations and individuals are forced to abide by restrictions and government-mandated limitations, situations that strongly effected by the forces of various governing bodies. I believe that their ability to endure these often unfavorable circumstances, makes these people ideal candidates for American citizenship.

B. Experience with American Identities:  “The Influence of Diversity on My Past, Present and Future”

            Throughout my childhood, my parents have always modeled for me and given examples of ways to be--for lack of better words--a “good” person, based on the morals, values and beliefs they had already formed. They stressed acceptance and selflessness, treating others how I'd like to be treated. I've learned not to form my views of individuals off of other people's opinions, to give people an opportunity to reveal themselves before forming any criticisms. My parents were able to impress into my malleable, developing brain the concepts and perspective I hold today. I think genuine care and kindness are important aspects of my identity and my understanding of other's identities.

            When I was younger, I was given the tools and devices necessary to develop creativity and imagination. My parents had created an environment that was crucial to this development. Not having this background would have changed the way I perceive the world around me. I had baby dolls and stuffed animals, a kitchen set, a work bench and a construction hat, barbies, matchbox cars, blocks. All of these provided hours of entertainment, but more importantly, gave me various options to explore all kinds of play, instead of restricting my toys to “girly” ones. I played on the work bench. I'd wear the construction hat and talk about how I'll help my father at work in the future. I'd dress my stuffed animals up in doll clothes and push them around in strollers. I'd play “house” with my siblings, playing different roles. I truly believe that the vivid imagination I've held onto until today comes from the methods used by my parents to supplement my development at such an impressionable age.

            There should be a nationwide agreement made between our country's citizens in concern of our future, our children's future, and our grandchildren's future. The importance and overwhelming influence that parenting has on a child's developmental growth and their definitions of personal identity needs to be discussed with all individuals in all situations that are raising children. Stressing the importance of parenting, either through more thoroughly detailed explanations or more expansively, and making this knowledge and awareness available to parents and guardians from all backgrounds and circumstances, will likely cause an increase in conscious and informed child-rearing actions and decisions. Having the knowledge that you as an individual are a crucial element, a necessary requirement, in the development of a young child's identity is not only honorable but a humbling realization as well.

            I might have made the decision to enter the field of education during my childhood. My siblings and cousins would play more realistically as we grew older. We moved onto games like “court,” where we'd develop ridiculous scenarios for a case. My cousin received an overhead projector one year for Christmas. Paired with the desk I had, we made an excellent classroom set-up to play school in. We would take turns, reversing roles from teacher to learner. Creating tests and worksheets, correcting in red pen, raising our hands or shouting out obnoxious answers, we modeled strategies used by our real teachers and experimented acting out the behaviors we observed in our peers.

            My enrollment in the school district I lived in exposed me to an increasing amount of diversity. Once I had reached middle and high school, I was accustomed to the nature of diversity. I already had a good understanding of treating everyone equally, respecting all individuals; if this wasn't common sense at this point, my parents had already taught me. I also understood that while we treat everyone equally, it is not the case that we all live equivalent lives. The schools I attended encompassed a variety of students from many different ethnicities, cultures, economic backgrounds and family histories.

            My freshman year of college I had already defined my major as early childhood education, with a concentration in art. Ideally I would like to have an art classroom at the elementary level. However, I believe that to get the most value out of my education at Fredonia, I should strive to become a classroom teacher at the elementary level and incorporate all of the skills, strategies and methods I have learned thus far into a resourceful, stimulating classroom environment. The fact that I chose elementary education as a career path, driven by my morals and values to have a positive impact and influence in young children's lives, reflects my identity.

            The totality of my field placements here have presented me with the opportunities necessary to observe, experience and better understand what it's like to teach a group of largely diverse learners in a multitude of teaching styles. I have worked with students from Pre-K to 2nd grade. These students have come from all walks of life, and are all a part of something bigger. Despite all of their cultural and ethnic differences, I saw beneficial relationships form between these children. Collectively, these groups of diverse American students belong together as part of American society and a classroom community.

             My participation in this American studies course has made me aware of the fact that one increasingly more existent aspect of our national identity is “American competitiveness.” Over time, American citizens began to shift from not only challenging their “mother country” and comparing one another's differences, to competing globally with, for and against members of other worldly countries. With the state of today's society and global economy, it only makes sense for parents, guardians and educators to raise and prepare our nation's youth for the competitive challenges tomorrow and in the future. By learning from experienced and devoted, educated adults, in a supportive, comfortable and culturally sensitive environment, young children will begin to recognize the existence of similarities and differences, equality and inequality, fair and unfair. Once students understand the inevitable nature of diversity and global expansion, they will be more readily able to appreciate strengths and understand weaknesses. Being enlightened by the environments that surround them, and becoming increasingly more accepting of others, gives young children the opportunity to become more exposed to and familiarized with, the diverse people, ideas and concepts of our world today. Multicultural education that provides a foundation for global awareness has been made possible in many areas of the world (some even in exist within our country's borders). These experiences have been made possible for students in today's society by the systematic provision of: a. equal educational opportunities that cause learners to become accustomed to varying cultures through diverse classroom composition, b. opportunities to learn and practice second (even third or fourth) languages in a world of multiple linguistics, and c. adequate opportunities to explore, discover, and make meaningful connections, in order to begin forming a level of individual understanding. In the future, those students that were able to experience valuable educational experiences, are most likely the individuals that will succeed. Our world is now populated by a global society that has (and will continue to) experience exposure to an ever-changing, constantly altered state of existence. The preservation of our world will be made most possible by the extent of which our future generations participate in global affairs and develop environmental and humanistic consciousness and are aware of the impact that is (or isn't) occurring.

            Knowing this, it was difficult for me to witness segregation by teachers of students in some districts. The segregation was not meant to divide students by race or socio-economic status. Rather it was meant to separate students of varying academic abilities. Ironically, this basically entailed that these American students who were speakers of different languages and less socio-economically advantaged were struggling learners. The backgrounds and circumstances children live in will affect the way students learn. With English being a second language and parents working too late to be available, these students have not experienced the enrichment necessary to succeed at the same level as their classmates. In my opinion, this type of labeling seems detrimental to the construction of confidence and self-esteem and therefore the students’ success. If students at this age continue being identified in this manner, it will undoubtedly influence the way they form their identity.

            In addition to being criticized or treated unfairly by someone in person, even the history textbooks used in some classrooms are used to delude the youngest generations of American citizens from truth of our prior experiences as a nation. These textbook 'stories' are often fabrications of historically true events and real accounts, that have been intentionally designed and very specifically chosen to effectively create the standard “American Identity” one may see today, designed in respect of our forefathers' ideals (regardless of the circumstances that influenced them over a hundred years ago). Not only do I worry from my standpoint as a future educator, I also play the role of an adult, concerned with humanistic values, like honesty and the well-being of children. I have now become aware of the fact that many classroom social studies textbooks contain misleading text that makes them unreliable sources. For this reason, I have become unsettled by the notion that records of American history could be equally unreliable and untrustworthy.

            My teaching methods are going to reflect the manner in which I was raised and the information that I have gained through my past experiences and observations in the classroom. Using American identity as a common ground, a group all students are a part of, I intend to teach acceptance and celebration of culture. I want to use this as a basis to form lessons addressing all levels of learners. In theory, I hope that this practice helps eliminate, or at least lessen, the existence of discrimination and stereotyping that is so prevalent in society today.

C. What Can We Define American Identity As? “Our American Identity as the Melting Pot Is Soupy”

            American identities can be interpreted in a variety of ways. In being citizens of this country, one would assume these individuals might classify themselves as American. However, I made the surprising realization that, despite having been born and raised a citizen of this country, when asked how I would define my identity; “American” would never be my first response in describing myself. I oppose the view that as United States citizens we should mask or blend our heritage into the generality of being an American. When asked to define myself, I would have first listed the people that have defined my family's heritage, giving my culture and family history more credit to the creation of my “American identity.” This view should easily be accepted, even by those individuals who truly classify themselves first and foremost as American.

            Publicizing our country for generations as “the Melting Pot,” the juxtaposition of cultures, race, ethnicities, it should come as no surprise that we, as a society hold so many different perspectives and outlooks. I believe that the existence of “the American Dream” seems like an illusion to so many of our citizens as they make their way into our American society. Our country's definition of “well-being” and “success” do not meet the expectations of those individuals who have left their homes and families to come to American in hope of searching for, finding, and experiencing a “better life.” Different cultures have different standards and definitions for these ideas. While reaching “the American Dream” might be an attainable goal for an individual who has lived in the country their whole life, it is often impossible for immigrants or migrants to succeed this far into American society.

            With the increasing amount of diversity that exists within the United States, is it really possible to create a definition that reveals the identities of all Americans? The amount of discussion, debate and inequality that still exists today, gives me the impression that we are currently involved in the process of defining what it really means to identify ourselves as American. Although I am American, feeling an overwhelming sense of pride and nationalism for our country rarely occurs.

Defining what American Identities is on a universal level would not be supportive of the United States. Other countries seem to use degrading stereotypes to express the negative connotations they hold in association to our American identity. Since this is the case, it must also be plausible that American citizens define our identity in more than a multitude of ways. Definitions of what it means to be American would most definitely reflect an individual perspective. We would define American identity individually, based on personal life experiences, history, etc. So is it even possible for our nation to develop an American identity that encompasses all of our citizens? I am convinced that continually over extended periods of time, individual perceptions (as well as generalized opinions), are influenced by the most current status of general societal perspective and the most widely publicly-supported beliefs during that time. I am led to believe that visible trends and patterns have been documented by our nation's history, but are often ignored or manipulated in meaning.

What really defines us as “American” besides the fact that we live in America? America was established hundreds of years ago. However, with the misconstrued, altered stories of our country’s history, we shouldn’t use any one specific defining action taken by our American predecessors to define our identity. Maybe our identity could be linked to the fact that the people of our country are free. For example, the freedom of speech is not something traditional to the rest of the world. The fact that America is a young, growing, changing country might define us. But I think as long as we’re still learning what works best for our country and our people, that we’re still constructing our American identity.

            At this point in my life, I believe American identities can be most accurately defined as follows: the existence of American identity is composed of our diverse citizens. American identities reflect the vastness of our people’s culture, race, ethnicity, customs, faiths, beliefs, principles, morals, lifestyles and backgrounds. We are “the melting pot.” Not only does the society we exist within today still exemplify our country’s diversity, it is constantly growing, adapting and changing our identity, as well. American society and identity are continuously in progressive, adapted movement, like the motion of simmering contents inside of a melting pot. I think that American identities are a conglomerate representation of our diverse nation. As an educator, in hopes of furthering young children’s development as “Americans,” I will not only aim to provide the most accurate American history possible, I am driven to teach tomorrow's generation of children to live compassionately and to accept, celebrate and understand differences in one another.

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