The Cambridge Public School Where Families Speak 33 Different Languages

graham and parks schoolOn the Monday after President Donald Trump's first travel ban, Graham and Parks staff stood outside with signs and sang songs and chants welcoming the student body into the building so that no one felt fearful or outcast for being of a different race or religion. Photos by Tina Picz-Devoe.

In our May/June “Know Your Neighborhood” issue, a local photographer shared what makes her daughter’s classes so special.

What does our city look like? Who lives here? How does diversity play a role in our city’s schools—and what are the schools teaching about acceptance, equality and the value of diversity?

My daughter attends Graham and Parks School, a public elementary school that boasts a population of children whose families speak 33 different languages (last year, that number was 42) and who come from every continent except Antarctica. Sharing from each of their cultures—whether it be food or family traditions—these young classmates learn firsthand what it’s like to be part of a globalized community that’s an accurate representation of the world they’ll live and work in as adults.

graham and parks schoolIn the three years my daughter has been learning here, we’ve met families from more than 20 countries and have shared traditions and cultural meals from around the globe. During a recent spring concert, first- and second-graders sang songs in five different languages. Our family’s favorite unit so far was one called “E Pluribus Unum,” which is Latin for “From Many, One.” We are all one; one global community which has come together to create an inclusive, accepting, culturally diverse group of humans who respect and value one another simply for being who we are. Our collective ability to bring a wide range of perspectives to the proverbial table has greatly enriched our children’s learning experience from a young age, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to raise our daughter in a place where celebrating our differences is so deeply valued and embraced.

I asked my 8-year-old the other day what she likes most about having classmates from so many backgrounds, and her answer was simple: “Oh, I don’t even notice that kids are from different places, because we’re all just together every day.”

“That makes sense,” I replied. “We’re all just humans learning, and the more we’re with others, the more we see that we’re all similar, despite our varied races, religions or cultural differences.”

To her, there is no separation, which reminds me just how much we as parents—and as a community of adults—have to do with the conditioning of our children and their views on equality. The more varied and consistent their cultural exposure is, the more naturally they may become open to perceiving and respecting each human as equal. By opening their minds and world views to a wide range of experiences, we hope to break down the walls and barriers between “us” and “them,” between “self” and “other.” In so doing, the more we realize that we, as a human race, all have quite a common goal: to live and learn, preferably in peace and without discrimination.

As part of the second-grade unit on immigration, along with many parents and grandparents of students, my mother was able to visit and share her story of immigration from the Philippines to the U.S. in 1980. My daughter was so proud to share her favorite Filipino dessert—champorado (chocolate coconut rice)—with her classmates. The families who came shared stories, food and photos from their native countries, and it was a fantastic learning experience for children and for parents as well. We attended a family breakfast at which kids displayed a huge painted world map with photograph stickers of themselves placed on the area their families originated from. They sang Native American songs to us and showed us the unique baskets that they had each hand-woven as they learned about folk art of indigenous tribes, which was a wonderful surprise, as my husband’s ancestors are Native American and we love sharing this heritage with our child. Cambridge City Hall is displaying “quilts” that students made, showing their family traditions, photos and poems they’ve written about their backgrounds.

Second-graders were also able to take field trips to eight local restaurants—all within walking distance of school—that offer global cuisine: Vietnamese, Thai, Moroccan, Indian, Japanese, Lebanese, Korean, Mexican and Chinese. They then wrote reviews of what they had eaten in order to encourage others to branch out and try new types of food. Sharing a meal may seem a simple activity, but when we engage one another in the sharing of our ancestral traditions and flavors, we may more deeply understand others’ way of life.

As we’ve recently seen quite an upheaval in our nation’s political climate regarding race and xenophobia, I’ve greatly appreciated the ongoing, inclusive outreach and reassurance our school staff has offered. It’s been encouraging to receive messages from Superintendent Kenneth Salim stating that “bigotry and intolerance have no place within Cambridge Public Schools’ educational environment and workplace.” In a time of great uncertainty— and for many, fear of the repercussions of new government policies—it’s been helpful to know that we, at least here, can hold out hope for our children being educated by a staff that is urging them to grow into accepting humans who are open-armed and respectful toward those who may not look like them or perceive everything exactly the way that they do.

On the Monday after President Donald Trump’s first travel ban, Graham and Parks staff stood outside with signs and sang songs and chants welcoming the student body into the building so that no one felt fearful or outcast for being of a different race or religion. It was a beautiful, heart-warming display of Cambridge Public Schools’ core values of offering an educational environment founded on respect, diversity and opportunity for all members of the community.

In Salim’s words: “Social justice is woven throughout our curriculum—from the books we assign to the topics students explore. Our highest aim is to teach CPS students to think critically about themselves, their cultures, community, environment, and world. Now more than ever, this work is critically important.”

This story originally appeared in the May/June issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 250 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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