BUILDING BRIDGES OF UNDERSTANDING
Master’s Thesis - 1997
A bridge connects two different sides of a river or a gap, creating a unity between the opposite sides. Once a bridge is built, individuals may pass freely from one side to the other. Bridges of understanding imply that people understand and accept the commonality of all people, which is that all people are important and have value and that no one person is less or more than another--merely different. Although every human being has the same basic need to be accepted and valued by others, this doesn't always happen for every individual. Differences between individuals is one of the reasons that this needed affirmation of individual worth is either not given or not received. Both diversity and lack of understanding cause human beings to injure and hurt each other. As a result, chasms of misunderstanding and hostility become deeper and wider.
People are more alike than different. This is the reason that we need to look at the whole individual and then recognize all of the things that make that individual unique. Minority, handicapped, underachiever, gifted, rich, poor, illiterate‑‑all of these are labels which may be attached to an individual but none of these labels can truly describe the uniqueness of an individual. Labels focus our attention on only one piece of an individual. In order to build bridges, we must examine the whole of humanity rather than subdivide it into categories. Ultimately, we must realize that the commonality of human beings is more important than their differences.
The programs currently available that promote diversity awareness are fragmental. They are like the six blind men who went to look at an elephant. Each man felt one portion of the elephant's anatomy and arrived at a conclusion about the whole. “The elephant is like a snake,” said the first blind man. “No, the elephant is like a wall,” argued the second. Each of the others in turn perceived the elephant to be like a spear, a fan, a tree or a rope. Each blind man had discerned some valuable piece of information but missed the whole. When anyone begins by identifying categories of people, then there is an implication that there are categories of problems which can be solved a piece at a time. Programs have been developed for disability awareness education to help adults and children accept the differences of people with disabilities. There are programs to develop appreciation for cultural diversity. Programs have also been developed to deal with self-esteem, anti-bias and prejudice. There are support groups for the grieving and for at-risk kids. Each of these programs have been designed in an attempt to solve a particular problem when our priority ought to be developing humanity awareness. Humanity awareness involves the understanding that there is a commonality of all people. All people have value no matter what their individual differences may be. People are more alike than different. We need to look at each individual as a part of humanity and to value the diversity of human beings. As each individual's self-awareness and self-esteem increases--as each individual comes to value himself as an individual--he becomes capable of granting that same understanding to other individuals who are like him in many ways and different in some ways. Helping each other increase humanity awareness is not a goal that can be achieved by accident. This process involves understanding current attitudes, developing programs, establishing communication and providing contact with diversity on an ongoing basis.
We must first change attitudes. Each person’s attitude about himself or herself and the attitudes of others toward that person are critical to his or her success. When people do not learn basic principles of kindness, they dig gaps of hostility which will continue to get deeper and wider. Like the Once-ler in the story of The Lorax, we are forced to conclude that "UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not" (Dr. Seuss, 1971).
It is easier to never allow gaps of hostility to be dug than it is to build bridges over them. This is a very idealistic statement because in reality most children leave home with a preconceived set of positive or negative attitudes. Children are not born with attitudes of hatred. Nor are they born with an attitude of acceptance for diversity. They acquire these attitudes from the people they associate with. It is therefore essential that children’s early experiences with diversity are positive.
There are many bridges of understanding that need to be built. Children need to understand and accept each other. We need bridges of understanding between adults, between children, and between adults and children. In fact, whenever two or more individuals interact, there exists the potential to construct a bridge of understanding.
Literature has the potential to become a powerful tool for constructing bridges of understanding. A story has the ability to draw people together and allows them to share the same experience. Exploring the actions and possible motives of the characters allows people to examine many kinds of diversity and attitudes in a non-threatening way. It is often more comfortable for people to talk about a character from a story than to risk talking about a character from a story than to risk talking about themselves.
Storytelling and storylistening can build self-esteem and understanding of differences.
Once the gap of hostility has been bridged, people can arrive at a unity of purpose, with the focus being on the whole individual. This can only come about when attitudes change. People must want to build a bridge or it will never get built. Changing attitudes may be regarded as only the beginning but it is the only logical place to begin if we want to bring about change.
All children share a commonality: they are more alike than different. All children share the need to have self-worth, to be loved, respected, given the chance to learn, grow and develop to their fullest potential. All children are normally interested in learning and obtaining knowledge and skill. All or most children will go through the normal periods of childhood, adolescence, courtship, marriage, raising families, obtaining and maintaining employment and old age, with all the problems that normally accompany these phases of life. All children have some problems with peer relationships and in socializing with others. All need to learn to communicate effectively with others. (Thomas, 1989) In addition, all children have in common the fact that they individually have particular challenges, abilities and characteristics that are uniquely theirs. Each child deserves to be valued for himself or herself, to have all facets of his or her individuality recognized. Therefore no child ought to have any one characteristic become an identifying label. Most exceptional children are very much like other children in many respects. The same can be said of ESL students and children who are shy. The list of categories of children who happen to have some recognizable problems could continue on and on. The very fact that it is possible to create these lengthy lists emphasizes the fact children are more alike than different.
When we look at the whole of
mankind, there is much diversity. We are
a nation of diverse populations and groups.
We need to be able to effectively talk with one another, to reach mutual
understandings, and to realize that in diversity there is strength. (Wittmer, 1992) This diversity is all encompassing and
includes gender, religious beliefs, physical capabilities/disabilities, race,
country of origin, and lifestyle
differences. Spencer Krenek, who was a
Current curriculum approaches to dealing with diversity are fragmental. A review of some of the literature dealing with diversity (multicultural, physical handicaps, anti-bias, etc.) reveals that the need to change attitudes toward diversity is a common concern. However, mere recognition of the need to change attitudes is not sufficient. Teaching acceptance of diversity must be an integral part of our schools.
Understanding the uniqueness of a
child allows us to also understand that differences are strengths, not problems
to be fixed. In Aesop's fable of the ant and the grasshopper, the ant works to store food for the winter
while the grasshopper (who has a different modality) sings and dances. In Aesop's version, the industrious ant tells
the grasshopper he can sing and dance all through the winter. The ant refuses to share his food with the
lazy grasshopper. (The labels accentuate
their differences.) (
In a gentler version of this fable, the grasshopper arrives at the door of the ant. He is hungry and cold. The ant swings the door open wide and says, "Come in! We're so bored. Won't you sing us a song and tell us a story?"
"What about work?" someone may ask. "Don't ants work harder than grasshoppers?
Grasshoppers work differently from
ants. This is very important. Differences are just that--differences. If we think of them as differences to be
fixed, then they become weapons with which we wound each other. There's room enough in the world for both
ants and grasshoppers. Grasshoppers
aren't expected to behave like ants nor the ants like grasshoppers. So why is it sometimes hard for ants to
welcome grasshoppers or hard for grasshoppers to respect the contributions of
ants? Maybe there are ways that ants and
grasshoppers can't work together; maybe ants and grasshoppers don't achieve the
same results. But there are usually
parts of the same project where they can cooperate or times when the same
project needs the talents of both. When
people know what their differences and similarities are, then they can
capitalize on them happily. One individual may not like someone else's differences. He may not even like his own. There are dozens of circumstances that create
differences and the differences are real.
They are unavoidable, and they are okay. We need differences. We need both grasshoppers and ants. There is strength in diversity. (
The statement that there is a need to first look at the whole problem and then examine the individual pieces must not be interpreted as a belief that this strategy alone is sufficient to solve the problem. Breaking a problem down into smaller pieces is a useful approach as long as we remain aware of the whole problem. We must first carefully look at the whole before beginning an examination of the individual pieces. If we attempt to examine the individual pieces without looking at the whole, it is, in one sense, like taking a new jigsaw puzzle out of its box and sorting the pieces without ever looking at the picture on the lid. An attempt to sort the pieces by color will give each participant enough pieces to assemble a portion of the puzzle. But what about the pieces that can belong to either of two categories? What about the pieces that initially appear to belong to one category but actually belong to another? And there may be a few pieces that just don’t seem to belong anywhere. If we continue to work at the problem of assembling the puzzle by only using the pieces in our "designated" category, the whole picture will never emerge. If we throw out the pieces that don’t seem to belong, there will be empty spaces in the picture. Each piece is essential and necessary to the whole picture. People are the individual puzzle pieces of humanity. If we treat them like puzzle pieces—if we categorize and label them before we begin the process of meeting their needs—then it will be difficult for a whole picture to emerge.
Is diversity the problem? Is ignorance the problem? Or labels? Or current segregation policies? Some of these issues were examined by Phillips (1988). She concludes that difference in culture [or any other "diversity"] is not the problem.
Changing attitudes is a very idealistic concept--important, but idealistic. It is like the problem which confronted the mice in Aesop's fable "Belling the Cat". It was easy for the mice to agree that tying a bell on the cat would be of immense future benefit to all, but no one could figure out just exactly how to accomplish the task. Not one mouse was willing to risk the commitment involved to devise a plan and implement it. Similarly, it is easier to state that attitudes must change before programs can change than it is to devise a plan to bring about that change.
Because there is a diversity of individuals, and a diversity of the characteristics that make individuals different, it also seems logical that there will be a diversity of solutions. There is no one strategy that will automatically bring about positive changes in attitudes. A study of the professional literature reveals a variety of strategies. Most of these have been designed to foster awareness for a specific area of diversity, but also contain elements applicable to the concept of humanity awareness.
Literature can be used to initiate a process which presents an opportunity for each student to understand and change his own attitude. Storytelling is part of the process of education.
Since time’s beginning the oral tradition—the great process of the transmission of knowledge from one person or one generation to another—has found its expression in stories. . . .
Education in our times cannot take place without the written word; but it cannot take place either, in our times or any other, without the spoken one, without the voice of the teacher. Perhaps in the relation between the two is the very essence of transmission. . . . There is no substitute for the teacher and his voice: for the story told aloud, … for the living gesture that interprets human understanding. Knowledge may be expressed in many forms, but someone must express it and someone else receive it, test it, and interpret it anew. Whatever education is or is not, it must be the transmission of a living energy, and human beings must exchange it. . . . Education, which means a leading out, must mean a development from the inside, an opening of the inner eye; it must mean a development of inner strength. The word “discipline” is out of style, but it simply means teaching, and the learning of the teaching by a “disciple.” And if the truth makes us free, true education surely also must bring a kind of inner liberation from our more ignorant inner slaveries—especially … freedom from fear. . . . Perhaps it is only people who are educated in this sense who can respond to life, its situations and inhabitants, … with what he calls wisdom and compassion. (Dooling, 1979)
In their introduction to Ready-To-Tell Tales, Holt and Mooney (1994) explain their philosophy. "We live in a multicultural society. Stories tell of our similarities and differences, our strengths and weaknesses, our hopes and dreams. They have the power to teach us understanding and tolerance. This is a powerful tool." (Holt and Mooney) Connections may be made with students through storytelling because "storytelling offers a direct approach to children" (Saltman , 1985). The events of a well-chosen story catch and hold interest.
The flattery of sharing an experience with an adult, the warmth of the voice, the intimacy, and the sense of direct, sincere and eager communication between teller and listeners are responsible for the unique relationship between storyteller and audience. Good storytelling breaks down such barriers as difference in age and the awe in which children sometimes hold their elders. Tell children a story they enjoy, and they look upon you as an equal [and] trust you with revelations they would never have thought of sharing. (Saltman)
Storytelling not only forms a connection between child and storyteller, it also gives
. . . the child a feeling of interconnection with the larger frame of things. If I hear the story of the ugly duckling I know that I am part of the human experience; it isn’t only me, it is somebody else, in another world, another land, another time. The way in which stories begin: “Long ago and far away,” “once upon a time,” gives the continuity between myself and the past and another culture. (As the twig is bent, 1979)
Watching television or a video cannot replace the storytelling experience because watching is a passive experience. During the presentation, there is no interaction between the characters and the viewer. The image on the screen can’t be interrupted unless you simply turn it off. (Charles, et. al., 1979)
When a child hears a story … you have all of that physical intimacy which is part of the story. The fact that the child is interacting … is part of the process of why the story is important; it isn’t just the story, it’s that he is hearing it from [someone who is important to him]. If he hears it in school, it’s a communal experience: other children reacting and interacting, even their restlessness and the interruptions, the asking of questions, is important. . . . The story is the pretext for getting together in a personal way. With television there is none of that intimacy that is characteristic of storytelling, between people who are personally involved. (As the twig is bent, 1979)
Once this personal connection is formed, many children are ready to identify with a character who has some aspect of diversity. They are able to explore feelings and understand feelings. He is able to “look out or down at it from another level to see what is really happening. What am I feeling? And what, indeed, do I think about all this?” (As the twig is bent, 1979) Children need to have the opportunity to find their own point of view. Because a story is presented always as an “as if,” “make-believe”, “once upon a time” reality, (Hillman, 1979) many children feel more free to express thoughts, opinions and feelings than if they were discussing a true or factual situation.
Bridges of understanding are needed to insure that the diverse individuals in our world are treated with dignity and respect. People need to recognize that individuals are more alike than different, that there is a commonality among all people. The students in our schools are diverse, having different backgrounds, different cultures, different abilities. It therefore ought to be our responsibility to devise strategies to foster humanity awareness education
A broader perspective is needed. Curriculum should be planned to change people's attitude towards all of humanity (who individually have diverse attributes) instead of merely to change attitudes toward one small segment of humanity. The curriculum developed should not be a one day "multicultural fair" or a "disability awareness day", but the existing curriculum should be modified to integrate humanity awareness concepts on an ongoing basis. There is a need for unity, to first look at the whole individual and then understand all the differences that make that individual unique. This concept must be expanded and humanity awareness strategies must be developed to help us understand the diversity of all people. When people learn compassion and learn to understand and accept the differences of others, their attitudes will change.
Accepting diversity means that we must value the differences in all peoples. Once we accept that we are a diverse people, we can then understand that no one curriculum can meet every individual’s needs. The particular strategy or strategies used in a particular classroom will vary depending on the diversity of the classroom and the individuality of the teacher. No one curriculum can be identified as “THE” solution—but can be recognized as one of many possible solutions. We need many different approaches if we are to change attitudes toward diversity. The best solution is the one that meets the needs of the students, teachers, administrators, parents, and others in the community. We should focus on changing attitudes rather than on changing programs. This means that no matter where the individual is--mainstreamed, in special classrooms, or in the community--that individual deserves to be treated as a human being. We must acknowledge differences but also recognize that diversity is not a problem to be solved, but a strength.
We ought not to be afraid to ask questions. How do we feel about diversity? Are differences bad? Is this particular difference really important? Is this fair? How would I feel? Maybe we should ask questions a little more
often. When we ask better questions we
can get better answers. Not all
questions even have answers. And even
when answers come, they can't always be implemented quickly. But unless we start asking questions, there
will never be any hope of changing and growing.
There is power in literature. Literature can be one starting point for humanity awareness education. It can help children to understand similarities and differences. Stories of all kinds can be used to help teach tolerance and understanding of diversity. Literature gives children a way to talk about their attitudes and feelings and to explore the attitudes of others. Children can talk about the feelings and actions of a character in a story without revealing that they are actually talking about themselves because the story framework provides a "safe" atmosphere in which to explore feelings and attitudes. The unique relationship between storyteller and listener can facilitate more positive attitudes toward diversity. Literature is therefore one possible way to build bridges of understanding.
How will we know when we have
achieved the goal of teaching humanity awareness? There is an old Jewish folk tale about a
rabbi who is asked how one can know the moment of dawn. The rabbi says simply, “Dawn is the moment
when there is enough light to see the face of another as that of a brother or
As a storyteller, I have experienced the connection that can be made between storyteller and child. It can be powerful. If I tell a story and the child likes it, a bond between us is formed. If given the opportunity, the child will share his thoughts and feelings on many topics because I am now his friend.
The discussion that follows a story (or sometimes during a story) provides a framework for discussion of issues with minimum of risk. Discussing a story allows a child to discuss his own attitudes without having to feel self-conscious. In the guise of discussing a character, he can reveal his own problems, thoughts and feelings without so much risk. I have seen students totally “clam up” when I attempted to discuss issues of tolerance on the school campus. I was left with the feeling that I was giving a lecture, not guiding a discussion. Yet the same students after viewing the movie, “The Elephantman” and reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond were able to discuss and write about discrimination and stereotype attitudes in some depth. Several students revealed thoughts and concerns they had never been able to express previously. Although they were actually talking about themselves, they didn’t perceive it as a risk.
Just as we recognize that we have diversity among our students, we should also recognize that humanity awareness must be taught in many different ways. I believe that literature is one valid approach to sharing humanity awareness concepts with students. The diversity of folk tales and stories from around the world can provide more than entertainment or understanding of different cultures. They can help us build bridges of understanding.
Awareness involves recognition, acceptance and tolerance.
Commonality is the concept that all people share the same basic needs. Therefore all people are important and have value no matter what their individual differences may be.
Diversity is the differences between individual members of the human race. These may be differences in language, race, country of origin, physical and mental capabilities/disabilities, background, value systems, religious beliefs, political beliefs, gender, or lifestyle.
Humanity awareness is the understanding that there is a commonality among all human beings. It involves acceptance of the value and abilities of each individual with an understanding that differences are only a part of the whole individual. It also implies a willingness to meet the individual needs of each person.
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Copyright 1997 Rose Owens