First Contact in Education

damoclesI recently read a short science fiction novel entitled “Damocles” that is authored by S.G. Redling and which Amazon has been pimping pretty hard on the screensaver of my wife’s Kindle with “Special Offers” (read: ads).  It’s a unique story of humankind’s first interactions with an alien race, with a twist: It takes place on the alien’s home planet.  Human explorers arrive, guided by information from a race of creatures that seems to have “seeded” humans on various worlds.

Spoiler Alert: First contact with this species does not go smoothly.

While reading this quick and enthralling story, I kept thinking about the parallels between the narrative of the book and the one that we experience with our students, particularly those from non-English-speaking families and from low-income homes.

The middle class nature of public school culture in America has been covered before, perhaps most widely by Ruby Payne.  Any educator who has worked with these communities knows that the primary struggle for these students is learning the approved way to do everything (I hesitate to make a judgment and call it the “right” way).  Throw in a language barrier and this acclimation becomes almost impossible.

We acknowledge that this is why so many affected teens join gangs of their peers.  This feeling of being with others who share their frustrations must be comforting for them.  For educators, an extra challenge comes when groups of yet-to-be-assimilated students constitute enough of a critical mass that they can resist the transition.  The result is often disastrous for classroom discipline and for overall student learning.

In “Damocles”, the main characters–including scientists from both races–form a powerful friendship that eventually allows the free flow of information between the two cultures.  It was interesting for me to see that the goal was not to convert one group to the other’s standards, but rather to exchange ideas, language, and customs to better understand each other.

Maybe this is the strategy that more of us should use when working with those “extraterrestrials” in our classroom.

Do you work hard to integrate students from other cultures (foreign or domestic) into your classroom, or do you seek a middle ground?

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