Saturday, March 24, 2012

Don't Know Much About History? That May Be a Problem...

Growing up, I had some sort of bizarre dislike of "history" in school.  Mostly American history, actually.  I enjoyed studying European history, especially the Medieval and Renaissance periods.  I can, to this day, still remember how excited my AP European History teacher got during his lecture on Medieval torture devices--truly inspiring, if not a little concerning, in retrospect.  However, I just could not get into American history--all those plain, boring clothes.  All that walking and suffering through the mud.  I'm sure it had nothing to do with the fact that my father was working on his Ph.D in American History at that time and reading two to three books on the topic each week.  I was not a rebellious adolescent by any stretch of the imagination, but perhaps my avoidance was also my way of asserting independence and breaking away from the family system.  Something for fodder in some sort of future therapy, I am sure.

Anyways, needless to say, when I was interviewing for an honor's program at my eventual undergraduate institution during my senior year of high-school, I was asked by one of the panelists what my "least favorite" subject in school was.  I of course responded, "history," minus the discussion of the dismal fashions and unvarying scenery.  I then learned that the panelist who had asked the question was also the chair of the university's history department.  It's no wonder that in prepping my current students for college interviews, I stress the concept of "know your audience."

There are now quite a few years between these events of my past and my current life and experiences, and I am happy to say that my "history-phobia" is in remission, although I do still tend to mostly read books about Tudor and Elizabethan history when given a choice and time.  You are also probably wondering, by this point, "What does this have to do with school counseling?"

In the March, 2012 issue of Counseling Today, the lead article featured various counseling leaders discussing where they feel the profession of counseling is heading.  Dr. Courtland Lee, Professor of Counseling at the University of Maryland, had a response that truly resonated with me:
"It will be important, therefore, for the counseling profession as it is known in the United States to develop more of an international perspective on counseling and human development, given the sense of global interconnectedness that is emerging among mental health professionals....In addition, counselor training must stress the notion that what happens in one community in any part of the United States must be understood within this larger global context. More than ever, it will be crucial for counselors to be able to 'think globally and act locally.'" (source: ct.counseling.org)
He goes on to say:
"Global literacy implies an understanding of the contemporary world and how it has evolved over time. It encompasses important knowledge of cultural variations in areas such as geography, history, literature, politics, economics and principles of government." (source: ct.counseling.org)
We live in an ever more diverse society.  Not only is this born out in the latest census data, but most of us see it every single day in our schools.  Over the last several years, I have worked with students and families from Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Sierra Leone, China, Ukraine, Spain, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, and Bolivia, and I am sure there are others I am forgetting right at this very moment.  Further, our students are now able to connect with other students from across the globe in a matter of seconds.  As school counselors, we are uniquely situated to help lead the charge in helping our students to appreciate and respect the diversity within their school so that they are better able to collaborate with others on a global basis, a skill that is becoming essential in the modern world.  Additionally, we are the ones in schools who can be the most helpful in bridging the gap between mainstream American culture and the rich diverse cultures of our students and families from around the world.

However, we ourselves must first have an understanding of how different cultures function not only within themselves, but the history of their interactions with other cultures.  Further, we need to have an understanding of current events.  If a student arrives mid-year from Sierre Leone, it is important that you know there has been a history of conflict within that country.  It is important that you understand that there is the possibility of that student having witnessed or experienced trauma so that you can be on the lookout for any warning signs.  If you have a student who may be an illegal immigrant to the United States, it is important to know if there have been any pieces of legislation in your state or jurisdiction that would either hinder or help these student with regards to tuition and financial aid for college.  This information should always be used as one of many pieces to solving a puzzle, as each individual situation may be different.  Additionally, a tragic event in South Korea may not mean much to your general school population, but it could be devastating to your student who moved to the US from South Korea five years ago.  It is always important to meet each student where they are at, currently.  Having some background knowledge of a student's particular cultural context, though, can be extremely useful and help you to be more effective when you intervene.

We also serve as models and educators for appreciating, respecting, and collaborating with diversity for not only our students, but our faculty, staff, and families, as well.  Students are always curious and watch what the adults say and do within their buildings, and they do pick up on these cues.  If we take the time to mediate a conflict between students of differing cultural backgrounds and understandings, they will notice.  If we use language and design lessons that are inclusive of diversity, they will notice.  Moreover, if we show that we have some basic knowledge of history and current events, they will notice and see that knowing this information is important not only in history class, but in the world at large.

How can you keep abreast of current events and past historical events without having to go back and get another college degree?  Here are some tips:
  • Read a newspaper once a week without skipping over international news.
  • Listen to news radio, such as NPR, on your morning or evening commute.
  • If you receive a student from another culture, do a quick skim of the Wikepedia page of their home country.  At registration ask the family what brings them to your school, what concerns they may have, what they would like for you to know about them and their child, and what additional information would help them to feel more comfortable.
  • Have one-on-one conversations with your students of other cultures.  So often school counselors do not get to know their English Language Learners (ELL).  They are all our students.  This way you can get to know their own unique individual cultural perspective.
  • Ask your history department chair for some international news blogs to follow.  There is one at Reuters, PBS, and MSNBC, for starters.  Again, skimming these blogs every couple of days will keep you up to date on what is happening globally.  Keep your eye out for events that happen in countries from which you know you have students.
  • If something peaks your interest, grab a book about the topic and read about it.  The blog at History Today might be a great place to start, and you can always do a search on Amazon.
I truly believe that Dr. Lee is dead on with his prediction for the future of counseling.  The world seems to shrink each and every year.  We, as school counselors, can help to facilitate and smooth the changing landscape of our school populations and help to prepare all students to be more globally literate and culturally aware.  However, we must first start with ourselves.

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