Ways of Seeing: Practicing inclusions

In my English Composition class at the Community College of Vermont, I have worked with students from China, Japan, Vietnam, Iraq, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Nepal. These students struggle to simultaneously learn English and adapt to our culture while navigating the demands of college assignments.
To support my work with international students, I recently attended a workshop called “The Culturally Responsive Classrooms.” The facilitator, Dr. Marie Terese Claes, is an expert in intercultural communication.
An initial activity set the tone for the day. Dr. Claes asked two volunteers to leave the room. The remaining 10 of us were placed in two close-knit circles. When the volunteers returned, Sally was sent to our group. Our task — not revealed to Sally — was to completely exclude her from our conversation.
We dived into a lively, interesting discussion about our worldly travels. When Sally attempted to join in, we huddled closer, avoided eye contact with her and focused ever more closely on our inner circle. Sally tried to enter our group in every possible way. She asked questions, responded enthusiastically to comments, and positioned herself in close proximity to each person speaking. We ignored her completely and rejected her in our body language.
After less than five minutes, Sally shrugged her shoulders and said, “I know what you’re doing, and it isn’t fun anymore.” Then she walked away.
We debriefed our corresponding experiences. Those who practiced exclusion reluctantly confessed — even while feeling guilty about it — that we each privately enjoyed our role as an accepted member of the circle. A couple of folks even had difficulty breaking away from their engaging conversation at the end of the activity.
Of course, Sally and the other volunteer had a different experience. Their failed attempts to gain acceptance were exhausting and frustrating. Ultimately, they both found relief by giving up and leaving the circle completely.
It would be easy to dismiss our simulation as an exaggeration of reality. Yet since attending this workshop, I notice myself playing out both roles, the excluder and excluded. In social settings, it is easy to overlook the person on the edge of the conversation, awkwardly attempting to find a way in. Likewise, we’ve all tried to edge into groups discussing people we don’t know, topics outside our realm or hobbies we don’t share. Practicing inclusion is challenging even in familiar settings. It becomes more difficult when we lack a common language and culture.
In our workshop, Dr. Claes offered an example of fundamental differences between Chinese and American communication styles. Americans tend to negotiate in linear fashion. Once agreement is reached on Point 1, we move on to Point 2. At Point 5 we are halfway to Point 10. Not so in China, where all points are relative. Chinese negotiators may readily agree on Point 1, but once they get to Point 2, they need to spiral back to Point 1 in relation to Point 2. Thus, transactions increase in complexity as they progress. This difference can result in a challenging cross-cultural negotiations process.
Sometimes it is easier to shift our way of seeing. Years ago I moved to Manhattan to teach at a school serving the United Nations community. My landlord was Filipino. Commuting to work involved a subway ride through Spanish Harlem. The streets were filled with people of many cultures and colors. The city felt foreign and intimidating.
The first time I boarded the subway after moving in, I decided to view the people around me in a new way. They would now be  part of my community. We were all in this car together. I sat down and took in my neighbors. They didn’t seem so unapproachable. Across from me sat a row of Latino women laden with bulging shopping bags. A woman at the end of the row pulled out a large bottle of hand cream, lathered up and passed the bottle down. Each of her friends in turn creamed up her hands with smoothing lotion, and with the lotion each woman’s face erupted into a huge grin, even going so far as full-blown laughter. I joined in and caught their eyes, and they shared the moment with me. These were my people now. I was going to like it here.
Of course, human relationships are more complex than that. Back in my classroom, I experience confusing moments: a student misses two weeks of assignments to participate in the funereal rituals of a close family friend; another sits detached during group discussions because, in his culture, only the teacher’s words are important; a third appears to care about nothing but the final grade, because that is how success is measured at home. The list goes on.
There is no formulaic approach for navigating these situations. Building a relationship of acceptance and acknowledgement with each individual student that affirms their inclusion as part of our classroom circle does not happen quickly. It includes stretching my comfortable notion of how the course will work, what will happen during class time and what success looks like. Some class sessions flop, but my fumbles keep me on my toes. As a Chinese proverb points out, “Who is not satisfied with himself will grow; who is not sure of his own correctness will learn many things.”
Towards the end of this semester I notice a shift in our conversations. Reluctant students are now involved and even invested, willing to reveal more of themselves. A young man from Nepal shares the challenge of growing up in a refugee camp. An American who wears a head scarf shares her experiences with and responses to Islamophobia. The challenge of living across two cultures has become a regular topic of classroom conversation, and people joke affectionately with each other. In some small but real way, we have become a community, one in which everyone is included.
Alice Leeds is a retired elementary school teacher from Lincoln. She enjoys hearing from readers. Email her at [email protected].

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