By Kholood Qumei —
I have always been intrigued by the line “the student as the expert.”
It’s a familiar line from graduate school textbooks, educator articles, blog posts, and professional development. I’ve seen it enacted a few different ways. Often, it’s the student reading and researching a topic in class and then teaching it to the class as a presentation or lesson of some sort. Sometimes, it takes on a different form with students tapping into their own funds of knowledge, sometimes collectively as a class, to connect with a subject, like say, in my class, the concept of political revolutions. Last year, I experienced this famous line, “the student as the expert” in a completely different sense. And it was beautiful.
My school, Manhattan International High School is a second-home to students from around 50 different countries. We celebrate this fact in both our curriculum and school events. In my own opinion, our school best celebrates and honors this during our famed and quite incredible Culture Day.
Students first meet in their homogeneous country or region groups to set up, decorate, plan activities, practice dances, and lay out generous spreads of delicious food. Students would have met once before for about 10-15 minutes to decide who would bring what in terms of decorations and food. I had been told once by a group of students that they couldn’t sign up for food just yet because they needed to check in with their moms or aunties first.
After about an hour of set up, students travel in shifts to the different rooms with “passports” that get stamped or signed for experiencing the culture of different countries and regions of the world. A Senegalese student will walk into the Bengali classroom and is welcomed with excited smiles of students dressed so proudly in their traditional clothes, ushering them to come try their food. Colombians and Ecuadorians greet Chinese students proudly as they play their favorite songs on the speakers, surrounded by food like bandeja paisa, all the while singing proudly. Albanian students watch fascinated as Yemeni students dance the traditional bara’a, smiling and shouting “we have that, too!” as the Yemeni students change it up a bit and break into the dabke, a traditional Levantine folk dance. Students join hands as they dance or clap from the sidelines taking photos, asking questions, and explaining to each other what is happening.
As I walked down the bustling hallways with flags of our represented countries proudly hanging from the ceiling and on the walls, I recognized the students’ pride, passion, and love for their homes. Even more, I saw their unquestionable excitement to share it with their peers, teachers, counselors — with their school community. At this point, I considered this event a sharing and exchange of cultures, but there was a moment for me when this thought shifted to something much deeper and much more moving.
On my first Culture Day, I wasn’t sure which room I would be assigned as a chaperone, but I smiled when I read my name next to the room labeled “Yemen”. I am half Filipina and half Palestinian, and so I felt as excited to share my own culture with the students as I was to experience theirs. Our room has since grown to include Libya and Egypt the following year since students simply didn’t want to be apart.
I am always fascinated when I work with our Yemeni students since, growing up, one of my closest and dearest aunts spent a few years working there. As a child, hearing her stories and fondness of this country mesmerized me. I would wrap myself in my bright tangerine scarf she brought me from there and join her on missions to find a Yemeni bakery in the outskirts of Amman, Jordan during my summers visiting home. There is all of this beautiful culture, but it also has to be noted that Yemen is also currently experiencing a heartbreaking civil war and agonizing famine that is trying their already resilient population.
The students did a wonderful job making their room inviting. They set up a spread of food that was fit for the festivities and importance of the very first iftar of Ramadan. Students made sure no one was sent to school that day without at least two trays of food, if not more. Both the boys and girls were dressed to the nines in their traditional clothes, and they performed dances and singing for hours despite the merciless, humid heat. They told me that they were tired but wanted to keep performing for their classmates. They invited those who entered the room to dance, spin, and smile to their tabla-heavy songs.
One of our students from Yemen has had a difficult time adjusting to schooling in the United States. Like many students with limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFEs), he is still learning the norms and expectations. I will offer a disclaimer and say that I have never taught him, but I have interpreted for him during meetings when we try to understand behavior and help him manage. I also try to stop and talk to him whenever I can in the hallways, and he often finds himself in my classroom coming by to say hi.
The student who normally struggled was thriving.
When I speak to him in Arabic, I can hear my aunt’s stories, the news reports of the atrocities happening to his home, but also, I hear the resilience of this group of people my father always told me embodied the spirit, strength, and resilience of the Arab people. And here he was, this student who finds difficulty sitting still in class being “the expert.” I would say to him over the loud music “‘Allimhum keyf yur-osu!” (teach them how to dance!), and he would smile, nod affirmatively, and take students onto the dancefloor. He even walked out on stage during our cultural fashion show and later read a poem during the performance portion, proudly expressing the contents of his heart in verse-form to the entire school community. Yemeni students began to shout a one-word response after each line, and the rest of the school, Ecuadorians, Malians, Dominicans, Chinese, Hondurans, Tibetans, and other groups joined in, making some sort of loud sound, not quite understanding the words, but feeling the emotion and excitement that this reading was emanating. Somewhere in this (controlled) chaos that was all about Home — something he’s genuinely an expert at — I saw this student as the expert.
Events like Culture Day remind me of this. Our students have to balance so much: learning a new language, adapting to a different culture, adjusting to foreign norms, rules and expectations all while dealing with issues at home, trauma, and the eternal and universal challenge of just being a teenager. The Monday after Culture Day, it will be business as usual. But in that moment, seeing this student study his own footwork on the dancefloor with care moved me beyond words. In the words of our Mastery-based grading: today, this student exceeded expectations.