My personal highlight of every week almost always has to do with the amazing kids I’ve gotten to know through my tutoring at the Academy of World Languages (AWL) in Cincinnati Public Schools. Who wouldn’t be inspired by a 4th grader who speaks 3 languages and reads 140 words per minute? Or a student who just recently moved to the U.S. from the Sudan and is resolutely committed to learning English by the end of the school year? Or a boy who is rapidly becoming a better reader and fist-pumps every time he learns a new word? It’s a reminder of why I do the work that I do (and it makes me miss teaching).
But what is almost more impressive about the Academy of World Languages is the level of authentic diversity at the school. The students and staff of AWL represent over 50 nationalities and speak even more languages. Each classroom is a mélange of cultures, languages, voices, colors and experiences. While over 50% of the student population are English Language Learners, all students are required to take a foreign language starting in Kindergarten – this means that all kids speak multiple languages by the time the leave the school in the 6th grade. Parents and families are also involved in celebrating the school’s diversity through an annual International Festival and other ongoing celebrations that bring together all of the rich cultures of the school.
How does this incredible diversity benefit students and impact their experience? The culture of AWL is remarkably and uniquely inclusive. Differences are the norm and are not only tolerated but deeply understood, expected and valued. You can feel it when you walk into a classroom – students naturally help one another and celebrate their peers’ successes. Students feel comfortable, at ease and at home – even if it has only been their home for a few days or weeks. It is extraordinary, and the deep appreciation of differences will benefit the kids at AWL their entire life as leaders and models for our society.
The students at AWL have an opportunity that most adults never have and don’t always seek out – regular, deep, authentic immersion with people across multiple lines of difference. Most often, we tend to surround ourselves with those who are similar to us, whether intentionally or unintentionally. The reality is that in the United States today, far too many of our schools remain segregated, as do most of our major cities and many of our workplaces. Many parts of our society are set up in a way that makes interaction across lines of difference very difficult. While it is important for people to be with those who share common identities and experiences, we miss out on a lot when it’s our only mode of interacting with the world. Even worse, homogeneity and lack of connection with those who are different from us can perpetuate deep biases, stereotypes and even xenophobia.
Take a second to consider the people in your life. Who are the people you trust the most, both personally and professionally? Who do you count as your closest friends? Who are the people who you consider mentors? Who are the people who make up your team at work? Your organization as a whole? Who are your neighbors? If you put all of those people in the room, what would they look like? What languages do they speak? How similar are they in terms of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability, etc.? How different are they? What important perspectives, experiences, cultures and ideas are you capturing in your network? Which ones are you missing?
Now, a challenge – push yourself to seek and embrace the type of diversity that exists at the Academy of World Languages in your own life. Go beyond your norm – beyond your comfort zone, even – to expand your network. Make a commitment to connect with those in your community, workplace, neighborhood and social circles who are different from you. And even more, push yourself to go beyond tolerance of those who are different from you to make authentic connections. It’s the only way to benefit from the unique gifts, talents and perspectives that live within our differences.