Backpack 4, one of the many books my school uses, begins with a unit on personal description. Since I have 32 classes a week and little prep time, occasionally – gasp! – I don’t really look at the material I’m teaching ahead of time, and this was the case yesterday when an activity out of the textbook didn’t quite go as the curriculum makers probably imagined it would.
In the first activity from the book, there’s a big picture of four kids. Backpack is all about cultural diversity, and so the children are named Juan, Jennifer, Young-mi, and Helmut. However, the names are not in order, and the students have to match the name with the picture of the kid. This would take some kids about two seconds, as obviously Young-mi is the Asian girl, Jennifer is the white one, Juan the Hispanic boy, and Helmut the crazy looking blonde kid. Luckily, my class of South Korean children weren’t able to pick up on that, and so I got to play the CD. They sat attentively, matching the names as the woman on the CD spoke:
“Helmut has blonde hair. Jennifer has curly hair. Young-mi has glasses. Juan has dark hair.”
Based on the descriptions, the kids were able to tell who was who. The next activity was when things went downhill. The students were supposed to do a scavenger hunt of who in the class matched what description. “Oh, I get it,” I said, looking at the activity for the first time, “this will be fun! Let’s do it together!”
Number one read “Who has red hair?” We all looked around the room. “Okay,” I said. “None of us have red hair. So in that case, we write ‘No one has red hair.’”
Q2: Who has blonde hair?
A: No one has blonde hair.
Q3: Who has dark hair?
With this question, the trend that would follow for the rest of the activity was set. I scratched the stubble on my face. “This is sort of the opposite,” I said. “Um, we can write ‘Everyone has dark hair.’”
It was dawning on me that this might not be the most effective lesson for a class of all Asian children.
Q4. Who has blue eyes?
A: No one has blue eyes.
Q5. Who has green eyes?
A: No one has green eyes.
Q6. Who has brown eyes?
A: Everyone has brown eyes.
I quickly read over the rest of the list. Almost all of the traits were either common to everyone or completely absent.
Q7. Who has curly hair?
A: No one has curly hair.
Q8. Who has straight hair?
A: Everyone has straight hair.
And it went on like that. We learned that nobody in the class has eyes that aren’t brown and hair that isn’t dark and straight. By the end of the lesson, ‘Roy has glasses’ was the only sentence that didn’t start with ‘everyone’ or ‘no one.’ It kind of felt like the students were being generalized even though that obviously wasn’t the intention. Everyone just turned out to have the same physical characteristics. After the class was over, they all went to go eat noodles and practice tae kwon do (I kid the Asians).
I laughed while we did the class scavenger hunt. Everyone was similar and that was kind of funny. It made me a little thankful, though, that I got to go to school in a place where SOMEBODY had red hair or blue eyes. Differences aren’t necessary, I guess, but they’re nice.
I’m sure Helmut, Juan, Jennifer and Young-mi would agree.