Inspiring students that fall in the crack between racial divides

Hong Kong, a former British colony, has struggled with how to deal with its ethnic minorities, among whom some people have roots in the city that reach back a century.  There are now 30,000 ethnic minority students in Hong Kong, from kindergarten to university level.  Of the 15,000 enrolled in primary or secondary schools, more than half are at designated schools, which were meant to help those who fell into the gap between ethnic Chinese (94% of the population) who attend “mother-tongue” Chinese-speaking schools — and the mostly Western expatriates who can afford English-language international schools.

It is racial segregation. Students study in narrow social circles, and they are largely disconnected from the society.  Because of the poor quality of education in these schools, they end up not being able to read and write Chinese.  Their inability to learn the language affects their education opportunities and, subsequently, their employment.

(Quotation from Fermi Wong, executive director of Hong Kong Unison, a nongovernmental organization that helps minority groups.  Published in the article “Caught Between Hong Kong’s Two Systems” in the New York Times.)

Unlike many of the places I have lived this year, there are actually art classes in the Hong Kong public school system.  Although this may appear that “art” could be a slacking class, there is less division between how students behave in each class and more of a division in “types” of students.

Hong Kong students merely need a certificate of completion to attain most menial jobs.  As such, it is better to sleep through school than not attend.  However, there is a cultural sense of hopelessness: if students feel they are bound to fail a subject (and many exams are very difficult), they will simply not try and fall asleep (quite literally) on their desks.

Even so, the arts have proven to be inspirational at least some students thanks to one teacher focused on working with the ethnic minorities.

Carlos with his students

Carlos Soto with his students

Carlos Soto came to Hong Kong to study for a PhD in education.  He wanted to keep working with minority and working-class communities in order to get a different perspective from what he saw in the United States.  With a background in critical pedagogy, Soto has been able to do ethnographic research and observe classrooms to get to know the students.  His curriculum ideas come directly from those interactions with them:

In my form two class last year, we read different perspectives on love.  We read a Muslim perspective on love, writings by the Indian philosopher Osho, and excerpts from the book All About Love by the African American feminist scholar bell hooks.  Love is a very salient issue in the lives of these students.

Another teacher worked with the students to produce a segment for a show on RTHK radio. The students recorded a discussion using the Nepali language.  I can’t understand Nepali, but in the middle of the segment I hear, “Nepali speaking…bell hooks’ perspective…more Nepali speaking…”

It is satisfying when students find something from class important enough to share with their communities.  My students have also presented at local universities about their studies and learning, and that always feels good too because they can be so insightful and eloquent.

When asked about differences between his ethnic minority students and the average Chinese majority students in their  engagement with the arts, he responded:

If I have to generalize, the minority students tend to be more willing to jump into something and experiment.  They also tend to spend more time learning through peers or through informal activities.  So they teach themselves and each other guitar or dancing for example.  The Chinese students I have worked with tend to need more structure at the beginning to get going.  Also, the minority students tend to draw from a much wider variety of popular and world cultures.

Working in the Hong Kong school system is not for the faint of heart, though.  Although he experiments and enjoys trial and error, he must actively fight to make changes as the schools are structured to make collaboration difficult.

People die; people make (what I think are) bad decisions; communities break down. Life happens.  But rarely do the educators ask the simple question, “How can we help students?”  It’s sad when I start to think that the problem is with me, rather with than the system of the school.

Carlos is not hopeless, though.  When asked for a bit of advice for other artists who are struggling with similar issues, he warmly said,

Find your allies.  Keep trying.  Build your own organization when you can’t find one that supports you.  Don’t think of yourself as a savior, but keep building and working alongside communities. Keep reading. Use the Internet to find kindred spirits.

Carlos’ passion is infectious.  And thankfully he is not alone.  There are devoted teachers using the arts to shake up and inspire kids all over the world.

Do you have a story of a teacher who used the arts to awaken you to a new perspective on the world?  Share your story with us!


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