A Cultural Exchange Through Artwork

Saturday, May 02, 2009 | posted by Global Playground News |
When Ashley Clevenger, a fifth grade teacher from The Park School in Brookline, Massachusetts, heard that Global Playground was building a library in northern Thailand, she jumped at the chance to involve her students.

Together, Clevenger and her students embarked on an adventure to depict the everyday life of children in America. Each student was responsible for making a drawing or collage that represented one specific aspect of their daily lives. "We brainstormed together about the things that make us American--that people from other countries would notice right away," said Clevenger.

Clevenger's students struggled most with how to conceptualize everyday life. Although her students had a basic understanding of what "culture" means, they had difficulty identifying "culture" in their own lives. They had to stop and think about the mundane parts of their lives, like their morning routines before heading off to school. Other elements of American culture were more obvious to them such as the types of houses they live in, the clothing they wear, the religions they practice, and the language they speak.

"The kids had a strong desire to communicate and took a lot of initiative throughout the project and sought feedback from others in the class," Clevenger remarked. One student who attempted to capture the American style of clothing drew jeans, skirts, and t-shirts and asked other kids in the class, "Does this make sense? Is this really what American kids wear?" The experience helped Clevenger's students realize that not all Americans are the same and that generalizations about culture are sometimes difficult to make.

As the students finished their artwork, many asked to also write a letter to their counterparts in southeast Asia. "I gave them little guidance [on the letters] except to make sure they mentioned their names, ages, where they live, and who is in their family," Clevenger said. "Otherwise, it was up to them what they wrote. And most had a lot of questions about kids in Cambodia and Thailand, so this was a good outlet for them." The exercise taught Clevenger's fifth graders that an inherent and incredible value exists in cultivating relationships within and across cultures.

This past January, Clevenger's students' artwork and letters arrived in Cambodia and Thailand along with Global Playground's representatives. The artwork was one of the numerous ways the children and Global Playground's representatives communicated despite language barriers. "It just seemed that we bonded [through the artwork]," said Global Playground representative Elen Chen. "Even though it was only two days, it seemed like we spent months there."

In exchange, the Global Playground representatives brought back a five-inch stack of letters and art from the Cambodian and Thai students to pass along to Clevenger's class. "I'm excited to see what the other kids have done," Clevenger added. "And my own students ask me frequently when I'm going to receive them in the mail!"

When electricity and technology are added to Global Playground's schools within the next few years, similar cultural exchanges--including those highlighted in Global Playground's Teacher's Toolkit--will be virtually instantaneous, children will build on each other's ideas, and the intensity and depth of cultural understanding will be heightened.

-Jennifer Rinker