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Hollin Meadows Acknowledges Teacher Diversity

International experience gives teachers perspective in classroom.

Last year, teacher Kristin Izzo had nine different students speaking nine different languages, plus English, in her second-grade class at Hollin Meadows Elementary. The school is “incredibly international,” Izzo explained.

In the same year, the school’s PTA decided to celebrate this diversity with the “It’s a Small World” project, the main component of which is a “world board” hanging in the school’s lobby. Each month, three students from around country and around the world are profiled on the board, information about themselves and their home areas is posted, and the clocks that flank the map are set to the time zones of their homes. Quiz sheets are placed beside the world board, and students who answer all the questions correctly can enter a drawing to win a prize.

“We celebrate and acknowledge this is a diverse school. We want people to be proud of their culture, proud of their heritage, proud of who they are,” said Principal Jon Gates. He described seeing parents and children congregating around the map and discussing the place and the people it celebrates. “We wanted it prominently displayed,” said Gates, It’s one of the first things you see when you come into the school. That makes a statement.”

But the diversity at Hollin Meadows is not restricted to the students. Many teachers and staff also come from abroad. “I think it’s important that our teachers reflect the diversity of our school population and our community,” said Gates. “We are role models.” In May, the PTA decided it would highlight three teachers with international backgrounds. Izzo, who lived in Kingston, Jamaica and Budapest, Hungary with her husband, who is in the State Department, Paul Mills, a special education teacher from Ghana, and Sailaja Gunda, a kindergarten instructional assistant from India, all went up on the world board last week.

“BEFORE I got on the flight I felt like I’m leaving my whole body, coming to this different world,” said Gunda. “I never thought about leaving my country, I thought, ‘It’s my motherland,’ I love the country. Most of the people there dream of coming to this country, but not me, because we had a good life.”

Gunda arrived in America on April 23, 1997, with her husband and two children. Their home had been Tirupathi, in the state of Andhra Pradesh, but her husband accepted a job as a software engineer with Lockheed-Martin. Gunda’s first encounters with American culture did not reassure her that they had made the right decision. “Watching television shows, I was so scared. I told my husband ‘Let’s go back. I don’t want to live in this atmosphere.’ I thought there was no family structure here.”

Gunda worried about how her children would be affected by the strange culture, but she found “if you are strong enough, you can maintain your own values and live your life.” But Gunda’s husband was struggling at his job. “He got stuck in politics,” she explained. “He had such a hard time in his work, I said, ‘Let’s go back to India.’ I feel guilty not to tell him so hard to leave the job and get out of that place … But finally he changed to a nice place where his manager and all his colleagues were nice. I thought we would have a happy life together.” This did not happen. Gunda’s husband was killed abruptly by a heart-attack last January.

After this tragedy, Gunda says, “I thought of going home. But I got stuck with my children’s education. Once they finish I might go back. Children, they have more opportunities here than in India. That I have accepted. If you gain something you have to lose something.”

Gunda’s daughter,18, is a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School. Her 17 year-old-son is a junior at West Potomac. “They feel nice because in India the schools are so hard. You just have to follow the directions. They might hit you if they don’t follow the directions. I used to tell them we might go back at any time so don’t get used to this place.” But, “right now, they consider this place as their home.”

Gunda was a teacher before she left India. She worked as a software developer after moving to America, but eventually decided to go back to teaching. “I thought if I got money maybe I’d be greedy and I’d stay here,” she explained. Gunda said she notices many differences between Indian and American education. “Here they give more and more vast information to the children … They show the picture; they bring the picture; and they tell them, ‘This is what this is.’ [In India,] it’s all theoretical … The children they have to go grab it … Here is the better way mostly.”

KRISTIN Izzo taught in American international schools during both of her two-year stays in Kingstown and Budapest. “[It was] a real interesting integration of teachers from different countries … everyone approaches education in a different way with a common goal,” Izzo said. She said she hopes being taught by “a real-life person that travels and has been lots of places” will inspire her students to do the same. “For kids … who may have never even left Virginia, it kind of opens up a whole new world … I’m a product of public schools and public colleges … you don’t have to be the daughter of a

senator.”

In Hungary, Izzo’s husband was assigned to human rights issues, specifically dealing with prejudice against the Roma (gypsies) and anti-Semitism. “It was shocking, shocking how pervasive … this undercurrent of racism still exists,” she said. She contrasted this with attitudes in Northern Virginia. “I think what is most important is recognizing tolerance. The United States is so diverse, especially Northern Virginia, [we] seem to live so harmoniously together and it’s not like that everywhere.”

But she praised other aspects of Hungarian life. “There’s so much focus on the child. Every mall has a children’s park. Every corner has a public play area … As a parent and a teacher I try and pull that in, try and remember that’s where our focus needs to be, on these children.”

She said she was most impressed by the landscape of Jamaica. “The impression of Jamaica is [that] it’s all just beautiful beaches, but … the most beautiful parts of Jamaica to me are the mountains.” Izzo described orchids hanging from the trees and extraordinary birds. “[Jamaican culture] felt so connected to the land. It was just so beautiful. Everywhere you turned it was just one more beautiful moment.”

“Travel is as close as an airline ticket,” Izzo tells her students. “Its not something intangible … Get a passport. Get on a plane … I just have this itch to keep moving on. The possibilities. You never know what’s around the corner and being just open to that. Sometimes it’s a little scary, but it’s empowering really. I know there’s this great adventure around the corner. I think that’s the main thing I want to instill in the kids, there’s always this adventure around the corner, even as an adult.”

A PEACE Corps Volunteer helped teach Paul Mills to sculpt and inspired him to come to America. She was a design teacher stationed at his art school in Ghana from 1987 to 1988. He came to America in October 1990 to work for a bronze-casting company. “I was fascinating by bronze-casting,” he said, “the lost wax process.”

Mills grew up in Sekondi-Takoradi, the capitol of the western region of Ghana. This area has a colonial legacy that accounts for his surname, which goes back to his grandparents at least. Mills attended a Catholic School and said most of his teachers were Dutch and Italian missionaries.

After arriving in America, Mills decided to become a teacher. He earned a Master’s Degree from Trinity College and started teaching in 1993. Many students at Hollin Meadows are already quite familiar with Ghana. “There are more Ghanaians in this school than in any other school I’ve been,” said Mills. He added that every grade level had at least one Ghanaian student, and there were three Ghanaian employees besides himself, two custodians and the cafeteria manager. “People from other cultures have a tendency to be drawn to the area where other folks live … they are like ants following honey. If one Ghanaian is successful on Richmond Highway every one who arrives in the states is referred to that area.”

Mills said that one of the challenges he and other Ghanaians faced in his move to America was the food. “Some of the food items, I find them excessive, like meat. I’m from the coast, so’s there’s excessive fish, whereas there is excessive meat here. Here seafood is a delicacy.” For the school’s International Day, Mills organized the other Ghanians to bring in traditional foods. He contributed a rice and meat stew, “something like a jambalaya called jollof rice,” plantains, beans and with goat meat soup, which he bought in the African market on Richmond Highway.

Mills is married to a black American. “There’s a cross-culture in terms of the norms and conventions,” he said, citing gender roles and communication. “She managed to learn my culture. I was able to learn her culture. We were able to compromise very easily … The only portion that was difficult was my religion.” Mills is a Catholic. His wife is a Methodist. Mills says that when his wife wears her dresses made of traditional wax print fabrics to church, “people don’t recognize she is an American.”

But the only truly irreconcilable source of conflict was never an issue. Mills’s wife has learned to cook Ghanian food. “Most of our food is infused Ghanaian and American,” said Mills. For instance, salmon with a Ghanaian stew of tomatoes, onions, and pepper. “She will minus the oil and use water, because Americans don’t like fat. But me I don’t see a problem … I would eat it with kenkey … I always love it when she says ‘you gonna eat your kenkey?’ I keep telling her that cornbread and kenkey are the same, but cornbread is baked and kenkey is mashed.”

MILLS said that at the school he attended, they were taught exclusively European themes until second grade, when they began to study some of their own culture. “In the school you are meant to learn a lot of western culture. They want to mainstream you.” It was at home that Mills learned what it meant to be Ghanaian.

Mills struggled to put Ghanaian belief systems into words. “They celebrate your growth in life,” he said. “The phases of life ... that’s something I think I learned a lot at home … At the age of six for example you are taught to do very simple work at home … here they call them chores. But over there they make it more ceremonial. You become a tough guy.”

“If I don’t have my cultural strength, how could I survive the United States?” Mills asked. “I work at Capitol Heights [in Maryland] for seven years. That’s a very tough area … those [Ghanaian] home trainings build strength and character.”

But, Mills said, despite obvious differences in detail and practice, the values passed on from Ghanaian and American adults to children are essentially the same. “The core values of the school is responsibility, respect, and safety.”

He stressed the importance of history as a mediator between all cultures, and said he was concerned that schools were focusing on it less and less. “If we don’t do history and everybody studies [computer] programming, then we lose the vital stories … If we know each other’s history then we both have respect.”