Foreigners in my class. On “cultural” pluralism in Italian (and other) schools
Davide Zoletto, University of Udine 15 April 2014

I would like to start with addressing the title proposed to me by the organisers of this prestigious series of seminars in order to introduce what I believe are some of the central issues in a debate on how schools could/should rethink their attitudes in view of the increasingly evident heterogeneousness now characterising them. It is not that diversity is new to schools and one must acknowledge that it has now been present for over twenty years in Italian classrooms, also taking into account those aspects of heterogeneousness (one among many) linked to migrant students and their families.  What seems urgent to address is instead the specific forms heterogeneousness assumes nowadays (for example forms linked to past and present migrations or to students who are the offspring of migrant families) in our various classrooms and schools, in order to describe, understand and later orient educational contexts within which students and teachers are nowadays are learning to study and to teach (with their ever-present strong and weak points).

In this perspective it seems to me important to suggest – bearing in mind the title of this debate – whether or not it is appropriate to use inverted commas for the word “cultural”. This reminds us primarily so-called “cultures” are not the only differences nowadays particularly visible in heterogeneous classrooms. On the contrary, the use of an interpretation that is only, or prevalently, “culturist” may even prevent us, now as in the past, from perceiving what are really the particular past experiences of some students. One should, to present just one example among the many possible, think of the backgrounds of those students that we often nowadays describe using the much discussed and ambivalent – and not always agreed on – word “second generation” (for a dialogue-based interpretation see Sayad 2002; for a perspective on “second generation” in the Italian context see for example Dalla Zuanna, Farina, Strozza, 2009; Genovese, Zannoni, Filippi, 2011; Gobbo, 2008; Granata, 2011).

Furthermore, and to me this seems a particularly important point also from a pedagogic perspective, studies of the specific characteristics assumed nowadays by students’ past experiences, once again indicates what anthropological research as often emphasised, hence that “cultures” themselves are in first place plural within themselves. Thus the very idea of “cultural pluralism in schools” could be usefully described not only in the sense of a plurality of cultures present in educational contexts, but also in the sense of the multiple ways in which teachers and students can move beyond the so-called “cultures” within which they find themselves teaching and learning, firstly the “culture” of the schools in which they spend a large part of their time.

From this point of view – if “cultural pluralism in schools” is not only pluralism among cultures, but also within cultures themselves – it becomes important to suggest another consideration on the title of this debate. Linking “cultural pluralism in schools” only and above all to the presence of students who are so-called “foreigners in the classroom” could in fact result in at least two important risks.

On one hand, there could be the risk of losing sight of the effective educational experience of each of these students. How many real ways are there nowadays of being “foreign” students in a classroom? In what sense and to what extent is it right – at least at a strictly pedagogic and didactic level – to consider “foreigners” boys and girls born and raised in the country their parents immigrated to, sharing – albeit with inevitable differences and bearing in mind the stigmas with which they must live on a daily basis – so much of their daily lives with their “autochthon” peers? And what about the “cultural” and “linguistic” heterogeneousness that today also characterises, as in the past, students whose parents are Italian citizens?

On the other hand, an eventual excessively close and univocal correlation between “cultural pluralism in schools” and “foreign students” would also involve another risk; that of always only observing the diversity of others, without seizing the “cultural “aspects of our idea of a schools or the plurality we can or could also valorise within our own way of thinking and providing education. In this sense, perhaps, it could be interesting to try and use a dialogue-based attitude, in a sense a “foreign” one (Zoletto, 2007) in our daily experience as teachers or researchers. Metaphorically speaking, we teachers and researchers could also be “foreigners in the classroom”, in the sense of having an almost methodological attitude with eyes capable of critically and self-critically investigating not only the daily lives of our “foreign” students (both in their strong points, their daily lives and in specifically problematic aspects encountered by them and by their families), but also the manner in which our daily experience as teachers and researchers contributes, or can contribute, to maintaining or overcoming difficult situations.

With which words and ways of thinking can we approach “cultural pluralism in schools”? And how can we link this to real educational programmes for all students (autochthon, migrant and post-migrant students)?

One should perhaps first of all explore the use of a series of currently circulating words such as “foreigner”, “students with non-Italian citizenship”, “immigrants, “migrants”, “autochthon”, “second generation”, “new Italians”, “post-migrants” etc, which are found also in documents, projects and educational forms and that contribute to influencing our way of thinking every day and to the creation of “cultural pluralism in schools.” These are terms that become part of different “word games” that then become part of “linguistic games” circulating nowadays in and around schools and that can, finally, be experienced in different ways just as – to a certain extent and always depending on the position held by the various players in educational contexts – can at times be “re-played” (Butler, Spivak, 2007)

Many of these words result in ways of thinking that risk resulting in more or less explicit counter-positioning such as “us” versus “them”, “our culture” (often intentionally in the singular…) versus “their cultures” and end up by concealing what is instead revealed to often be a plurality of differences and similarities going well beyond alleged contradistinctions. Within these contradistinctions in fact, the real-life experiences of students and their families too, end up quickly forgotten. They are buried below both “exotic” visions (“orientalist” Edward Said would say…) and idealising the cultural experiences of “others”, and “pragmatic” perspectives that reduce migrant and post-migrant students to being identified with their past education and the “problems” such education poses to schools. All this in spite of the fact that in Italy too, both intercultural pedagogic research (see for example Favaro, 2011; Fiorucci, 2008; Portera, 2013; Santerini 2010) and the law (see for example the guidelines for intercultural interaction proposed in La via italiana per la scuola interculturale e l’integrazione degli allievi stranieri, MPI, 2007), have for some time been inviting us not to crush the issue of so-called “cultural pluralism” under the albeit important burden one must never ignore of migrant and post-migrant students’ previous educational experiences.

It is of course essential to start with important data published every year in ministerial reports, showing us many criticalities as far as educational results are concerned, such as the poor results or dispersion of migrant and post-migrant students. (MIUR –ISMU Foundation, 2012; MIUR – Statistics Office, 2012). It is, however, when dealing with this data that we might run the risk of being faced with an excessively superficial analysis. The risk is in fact that, in spite of important indications coming from the aforementioned ministerial documents (see for example guidelines suggested in the aforementioned Via italiana per la scuola interculturale e l’integrazione degli allievi stranieri, MPI, 2007), our analysis of this data would leave us with a perspective that is only negative regarding these students’ educational experience (even more so when there are interpretations based mainly on their possible “social-cultural” or “linguistic” unease). Interpretations such as these can contribute to fuel attitudes reducing the “plural school” to just a series of strategies for resolving the “problems” of a few students, whose differences, seen superficially in culturist terms, are perceived as something that is only “problematic” and that only concerns “them”, the migrant and post-migrants students.

Faced with these possible risks it is probably necessary, on one hand, to try and avoid the at times still present temptation to superimpose on the alleged cultural characteristics of a given group of students, specific situations of social alienation. These should still be studied in their complexity, imagine for example the controversial issues of urban and scholastic segregation. On the other hand, attention must be drawn to the fact that the heterogeneousness characterising contemporary school contexts and the experience of those there – be they migrants or autochthon, children of local or migrant families – actually consists of a crossroad of many aspects and, in some cases, of many stigmas.

Here the reference certainly applies to the difficult migration and “citizenship” experiences of the students, and of course their “cultural experiences”, but, simultaneously, also to other fundamental aspects, such as gender, age and class. These are all aspects that intersect in often different ways, always in given situations and that most of the time do not coincide with the counter-positions we would like to reduce them to. On this subject there is talk, not coincidentally, starting from a perspective of gender of “intersectionality” (McCall, 2005).

It means, above all, avoiding strictly cultural approaches that lead us to interpretations that only emphasise the weaknesses of “others” (according to versions reminding one of old interpretations inspired to the paradigm of “cultural deprivation”). It means schools must instead favour critical and self-critical attention, attention capable of focusing on the many ways in which schools themselves find it hard to change so as to acknowledge the demands of differences, and not only cultural ones.

Furthermore, especially as far as analyses of so-called “culture” are concerned, it means that schools should adopt attitudes and means capable of analysing in-depth not so much these supposed “other cultures” but the real “cultural customs”, hence the real and daily way in which those experiencing and attending schools give meaning to their lives in school and outside it (de Certeau, 1980).

At this point we must refer to at least two fundamental aspects.
On one hand one should refer to the significant cultural customs in and outside schools of all students (migrant, post-migrant, autochthon), such as the language and culture of the families (all of them) and the students (all of them), but also to so-called “peer culture”, in schools and outside of them (see for example Moll, Amanti, Neff, Gonzalez 1992; Corsaro, 1997; Gutierrez, Rogoff, 2003).

On the other hand, another essential reference point should be, perhaps above all, the cultural customs of our everyday experience as professional educators, who often – as we are reminded by anthropologists and authors – are as invisible to it as water is to fish… (Kluckhohn, 1949, cit. in Rogoff 2003: 11; but also see Wallace 2009). As well summarised by the educational anthropologist Mica Pollock, within such a context we could teach ourselves, for example, to observe how many different ways there are of interacting inside schools and with the scholastic context, as well as within one same group of students and families, be they migrant, post-migrant or autochthon (Pollock 2008: 370-371). One would then try and bear in mind this diversity when organising every day the contexts and the ways in which one learns and teaches in schools.

We could perhaps learn to see how students and families (all of them; migrants, post-migrants and autochthon) organise their way of relating to schools, not only based on their different cultural experiences, but also through daily interaction with other people – for example with the various members of staff working in schools… (Pollock 2008: 371-373). It should therefore not be possible, for example, to interpret the “educational failure” of many migrant and post-migrant students, blaming it exclusively on their supposed social-cultural or linguistic characteristics. Even the words “educational failure” should be analysed in terms of their effect on the way we envisage and create “cultural pluralism” in schools.

We should therefore try and train ourselves to not superficially describe and analyse the plurality of the customs and relationships that distinguish, but also connect (Erickson, 1995) – and not only from a cultural perspective – all those (migrant, post-migrant and autochthon…) who attend the increasingly different schools in which one learns and teaches nowadays.

And we should try and also become accustomed to an additional exercise in not superficially describing and analysing the areas in which these schools are situated, with the equally different ways in which people and groups can or cannot access, in those given areas, a plurality of resources that are both symbolic and not.

Albeit with difficulty, it may also be that these two attitudes are among the many possible ways of trying to create in schools a pluralism that is not only cultural.

Translated by Francesca Simmons


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