Decades ago, David Dinkins, running for mayor of New York, described his city not as the melting pot it had been called for years but rather as “a gorgeous mosaic.” And nowhere is the mosaic more apparent than in the borough of Queens, the most ethnically diverse area in the country, a collection of neighborhoods each with its own distinct character. Anthropologist Maria Kromidas, a proud Queens native, selected a middle school in one such neighborhood as the site of her study of children and their struggle to make sense of the difficult concept of race and its many categories.
After spending eight weeks observing an accelerated fifth-grade classroom, whose children associated race with multiculturalism, Kromidas shifted to a mixed class (not grouped according to ability), whose students, unlike those in the accelerated class, had solved the contradictions of race through the ethos of cosmopolitanism, which she defines as the “genuine appreciation of cultural and racial diversity.” Kromidas believes that such children have much to teach scholars of race and education and that their perspectives have not been considered in race studies up to now. She argues that cosmopolitanism is a deviation from the “racial baggage that emerged as the kids learned race.”
The book begins by describing theoretical underpinnings and scholarly work related to race, material that may be fairly dense for the nonacademic reader. It is when the author moves on to the characteristics of this group of students and their relationship to race, using descriptions of interactions among the students and verbatim transcripts, that her discoveries become absorbing. For instance, Kromidas posits that it was the collaborative learning techniques used by the teacher of the mixed class that fostered its cosmopolitanism and helped the children form bonds that transcended race. For example, in many schools, kids of similar race, ethnicity, and gender tend to cluster together in the cafeteria. These fifth graders, on the other hand, grouped themselves according to their friendships, which crossed racial and gender lines.
Kromidas got to know this lively and diverse group of students—whose ethnic and racial identities ranged from African-American to Albanian to Dominican and beyond—both inside and outside the classroom and became accepted by them. She studied how the children learned about race through five dimensions: navigating urban space, building friendships, tackling schoolwork, dealing with school discipline, and enacting sexualities. She makes an excellent case for the role of collaborative learning in facilitating the acquisition of cosmopolitanism, contradicting the common belief that ethno-racial differences “must be reconciled through recognition and then tolerated (emphasis added).”
This inspiring work should be considered invaluable for parents and educators everywhere. In these troubled times, it is reassuring to know that techniques exist to maintain and grow our gorgeous mosaic.
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By (author): Maria Kromidas Ph.D
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