Culture in the Classroom: Replacing Misrepresentation with Authenticity

Jennifer D. Klein
“Culture exists in community, and community exists in context.”
–Taiye Selasi
Pine Ridge, SD, Lakota Nation (Sioux). Photo by Aaron Huey. Click image for a NYTimes article on the photographer’s work and the experiences of the Sioux (2013). Huey is a rare example of deep understanding of and connection to a culture not his own, and even after many years living among the Sioux, he knows he remains an outsider (see his excellent TED Talk at

For Anne and Andre

On an elementary school walk-through last fall, a colleague and I encountered a bulletin board ostensibly demonstrating students’ learning through crude drawings of European pilgrims and Native Americans.  Each drawing included a short narrative about the experiences of that group during Westward Expansion.  I saw my colleague, who is Osage, stop dead in her tracks.  Pointing at a Disney-like image of a Native American, she could barely get the words out: “This isn’t culturally appropriate,” she told our guide.  “The students are drawing a stereotype,” she stuttered.  “We shouldn’t do this.”

My colleague looked over at me as though searching for better words, and I stepped in.  I’m usually very careful not to speak other people’s truths for them, but I could see she had more to say and was too angry to articulate it.  “It’s dehumanizing to portray another culture this way,” I told our guide.  “Think of the difference between using real photographs of real people in a meaningful way, as compared to drawing a caricature of who they are.  There are thousands of different indigenous nations in the world; this is just the Disney cartoon version of an indigenous person.  Instead of making a living culture more real and human to students, it’s doing the exact opposite.”

I’d love to claim that these mistakes are rare, especially in schools with an intentionally global focus, but they’re all too common.  These approaches serve to exacerbate stereotypes rather than bringing living cultures alive in authentic and nuanced ways for students.  I’ve seen cultural festivals where students dress up to look like the stereotype, and it’s like assuming the Disney princess version of Mulan captures the original Chinese folktale from the Ming Dynasty, which actually carries layers of cultural nuance—and is significantly different than the Disney interpretation.  I’ve seen well-meaning teachers play dress up, too, portraying only ancient or stereotypical images of a given culture rather than trying to help students see how alive and nuanced it still is today.

I don’t blame teachers and I believe our intentions are usually good; after all, if we’ve never engaged with a culture we’re trying to teach about, how can we capture it accurately for students?  I hear this concern from teachers all the time—what happens when we reach the end of our authentic knowledge and can’t help students see that bigger, more humanizing picture of others’ experiences?  Students have grown up with the stereotypes, too, with the pervasive message that most cultures can be reduced to a caricature, and many spend their childhood singing along to songs which further reduce cultures, such as those from Aladdin which suggest that the Arab world is “barbaric” even after criticism forced Disney to change the lyrics.  If we want to help our students overcome those misrepresentations, we have to understand ourselves where realities end and stereotypes begin.

Following are a few suggestions that can help you avoid the slippery slope of misrepresentation and build authentic projects grounded in intercultural understanding.

  1. Make sure students’ experiences are authentic and immersive.  Use photography and video to help students see cultures as real, human and community-based, being sure that the sources you use don’t exoticize or diminish the nuances of difference across a given culture or region.  Remember that good anthropology is about being proximate with real people rather than observing them from 30,000 feet, what my alumna Katie Horvath recently called “the deep hanging out” in an interview for my book.  For example, use photography from a global array of online “Week in Photos” sources, or short documentaries from organizations like Global Oneness, National Geographic and UNICEF, to help students connect with other cultures in authentic and meaningful ways.  Use technologies like 360Cities and Google Earth to help students enter the places they’re studying (virtual reality technologies will make this increasingly easy to do).  Always try to focus on voices from the culture being investigated; for example, read literature by people from the culture being represented, rather than by foreigners who think they can capture local experience through a few weeks abroad.  Even if a few nuances are lost in translation, exposing students to ideas and perspectives through a native author will always be more authentic than an outsider trying to capture the voice and experience of a culture not their own.
  2. Humanize the cultures you’re learning about.  Connect live or online with real people living today in the cultures your students are studying.  Whenever possible, connect your students with their global counterparts, with young people from the cultures you’re learning about, through partnerships founded in equity of purpose, benefit and power.  The goal of these experiences should be for students to see other cultures as peopled with real, whole human beings who have their own challenges and strengths, joys and sorrows, just like they do; as well as to understand their traditions and rituals, their values and ways of life, and their perspectives on the challenges we have in common.  For more on how to build equitable global partnerships, see my blog on the topic and my forthcoming book from Solution Tree Press, The Global Education Guidebook.
  3. Whenever possible, tie history to current day.  This helps students see ancient cultures as living and relevant today, and can often help them understand history better by allowing them to see the past alive in the present.  For example, if students are learning about ancient civilizations in Egypt and Greece, go deeper than the Hollywood imagery of pharoahs and philosophers to museum collections of real artifacts online.  Use 360Cities to look for the vestiges of history found in the streets of Cairo and Athens, helping students connect the past to current day. Get students thinking about how the past informs the present, and even consider teaching history backwards, so that students understand these societies today and then dig into history to understand why they developed as they did.
  4. Remember that language matters, and base students’ inquiry on an asset mindset.  Avoid using words like “explore” and “observe,” replacing them instead with words like “engage” and “understand.”  Words like “exploration” come from a long tradition of colonization and suggest an observational and even superior mindset rather than deep, immersive engagement.  Help students see the people they encounter as real and complete human beings, and avoid reducing another culture with words that suggest different circumstances automatically mean less intelligence or capacity for a complete life.  In her exceptional TED talk, Taiye Selasi says that our cultural identity is defined by the Rituals, RelationshipsandRestrictions that make up our day-to-day life, and good intercultural education can help students dig into those “Three Rs” in powerful ways.
  5. Be very careful about how you construct museum projects, especially if the culture is still alive and well.  While the creation of a museum is a common structure in many classrooms and can often lead to an interesting demonstration of learning, keep in mind that students often perceive museums to be filled with the past, with what is dead and gone.  I have seen far more “Dead Indian Museums” than I care to remember, filled with the subtext that no native cultures exist currently rather than offering a close look at the real experiences of indigenous cultures today.  There are certainly exceptions to this, like the National Museum of African American History & Culture, and the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC, which help bring both history and current experience to life in powerful ways.  If you do a museum project with students, be sure that it brings living cultures to life rather than suggesting they are only a thing of the past.
  6. If your curriculum is focused on a given culture, immerse yourself in that culture.  There are incredible professional development experiences available for teachers that include such travel and intercultural immersion, not just a 30,000 foot tour but a deep dive into daily life through homestays and community-based partnerships.  And while many are expensive, many are scholarship based and accessible for teachers with the passion to travel and make use of their learning in the classroom.  For excellent teacher travel programs, see Edutopia’s yearly post and proposal advice.
  7. Remember that these are good rules for local and global cultures.  Sometimes we forget that global education runs parallel to and can easily complement intercultural and inclusive practices in schools.  In the best schools I know, the two work in tandem.  Use resources from current movements like the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance program and Choices Curriculum on the Black Lives Matter movement when learning about Civil Rights, so that students understand and engage deeply in the ongoing struggle toward full and equal rights.  Get your students thinking about local water or land rights of indigenous peoples in your region when studying their history, or understanding the differences among the varied Latin American and/or Asian cultures present in your school.  Connect students with speakers from relevant local cultures who can speak to their experiences and goals.  In other words, help students see beyond the stereotypes and engage with the nuances, learning to ask the kinds of questions that unearth the real distinctions between regions and within one given culture.

I saw “The Queen of Katwe” on a plane recently, and it left me feeling a little better about Disney.  Though it’s probably more imperfect in its representation than I can recognize, since I’ve never been to Uganda, the film is based on the true story of a chess champion who grew up in poverty.  Instead of portraying her story through cartoons or foreign actors portraying a culture not their own from inside a Hollywood production studio, it was cast with Ugandans and filmed on site in Africa.  At the end of the film, each actor is shown with the person he or she portrayed, with an overlaid narrative about what that real person has done since the era depicted by the film.  In one case, the actress even kneels to pay tribute to the woman she portrayed and, in a deeply human moment, the woman pulls the actress back to her feet.

This simple technique brought the stories to life as those of real people, people we got to see and understand through an actor’s portrayal but whose experiences go well beyond the screen or final credits.  When we move away from fictional stereotypes and toward realities, we help students see the communities and contexts that give birth to cultures, and by doing so help students foster their ability to engage with those cultures authentically and constructively.

*Blog featured on Partnership for 21st Century Learning in March 2017

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