Tuesday, June 30, 2009

My Cultural Identity and Cultural Sensitivity and bit of a waffle about potential changes to delivery

I think this song must have been one of my mothers favourites for a time. I associate it very strongly
with my childhood and it always makes me smile.

Cultural awareness and cultural sensitivity are fundamental attributes in human service work so developing and enhancing these attributes in students is an integral aspect of my course. Quite literally my students do unit standards that encourage them to develop self awareness, including awareness of their own cultural identity and values and unit standards that deal with cultural awareness and working with diversity. Being that these are topics I teach and that they are fundamental tools in human service work, my own path of study has involved much exploration into my own cultural identity.

In relative brief, my cultural identity combines my ethnic ancestry past and present, the social, economic and political climate in which my ancestors grew, in which I have grown and in which I currently exist, and my particular characteristics and needs which may be genetic or learnt.

My ancestry is most recently Australian and /New Zealand and historically Scottish, Irish, French and English. The English part tells me very little on it's own as the English are such a hotch potch of assimilated ethnicities. One day I will do some more research into my true ethnic heritage. The Scottish aspect is certainly most dominant in terms of custom and practices which have been passed on and in terms of my own sense of physical and sprititual belonging. I have spent time in Scotland, England and France and when I cross the boarder into Scotland from England I experience a very strong sense of having come home.

Significant historical events that have impacted hugely on my culture include WWII, the great depression and the Anti Discriminatory movement of the 1960s/1970s. WWII had some very explicit impacts on my family culture, while the great depression has installed a certain thriftiness which keeps being passed on down through generations. The 1960s and 1970s have impacted hugely on my current belief and value system but also enabled my parents a degree of freedom in their lifestyle and parenting that I would not have been exposed to a decade earlier. My mother's family were open brethan and to this day run the open brethan church in Dunedin. My early years included a significant church culture which continues to influence me today in terms of certain moral standards and ideals I hold and many that I don't which result in a loss of contact with half my family.
In contrast to the strict church regime on Sundays, my parents were hippies with all that this entails. I grew up going to music festivals and beach parties and went to sleep at night to Leonard Cohen, David Bowie and sometimes to my mother playing beethoven's 9th symphony on her piano. Eventually the era enabled my parents to freely divorce and this had huge implications for my cultural identity.

My upbringing was primarily working class in terms of cultural capital, political outlook, income and geographical location but middle class in some of the ideals, patterns of behaviour and cultural symbols I was exposed to - books, ballet, theatre and music. My mother came from a middle class family that had risen from working class while my father came from a working class family which I suspect had fallen over several generations. The result was really a lot of confusion and a lack of any real sense of belonging anywhere which has huge implications for my current sense of cultural identity. After my parents divorced we were poor and they each diverted energy to their own seperate lives which created a significant sense of loss. My passion for acting sustained me through a wayward youth and in a round about way set me on my current path.

I met and married my husband in Australia, he was 19, English and on his gap year and I was 22. We struggled through years of poverty, putting ourselves through University with children in tow, running barter or green dollar systems with our neighbours. We traded childcare, homework support, reading, maths and science tuition for food, fresh fish, firewood etc. But even here there was a twist. My husbands family are wealthy and every two years they would come out from England and take us on a fantastic holiday. We have now been married 19 years, have three high achieving children, live in a nice house (a year ago I lived in a house with holes in the walls, roof, floor). On the surface anyone looking at me now would describe me as middleclass and somewhat privileged. A person might think that they could assign me a cultural identity but my current appearance betrays the layers of history and experience that define my cultural make-up and I have barely skimmed the surface here. My cultural identity in turn informs the characteristics and needs which I bring as a student into the classroom.

So my characteristics and needs? I need a lot of affirmation, I need to talk out loud or write things down in order to organise my thoughts, I need autonomy and to be trusted, I need to feel a sense of belonging and team. I am eternally optimistic and hopeful, I have total faith in the capacity of people to be and do anything they choose. I am hugely enthusiastic sometimes to the point of being over welming and over bearing. I am loyal and giving and kind and courageous and opinionated and curious and analytical. I am committed, hard working, organised and so on.

The teacher who truly understands the complexity of cultural identity should never take a student at face value or assume that they know what that student is or what that student needs. Rather they should allow a student time to identify and formulate a sense of their own characteristics and needs and attempt to accomodate those as best they can.

As stated earlier, awareness of self and others or cultural sensitivity is explicitly integrated throughout my course. The integration of this learning starts in term 1 where students explore their own cultural identity, I introduce them to a brief 10, 000 year history of England and bring in guest speakers to introduce Maori and Ngai Tahu tikaka and te reo and the customs of various pacific and asian peoples in line with group membership. Students are intoduced to tools such as geneology, familiy trees, whakapapa, systems and ecological maps, name history searches and cultural symbols, heroes and rituals, VARK and a variety of other surveys exploring characteristics and needs. Students are encouraged to both use these tools and critique them. Students explore their ancestry and experieces in relation to their culture, values and attitudes in a journal format that starts in term 1 and continues through out the year and in a group work project culiminating in a poster and presentation capturing the ethnic make up of New Zealand, the relationship between Maori and the Crown and sub-cultures including one subculture that symbolises each group member.
Students are also introduced to the Te Tiriti o Waitangi in Term 1 but I have decided to put this in term two where it fits much better and focus in term 1 on exploring culture.

The integration continues in term two where students learn about legislation, policy and the national strategic plans that underpin requirements in relation to cultural sensitivity. This course covers Application of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, international and national human rights legislation, worker responsibilities and consumer rights. In the third term students explore theories and models of practice which includes a 10, 000 year overview of different cultural perspectives on mental health and a closer look at specific recovery based models including Maori, Pacific, Europeon and other ethnic models relevant to the cultural make-up of the group. In term four students pull it all together in a framework for practice which demonstrates self awareness in terms of strengths, risks, knowledge, skills and values and plans for ongoing professional development.

I think that I will continue to work with cultural sensitivity in the same way that I have been doing apart from the change already mentioned involving moving The Treaty component to term two where it is a much better fit. While parts of the first term course could go on line, I think the face to face interaction and group work aspect of the term one focus are an integral part of the learning. Students are in a situation of having to explore their own characteristics and needs in relation to the characteristics and needs of others. It is immediate and present. I have them share there characteristics and needs in groups, write a combined group set of characteristics and needs then share these again with the whole class. We then use this as a base for our class contract. It works so well in terms of setting the class culture for the year that I would be very disappointed to lose this.

Having said that, my students do a full time course in one day contact per week. I have initiated over the past couple of years an initial 3 day orientation which brings the contact days up to 10. It is possible that if the students did some introductory and follow up material on line, the face to face stuff could be done in combination with an orientation face to face week and they could probably even manage the group poster stuff in this time frame. In fact, it would probably work better than it does now.

Term two could go pretty much entirely on line - with maybe a two day hui at the end of the term. Term 3 has some significant skills stuff and would need at least a week long face to face work shop and Term 4 could go on line with a two day presentation and celebration to finish.

Hmmm - I have been thinking about a fairly significant shift to online delivery but this is the fist time I have actually mentally worked through the feasibility of this.

Currently my course has 36 contact days (34 plus 2 orientation days). This would reduce it to 14 contact days but I wonder how much time it would then take (beyond initial set up time) to cater to students on line. Could it take more than the 20 days I would save?

I wouldnt be making these changes to make the programme more cost effective as it is already pretty cost effective but rather to attract more students which of course may ultimately make it more cost effective too. It would be interesting to talk to people using blended delivery about how much face to face to include. In a recent discussion with my current students they were quite adamant that they needed weekly contact but could see 2 hours being sufficient rather than the current 6. I wonder if you could provide an optional face to face for local students preferring this option and a weekly elluminate session for others? Would this reduce equitable access or increase flexibility in terms of meeting student needs? What do people think?


  1. mammoth post Jen! And really interesting to see what things you give significance. I reckon if I where someone from an entirely different background, your post would give me a lot of leads into understanding a lot about you and your context.

    Perhaps, you could add bolded subtitles to this post to give it some quick reference points. I'd really like to point to this as an example of an in depth self analysis of cultural makeup.

  2. It is mammoth - I really don't know where it all comes from sometimes but wow it's good to have an outlet. Sorry that you have to wade through it. I will certainly look at subtitles when I'm a bit refreshed. Did you listen to the song? Do you know it - I especially like the verse that goes ...and if your homework brings you down we'll throw it on the fire and take the car down town...
    and sorry you've had to catch up with me in one big swoop - you'll be needing to go home and have a gin!


  3. Hi Jenny

    Interesting that your ancestry is not all that different to mine. My mother's grandmother was from Scotland and they were wealthy I have been told. I even have an elaborate lace from the collar of a maids uniform that came from her, so maybe it is true. I don't think she adjusted that well to life in New Zealand and after having had a lot done for her by others, her husband ended up doing all the cooking. Unfortunately my mother inherited her grandmother's dislike for cooking! My mother's family was quite well off too, but went bankrupt and my mother ended up doing it pretty hard when we were kids. My parents also divorced. I grew up determined to be better off and so far we (4 kids) are all better off than our parents were. My husband and I worked really hard when we were young and made a lot of sensible decisions and also sacrifices in terms of social life/travel etc. We are much better off financially than many of our peers and that affords us many choices, such as having me at home full-time for 8 years. However, I sometimes feel a little bit guilty/embarassed about appearing better off rather than being proud about it. I should be proud as neither of us have had any sort of privillege whatsovever in our lives (eg. we both left school and made at own ways at ages 14 and 16). As my family history shows, fortunes can change - so might as well make the most of it while it lasts!


  4. This is amazingly informative, i was surprised at the depth you've gone into.

    have to say thank you, you've given me something to think about


Welcome to my blog. Please feel free to add thoughtful, funny and/or constructive comments.