Unearthing another culture to garner respect

Earth Day has always had connotations of environmental activism but April 22 took on a whole new dimension for dozens of students at Solomon Schechter Day School this year. For them, last Thursday wasn’t just about the exploring the physical environment. The cultural one also got a thorough going over.

“It’s a happy coincidence,” said Alan Selis, SSDS head of school. “Our tribute to Earth Day is that the Earth should be graced with people who understand and respect other people’s cultures better.”


That effort found expression through a unique program that turned the West County school into a mock Pakistani village for a day. Regular classes were cancelled as students engaged in a wide-ranging series of activities aimed at spotlighting the music, food, faith and customs of the central Asian nation. Teachers and students dressed in traditional garb, practiced phrases in Urdu and held demonstrations of various aspects of daily life in the region.

Every grade level chose a different topic to explore. Each grade was then divided in half, with one side giving demonstrations in the morning while the other toured each station. After lunch, the halves switched so everyone could visit the exhibitions.

Paying it forward

The idea was the brainchild of Selis, inspired by “Three Cups of Tea,” the recent New York Times bestseller chronicling the adventures of mountain climber-turned-philanthropist and author Greg Mortenson. He began raising money to build schools after being impressed by the hospitality he was shown in the remote Pakistani village of Korphe.

Selis said he’d been wanting to do an immersive all-school project and Three Cups seemed a natural choice.

“I came across Mortenson’s book, read it and said, ‘Wow, what a Jewish story,'” he said. “The values in the book are about giving tzedakah, welcoming in strangers and just the fundamental commitment to education and learning while bettering the world.”

Selis said jewishinstlouis.org helped the school create a micro-site within the community website that offered an online component to the curriculum for the semester. That site is available for the community to view at www.jewishinstlouis.org/3cups.

He remembered one student who asked why a Jewish day school would find Pakistan a relevant topic to explore. He said it was an interesting question.

“My answer is that we live in a multiethnic, multicultural, multilingual, international world,” he said. “All of the hyphens are there. For our kids to grow up and do well in that world, they need to start learning about other cultures now. They can’t wait until college. They can’t wait until high school. They need to start learning that the world is a broad and diverse place now.”

Broad, diverse – and increasingly small. Eighth grade social studies and English teacher Bob Berndt had that point driven home during his efforts to acquire a proper costume. An Afghani friend was able to put him in contact with the right person and within days Berndt was dressed in the authentic flowing white robe of a Pakistani.

“Meanwhile, she’s stuck in London due to the volcano,” he said of his helper, “so all of this is being done via Facebook and the Internet. It shows how the world is shrinking.”

Berndt recently had the pleasure of seeing Mortenson in person during the author’s talk at the St. Louis Speakers Series.

“The fact that struck me was the tenfold increase in students who are going to school in Afghanistan over 10 years ago, from 825,000 to over eight million,” he said. “For those who have questions about what we are doing there, that may be at least part of an answer that can make us feel a little better about the sacrifices that are being made.”

While Mortenson didn’t speak specifically on the particulars of American policy, Berndt said he noted that “Three Cups of Tea” has been made required reading for U.S. Special Forces soldiers operating in Afghanistan.

Further, the implications of the author’s work speak for themselves.

“His schools all teach Arabic so the students can read the Quran for themselves and not be told what it says,” Berndt said. “Mortenson said if you read the Quran then you know that women are not second-class citizens. Suicide is not part of the Quran. Murder is not part of the Quran but if you don’t read it, how do you know?”

Students turned villagers

Education is a two-way street and Mortenson’s book, which was made a part of SSDS’s curricula for every student has helped prevent misconceptions about Pakistani and Afghani Muslims. David Selis, the head of school’s son, who is in eighth-grade, said it’s easy for some to develop the misimpression that everyone in the region is a terrorist.

“That’s not the case. It’s just a small minority,” said David, 14. “The reason people think that is because all you hear about is Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and Hamas causing problems and in reality that’s really only a few percent of the total population.”

Abigail Miller, a seventh-grader who helped serve rice and tea to passing students during the morning session, said the only thing she knew about the area previous to her studies focused on American involvement in military conflicts there. Now, she understands the situation better.

“We kind of know about Pakistan but we really don’t know about all the aspects of it,” said Abigail, 13. “I think this will give us the whole picture.”

Fellow seventh-grader Talia Wolkowitz, 12, said it’s important to learn about other cultures. She said she enjoyed Three Cups of Tea but it was SSDS that really made the experience real for her.

“I liked it,” she said, “but it’s more fun being hands-on rather than just reading the book.”

Fifth-grader Shirley Gelman said the experience was very realistic.

“It’s really been fun going around and seeing everything,” said Shirley, 11, who spent the afternoon demonstrating Muslim wedding traditions in a classroom converted into a makeshift mosque. “It actually feels like we’re in Korphe.”

Classmate Josh Farkas, 11, played field hockey during the morning to demonstrate a popular Pakistani sport.

“It was exciting playing something that they do in Pakistan but they also do here,” he said. “It’s cool we get to see their traditions.”

Science teacher Ramasun Farr spent the day teaching eighth graders how to make sun-dried bricks from mud and straw in a popular hands-on activity station which eventually produced so much unintentional water runoff it accidentally drowned the nearby sixth-graders’ traditional open pit fire, necessitating the use of a somewhat less traditional barbeque pit for their project, baking flat bread.

“I hope they learn a little about the culture and the architecture of the countries we are studying,” Farr said, “and along with that hopefully, a feel in general for what the lives of people are like in the region.”

Melissa Faro was one of the parents on hand to watch the day unfold. She said her daughter Faith, 6, was really enjoying making soup with the other first graders.

“It’s very important because it brings it all to life instead of just reading it in a book or seeing a movie about it, you can actually experience some of the things that go on in the country,” she said.

Susan Albert, director of administration and admissions, agreed. Noting that the event came as the school was preparing for standardized testing, she felt projects like this were much more telling than tests.

“When kids take it and do well, we get feedback on their learning styles but this is what education is about, this hands-on preparing them for young adulthood,” said Albert, clad for the day in a robe from among her old Purim costumes. “A lot of these children are going to go to high school with kids from all over the world. They should be prepared to interact and to represent who they are.”