Thursday, May 21, 2009

exposure to history & cultures in dialogue

Brace yourselves for a long entry in which I want to talk about educating about history and culture, and also about the significance of theater and of service learning. It's been a while since I wrote and I wanted to capture a couple of ideas before they drift away.

Before I do, though, I want to thank everyone who made our trip possible and to thank our instructors here in Germany (who are listed in the itinerary linked to the blog.) Our teachers here have not only presented the "public" views, but have also represented their own views on issues, so they have deepened our appreciation of the issues we have learned about, but also the diverse viewpoints about these.

There were many groups and individuals who made our learning here possible through significant contributions. You helped us pay for our trip and we are grateful. This trip validates the notion of learning by doing in a way more substantial than any trip I've ever taken with a group. Special thanks to our sponsors: OIP for giving me an ISAC grant, to Arts at Michigan, to the Center for Eur. Studies (CES), to the Ginsberg Center, to the RC and to the Brown Fund. And thanks to many individuals , who in a tough economic time still bothered to send some money our way--B.Brown, C. Balducci, C. Zorach, C.Cohen, P.Shin, H.Pierson, I. Mays, M. Scott and many more--too numerous to name, who purchased calendars and wrote checks to us).

This trip has exposed us directly to all the issues we studied in the course (in the abstract). Our tours here have provided us with background to understand what we see (or might not have seen) in Berlin, and they have also given us insight into the themes of the plays and artistic expression that presents ideas and issues in a different way. On many occasions students have commented to me (individually) that they have made connections here to our readings or have been able to bring together points that were raised in our course by experiencing them firsthand. I think that the trip is also signficant, though, in showing others that Americans care about other cultures. Following many of our tours, our guides thanked me for teaching young Americans the importance of history and the signifance of immersion into another culture. Some have asked me to "spread the word" in America about the importance of history, education and cultures, and to bring back more Americans to learn about the issues we have explored. I was proud of our group, which was attentive, inquisitive, and polite throughout our time here. Every tour guide and instructor commented to me about this--to a person!

I took the group picture (above), following a visit to the most progressive (I think) major theater in Berlin. At HAU 2 we saw a play(Radio Muezzin) about (and by) Muezzins in Egypt who have up till now done the call to prayer at mosques. It was an amazing experience and after leaving the theater, I think the group needed to decompress a little following the show. We were a little goofy and silly and it got me thinking of my own roots as an American and how whenever I have immersed myself in another culture (I lived in Germany and in Croatia, and have also lived in Hawaii and in Alabama in the US), I have used the other culture as a way of returning to myself--I'll let you draw your own conclusions to the silliness part and what I just said! I ponder about my own moods and reactions to other cultures and ultimately end up thinking about my own cultural upbringing and where I am comfortable vs. where I rub up against a cultural difference that helps define me in the end and helps me grow. I felt honored to be exposed to the way Muslims pray and to their values (through some of our tours and through some of the theater we saw)--and the same thing happened with my awareness of how Jews can experience their own culture beyond its being just a religion. It is an honor to witness how others can share what is important to them, despite knowing that an "outsider" to the culture can only (ever) absorb part of the significance.

As I mentioned in an earlier entry, theater in America is viewed as Culture (with a capital "C") whereas in Germany its role is often to highlight "cultures" and put them up for discussion--theater helps "shape" and create opportunities for learning and growth. We were fortunate to be able to see plays that dealt with Nazi Germany, with Islam, with cultures in dialogue (e.g., persons with a "migration background" living in Europe), with differences between East and West, and with generational differences (i.e, the dif. between first generation immigrants and the third generation, which was born here). The course Cultures in Dialogue and the Berlin trip were designed to expose students to history and to Jews and Muslims in Germany--to get us thinking about how historic and current issues are constantly in the foreground in Germany, and in Berlin in particular.

Germany's past is commemorated and visible at all times in Berlin, in rooted ways (people's attitudes and also architectural remnants of the past) and in cultivated ways (monuments and events designed to make people remember and reflect). I believe that Germans make good attempts to understand their own past and culture and other cultures, as well, partly in response to coming to terms with German history.

Layers of Berlin (photo left)

This may be hard to see on the blog, but the picture shows so many aspects of Berlin that I wanted to include it. In the foreground is the Holocaust memorial. The picture was taken just as it was getting dark, and you can see on the left that some kids are playing on it. When the memorial was first finished, I happened to be in Berlin right when it opened. There were adults and children hopping from stone to stone. At that time, Germans weren't sure whether to allow it (officially) or not because "policing" visitors to the memorial seemed like it would send a wrong message, while not doing so could disturb people, as well. The way the individual blocks are placed (with low ones near the entry) makes it almost inviting to step on them. It is definitely dangerous, though. The blocks are too far apart and at different heights so jumping from one to another on the tall ones especially is dangerous--not to mention that there might be people walking underneath. There is a somewhat spooky feeling one gets walking through the maize of these even without worrying that someone might be overhead. I read last year that the architect who designed the monument had wanted it to cause some controversy as part of the way that the monument provoked people to think and remember. It is, after all, a "Mahnmal"--something that both commemorates like a "Denkmal" (monument), yet also warns.

In the background are some pricey restaurants, cafés, and embassies. Far off in the distance (actually in the center of the photo) is the Fernsehturm (TV tower) on the Alexanderplatz, the defining marker for East Berlin. So from this one vantage point you can see reminders of Berlin's famous history and also what defines Berlin's present as a cosmopolitan city.

We became a part of the Neukölln Community--our service learning project. . .
This picture was taken at the MORUS 14 community center, which was our partner for a service learning project. We brought many new English books and games to use in our tutoring project here (thanks to the Ginsberg Center at U-M for awarding me a mini grant that made the purchase of these possible). Each of my students met with kids and their local German tutors to work on homework and also work on their English skills; the tutoring sessions sometimes entailed going for a walk and identifying things (talking in English) or learning the colors, practicing numbers, etc. It took no time for my students to assume almost the role of big brothers or sisters to their kids. One of the biggest pleasant surprises was being invited into the families' homes! Soon after arrival, the U-M students and kids began planning what else they were going to do together, i.e., besides the tutoring sessions. This exposed the U-M students to kids' life in Germany in a direct and tangible way. I know that today (our first hot day) many of the students are going swimming with their kids, spending their last day in Berlin getting some quality play time in!

I'm seriously doubting that the students (had they merely been tourists) would have ever had this kind of contact and relationship with the kids, had the non-profit MORUS 14 not already had a success record for working within the community. Special thanks to Gilles Duhem, who patiently listened to my ideas about letting us come into the center and participate in the tutoring program short term. Gilles and the others at MORUS 14 were fantastic towards us and welcomed us as gracious hosts. (Photo left: Frank (MORUS 14 chef, myself, and Gilles)

There was a good turnout for our first reception where we met kids, parents and tutors for the first time (May 8th, which seems like a year ago!). And many turned out for the meal that the Americans prepared. My students did a terrific job planning the entire meal (for 50!), getting ingredients (converting the recipes to metric), and cooking, serving and cleaning up afterwards. The tutees and their families and local tutors got their introduction to macaroni and cheese and broccoli slaw. We also took the kids to see "Lilly unter den Linden" a children's play about a young girl in West Germany, who becomes an orphan and moves to East Germany to live with her aunt there, despite all the warnings from everyone on both sides: "But why would anyone move from the West to the East?" We were told afterwards that the kids we took (mostly kids with a migration background) possibly were not even
aware of the Berlin Wall, and most certainly were not aware of differences between East and West (ancient history to them, I suppose). We learned on our Kreuzberg tour that the areas nearest the Wall in the West were evacuated by Germans (who found it too painful to live that close to the Wall), but the spaces were gladly inhabited by migrant families, who found it a safe place to live (since kids could play outside right next to the Wall without having to worry about cars). In that sense, the Wall also served as a protective barrier for Germany's newest community!

Photo left: Alyssa and a tutee on the U-Bahn on the way to see GRIPS theater

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