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Cross-culture understanding through communication

The Rev. Michael Oleksa recalled being asked to teach a biology lesson to fourth graders, not long after he moved to Alaska.

The lesson was on animals, and he thought that if anyone knew about animals, it was this group of Aleuts youth. The native youngsters were raised knowing how to hunt and fish.

Yet, when when they took a test on the lesson, he was astounded to find the “answers that made no sense whatsoever,” he said.

Oleksa, speaking at the Talented and Gifted Symposium on Thursday at Austin High School, eventually realized how the simple test could reflect a huge gap in communication. One example was how his students, he came to realize, revere the wolf, while people of European descent, considered wolves an enemy.

But to Aluets, “wolves are wonderful.” he said. Aleuts know wolves are monogamous, that they will “fight to the death to defend their kids,” and are known for circling an issue, looking at it from every angle. In short, the responses eventually made sense once he understood their cultural beliefs.

That type of misunderstanding is chronic in most societies, he said, and people often act on beliefs “you don’t even know you had until they are challenged.”

And, when cultural signatures are miscommunicated, “the one with less power will always suffer the consequences,” he said. That power imbalance is seen in many scenarios — teacher and student, judge and defendant, doctor and patient. The lack of understanding often “comes across as premeditated … filled with racism, discrimination and prejudice.”

Even if unintended, “when you are on the receiving end, if feels that way — but if you are on the giving end, it doesn’t feel that way at all.”

Oleksa is a Russian Orthodox priest who has lived in Alaska for over 30 years; he is also a teacher and well-known author. His four-part PBS television series, “Communicating Across Cultures,” has been widely acclaimed.

He said your own culture reflects “the story you were born in,” he said. American history shows a strengthening of the cultural divide regarding different ethnic groups. Assimilation in most cases became a matter of expecting a different culture to act or speak just like its white counterparts — and its largest agency for change was the public schools.

As a result, he said, “we were all squeezed into one identity … and I will tell you, it’s really hard to teach an Eskimo that they came over on the Mayflower,” he said. “It was like that for 100 years and we blamed them for not speaking the language.”

There is more understanding today, but no matter what, he said, the only way to help close that divide is “to establish a personal relationship.”

“People say they don’t have time. If you take two minutes every day, for 10 days, to talk to a student (of a different culture), you will have created a relationship.”

“We’ll never have perfect communication, but we can do better,” he said.

Oleksa was one of four keynote speakers during the conference, the ninth annual one to be held in Austin. The symposium, which drew 150 teachers from nine states, is made possible through The Hormel Foundation.

That funding “also allows Austin teachers and parents to attend the symposium at no cost,” said John Alberts, executive director of educational services for the school.

Those attending were able to earn professional development credits, network with others on topics related to the gifted and talented, and also enjoy many of Austin’s attractions.

This symposium is one of the few in support of gifted and talented that are located in the Midwest. Too often, Alberts said, too few resources are provided to gifted and talented students, while many are provided for remediation for under-performing students.

“People don’t often understand that the challenges and support they need is intense as well,” he said.

The topics related to all students, he added. No matter what the abilities or challenges, “all students deserve the best instruction,” he said.

In addition to Oleksa, keynote speakers included Susan Johnson of Baylor University, who spoke on differentiation; Michelle Borba, author and educational psychologist, whose address was “The Nine Essential Habits that Unlock the Power of Empathy;” and Mary Slade of Winthrop University, who spoke on “Practicing What I Teach: Lessons Learned,” at the Wednesday night banquet at the Historic Hormel Home.