Romania: Teaching Diversity by the Book

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CLUJ-NAPOCA, Romania | Hamburgers are originally from the northern German city of Hamburg. Cappuccino was named after the brown-robed Italian Capuchin friars. The dragon symbolizes wealth, luck, prosperity, and heroism in Chinese culture. Hebrew is read from right to left. In Hungary people celebrate Mother’s Day and Women’s Day separately, unlike Romanians, who meld the two holidays into one on 8 March.

That’s a small sampling of the trivia third- and fourth-graders are getting to know, thanks to “multicultural” textbooks being used in a few dozen schools across Romania.

Getting started in Arabic.

Getting started in Arabic.

The handsome publication, Multicultural Education: Third and Fourth Grade, is the first of its kind in Romania, and it highlights 23 ethnic groups who live in the country. Each two-page chapter provides a few basic details, such as the community’s population and location in Romania (marked by red dots on a map), along with a few words in the community language from a child’s basic vocabulary (“hi,” “boy,” “girl,” “teacher”), a trivia box, and a little story from the folklore of that particular ethnic group.

“For inspiration, I used several textbooks from schools for immigrants and minorities in different Western European countries and then adapted the concept to Romanian conditions,” said Simona-Elena Bernat, an education expert from Cluj who co-authored the book with primary school teacher Zoltan Molnar.

Break with the Past

Bernat said she paid particular attention to the quiz sections at the end of each lesson, trying to come up with interesting and thought-provoking questions. Students are asked to continue the stories or come up with different endings, interpret certain symbols, and, most importantly, try to apply the lessons learned to a situation in their daily lives. This is a welcome departure from standard textbook drills, which often simply require students to reproduce information found in the text.

The textbook was piloted in 2005 under a joint initiative of the nonprofit Ethnocultural Diversity Resource Center in Cluj and the Belgian King Baudouin Foundation. Twenty primary school teachers received hands-on training in using the book in optional classes with third- and fourth-graders. In Romania a teacher stays with one class throughout the first four grades, so teachers are free to teach the material at their own pace.

The book was published by the diversity resource center with financial support from the central government’s Interethnic Relations Department. More counties have quickly begun adopting it and distributing it free to schools. The appeal of the optional classes has become so great that the Education Ministry includes them on its official list of suggested optional courses. Typically, primary-school teachers use this one hour per week for extra math and Romanian language drills.

“When I first received this book, I was slightly skeptical, thinking that an additional subject would just burden the syllabus too much,” said Ecaterina Fodorean, a teacher at Nicolae Balcescu School in Cluj. “But then I skimmed through it and felt more confident about it. It’s a great opportunity for students to learn facts about other ethnic groups living in Romania. They can use their knowledge from geography and history to understand certain things, such as how and why these people ended up living together with us.”

With a mixed class by Romanian standards (one half-Italian pupil, one half-Arabian, and one half-Hungarian student in a class of 26), Fodorean particularly appreciates the interactive features of the book, which allows students to apply personal experience and be creative. She said parents have embraced the class as a means of broadening their children’s knowledge of other cultures in a nonjudgmental way. Another teacher, Cristian Arapu of Avram Iancu School in Bistrita-Nasaud, said the book repeatedly underlines how cultural diversity can enrich children’s lives.

More than 2,000 copies of the texts are now in use by students, and the book’s popularity is such that teachers are sharing it and making photocopies for their own classes.


Know Your Salad Ingredients

The communities treated in the text range in size from the Ruthenians (numbering 257 in the 2002 census) to the 1.5 million-strong Hungarians; newer arrivals such as Arabs and Chinese are also featured. Apart from various ethnic groups – including the majority Romanians, in keeping with the authors’ inclusive method – the book introduces intercultural themes like women’s lives, race, and religion. Bernat said the biggest challenge was to avoid stereotypes and to make the book and the exercises equally interesting to children from different backgrounds and locations.

Hungarian Romanians.

Hungarian Romanians.

“The general tendency in Romania is to present diversity through conventional elements such as folk costumes and old holiday traditions. I agree that these have enormous significance, but they may not appeal to all children as much, especially to those from an urban environment, who are never exposed to such things in their everyday lives,” Bernat said.

If a visual revamping of the old-style texts was not always possible – most pictures in the book actually present traditional costumes, activities, and settlements – the exercises are more modern. Children are asked to identify the cultural group or groups they belong to and to talk about differences and similarities they have noticed within their own communities, discuss various family values, or explain certain religious symbols and their significance. In another chapter they are challenged to identify real versus imaginary categories from a dialogue among different kinds of fruit all destined to be mixed up in the same salad.

The success and ever-rising demand for the textbook gave rise to the idea in 2007 to produce a multicultural calendar suitable for students of virtually any age. Distributed free to students, the wide-format calendar presents daily factoids pertinent to Romania and abroad: that retired Romanian football star Gheorghe Hagi is of Macedonian descent, that the Olympics allowed women competitors for the first time in 1900, or that the International Red Cross was established in 1864. They also find out about the Armenian genocide, the Romani alphabet, and the national days of neighboring countries. Calendar users also become aware of the various cultural backgrounds of many famous Romanian artists and scientists.

Bernat, who also co-authored the calendar, said it can inspire students and teachers to develop their own projects.

“They can collect information from basically any area of interest and produce much more sophisticated calendars themselves,” she said.

According to the Ethnocultural Diversity Resource Center, 1,000 calendars have so far been circulated in schools or offered as prizes to students.


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