NIAGARA FALLS – Eight-year-old Murteza Gökçek was nervous. His mother was on her way to his class Wednesday to talk about their Turkish culture – why she packs her son halal food for lunch, wears a headscarf and speaks a different language.
The native of Turkey was going to highlight all the ways Murteza was different. But after she left, Murteza stood outside his classroom at Maple Avenue Elementary School in Niagara Falls, and his large brown eyes seemed filled with relief.
His friends gathered in the hallway, hyper from the Turkish delights fresh in their stomachs and fascinated with the headscarves they had just tried on. Murteza smiled.
“It’s like they’re thinking something good about me,” he said.
That was Amy Benjamin’s goal.
Benjamin, Murteza’s teacher, aims to add life to the second-grade global studies curriculum – opening students’ minds to how people eat, learn, worship and live worldwide. That mission is leading her to Turkey this week.
Murteza’s family is heading to Istanbul for the summer, and Benjamin, through a 10-day study abroad program at Niagara University where she’s pursuing a Ph.D. in policy and leadership, is flying with them. For two days, she’ll teach her class from sites in the ancient city via Skype.
“I think that it’s important for children to see just how big our world truly is and not to live in the confines of just Niagara Falls,” Benjamin said. “Their dreams are so much bigger than that.”
Niagara Falls seems like a fitting place to teach cultural diversity. In Benjamin’s 17 years teaching in the city school district, she has taught students of Middle Eastern, Native American, African-American and Asian descent, as well as various religions and backgrounds.
But do Niagara Falls teachers discuss their students’ backgrounds? Part of Benjamin’s Ph.D. thesis is to find out. She emailed an online survey to all teachers in the district with questions including: What cultures are represented in the classroom? How competent do you feel in teaching cultures you’re unfamiliar with? What are the behavior issues for students who are from different cultures and aren’t feeling understood? How do you handle students’ habits and traditions?
“For instance, if a student is wearing a headscarf, is that something they would address? Or is it ignored?” Benjamin posed. “My basic interest is, are the kids allowed to connect to that?”
Benjamin will conduct the same survey throughout schools in Istanbul. When she returns to the States, she’ll spend the summer comparing and analyzing the results.
She expects the outcome to reflect what she’s constantly telling her students: In all cultures, there are more similarities than differences.
And this summer, she looks forward to learning from her own student and his family.
Murteza’s father is Dr. Mustafa Gökçek, a history professor at Niagara University who created the Istanbul study abroad program three years ago. He and Benjamin are both passionate about integrating culture into their classrooms. Gökçek, who was born in Turkey, believes that wars, hatred and stereotyping develop as a result of “not knowing our neighbors well enough.”
“A lot of times, we take those stereotypes for granted,” Gökçek said. “We think that’s how young people think. No, it’s not how young people think. It’s us not putting enough effort to teach them and give them the opportunity to experience different cultures.”
Benjamin’s method of teaching students about their own cultures is through finding similarities within their differences.
Last week, another student stared at Murteza’s lunch: a meat mixture with parsley and onions on pita bread. So, Benjamin explained it’s like a “Turkish pizza.” Wednesday, a Christian student asked Murteza’s mother, Hulya, why Muslims take their shoes off in mosques. Benjamin compared it to simply applying holy water on oneself when entering church.
Benjamin, the Gökçeks and nine Niagara University students were to leave for Istanbul today, and it’ll be Benjamin’s first time outside of North America. As she visits the Hagia Sophia museum, an ancient mosque, the Bosphorus River and Istanbul elementary schools, she will Skype the class – giving her students an opportunity to learn as she does.
Though she can’t take all her students with her to Turkey, she did her best to bring Turkey to the class Wednesday when Murteza’s mother presented Turkish headscarves, foods and paintings. The lesson had a human touch, which seemed to have stuck with 8-year-old student Bethany Mandaville.
“It felt like I was in a different country because I was learning so much about this different country,” Bethany said. “And it just felt like I was all the way in Turkey.”