Plymouth Whitemarsh High School students explored the intricacies of cultural identity through a unique class activity meant to inspire them to think about how “others, with their differences, can be right.”

That sentiment is one of the core tenets of the mission statement for the International Baccalaureate Programme, which is in its second year at the high school. Students who belong to the programme participated in the “When Cultures Meet” workshop on May 13, and were guided by parent Marsha Coleman, who is a facilitator for Power+Systems, a consulting company that offers the workshop to individuals and organizations looking to bring people together.

As part of the workshop, students were separated into groups and asked to adopt a set of customs and values. The customs and values were different for each fictional cultural group. For example, the Frems greeted each other by raising their right hands, whereas the Kligs greeted each other with a two-handed handshake. Each group learned their “cultural rules” and then worked together to build a structure that was representative of their culture, and wrote a story about the reasons for their cultural rules. When the groups came together, they shared their stories and explained how their structure represented their people and their customs.

Following their activity, the students were asked to reflect on what they had learned through their participation. The activity evoked a number of different reactions.

“When we interact with ‘others’ we can be met with fear and confusion. The biggest key is to have grace with yourself in understanding that this is a natural reaction, but then to make a change in your thinking and take a moment to get to know the person and understand why they are different,” said Kaitlyn Flanagan, senior. “This will inform my interactions going forward both personally and professionally because it will help me to be more aware of the people and groups I am surrounded by.”

Eli Krassen, a junior, said that the workshop helped clear up one of his own misconceptions about why people in the same culture band together.

“Before the workshop, I always thought that the reason that people within the same culture have a tendency to stay together was because they weren't interested in assimilating into other cultures or that they thought that it was just easier to be with people who are like themselves. Being a Klig in the activity made me realize that what I had previously believed was a fallacy,” he said. “By feeling like an outcast, I realized that I was naturally gravitating towards my fellow Kligs because I wanted to fulfill my innate desires of feeling connected to others, feeling like I belong, feeling a sense of purpose, and feeling a sense of family.”

Aiden O’Brien, a junior, had a similar observation. 

“When my culture, the singing group, came into the library, we were instantly ostracized by the other cultures. Their human instinct was to stay with their people because we were so different from them. Because my culture felt excluded, we naturally stayed around the other people in the culture. Humans naturally stick with people in their culture and with people who are similar to them because that is what is comfortable for them,” he said.

Brian Schechter, a senior, said the activity made him recognize what can happen when certain cultures become dominant over others and how he can play a positive role by being understanding and accommodating.

“I now see those situations differently and will be more empathetic and supportive,” he said.

The goal was to promote intercultural understanding and a respect for others; personal and professional skills that the IB Programme is meant to help students develop.