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Appreciation and Appropriation Outside the Classroom

By distinguishing between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation, teachers can help students better understand cultural enrichment spaces.

Over the past 20 years, between the two of us, we have accompanied over a thousand students on their senior trip to Disney World. So much is great about the opportunity to go to Orlando and connect with students in a relaxed atmosphere. But the role of a chaperone should include more than reminding kids to put on sunscreen: When taking students to areas that attempt to represent other cultures, we as teachers must engage them in dialogue about the representations of gender, race and ethnicity they encounter in these spaces.

A place like Epcot Center creates worlds as spectacles for entertainment while simultaneously posing as an educational experience, representing authenticity through curated settings and carefully selected personnel. Trips to such places, where a variety of cultures are represented, offer an opportunity for teachers to ask students to consider their role in creating meaning there. It's our responsibility as educators to give students language they can use to consider and discuss these spaces while still enjoying what they offer.

One conversation that chaperones can initiate is about the differences between appreciation and appropriation. Oxford Dictionaries defines cultural appropriation as "the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society." They define appreciation as "recognition and enjoyment of the good qualities of someone or something." The items available for purchase in Epcot Center present an opportunity to consider the difference between these two concepts. 

On one trip, when Susan was with students in the Germany section of Epcot, she pointed out the appreciation evident in the shops and kiosks and in Epcot's famous international internship program. When Colleen went to the China section, however, she noticed that many students had purchased conical hats, sometimes called "farmers' hats" or more offensive names, and were wearing them in amusement, toeing the line of what may have seemed like appreciation but accidentally crossing into appropriation. 

Historically, these hats were worn by workers to protect them from the sun; people wore them for practical and material reasons. An appreciation of these hats would require students to understand the historical context of the working people and class structures of multiple geographies and time periods. If such context is missing, if the wearer is using the hat for their own amusement, then we might rightly call out appropriation.  

To help students understand the line between these two concepts, teachers might simply ask students before the trip, "What is the difference between appropriation and appreciation?" Ideally, this conversation wouldn't be new to students: they would have discussed it within classrooms and co-curriculars well before the trip. This may not be the case, however, so chaperones should be prepared to directly engage students in conversations on the bus, on the plane, while standing in line for the seventh hour for the "African" safari or during the group dinner that night. 

"Did you notice when women showed up on the Spaceship Earth ride?" (Answer: when they ran switchboards in the 20th century!) "Did you notice that the safari talked about 'African animals' but didn't talk about the countries in Africa?" (See Colleen's piece about helping students avoid generalizing about Africa.) "Did you notice a difference between the stuff sold in Norway and in Mexico?" Questions like these can direct students to critique their own experiences without accusing them of an offense. 

A simple and brief conversation can clarify appropriation and appreciation and can model for students how to actively engage in their own experience and their own learning-while still having fun on their trip. When they become mindful of the ways they move through these culturally enriching spaces, they can learn lessons that far surpass the original intention of the trip.

Coryat teaches English at Perkiomen Valley High School in Pennsylvania.

Clemens is associate professor of non-Western literatures and director of women's and gender studies at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania.