It has been said that culture is like an iceberg, that only ten percent of it is visible and the other ninety percent is hidden below the surface. For this reason, ESL teachers must make intentional efforts to teach cultural understanding and tolerance to their students.
If you are looking for a way to bring up the subject of culture, try one of the following.
How to Teach Culture In Your Classroom
Everyone eats, but not everyone eats the same things, and the differences in diet from one culture to the next can be very dramatic. You can let your students share their culture through food by inviting them to talk about or share dishes typical in their countries. To do this, have a cultural food fair or ask your students to prepare a national dish in a class presentation. If everyone in class gets a little taste, even better, just keep in mind food allergies that your students may have.
What better time to talk about traditional foods than during the holidays. Any holiday that pops up on the calendar is an excuse to celebrate any and all holidays from January to December. Ask each of your students to talk about a traditional holiday from their native culture. They can give information about the holiday itself as well as national and family traditions. The students in your class will enjoy sharing some of their traditions as well as hearing about those of their classmates.
Often another element of holidays or special occasions is traditional dress. It is not unusual for ESL students to bring some pieces of formal or traditional dress when they travel overseas to study. If you are teaching immigrants, your students also have a good chance of having these clothing items at home. You can invite your students to wear traditional clothing on a certain day or bring picture of themselves or others in traditional dress. Encourage each person to explain the significance of the different pieces, if any, and give an opportunity for everyone in class to ask questions.
While you are talking about holidays in your class, have another conversation about what people do in their free time. Generally, a person’s schedule will be reflective of his or her values. Looking at the typical distribution of time can give an insight into what is important in a given culture. Of the 168 hours in the week, how many do most people spend working? Studying? Going out with friends or spending quality time with family? The answers to these questions and the differences from one culture to another will help your students understand and appreciate what their classmates value.
While you are at it, does anyone in your class play a traditional instrument? That may not be all that common, but most students could probably play some popular music from their country for the class. Bring in an iPod dock and play a little rock and roll, then invite your students to share some of their music. Again, encourage open conversation and question among your students. Be sure to remind your class that national preferences vary as do personal preferences, and remind them to be sensitive to what their classmates share.
Why not bring culture into the classroom with a little show and tell? Set a day, perhaps at some point during a unit about business, to invite your students to bring in a sample of money from their native countries (which you should make note that they brought and make sure they bring home). Either collect all the money in one place or pass it around and let your students look at the coins and bills. Have them take note about who or what is pictured on the money, and give your students a chance to talk about these people and things. By sharing stories about what is important enough to put on the country’s currency, your students will gain another level of cultural understanding from their classmates.
Traditional stories such as folk tales or tall tales are another way to bring culture and history into the classroom. You can have your students read English translations of traditional tales or have your students tell the stories to their classmates. By noticing who plays prominent roles in the stories and how they handle conflict, you and your students will see some more of what motivates and challenges a national group.
Though religion is not necessarily a national value, allowing your students to share their religious beliefs and those that most members of their culture hold will also provide valuable opportunities for your students to understand one another. With a spirit of open-mindedness and acceptance, ask your students to share some religious practices or beliefs and allow the rest of the class to discuss the issues that may arise from the discussion. If everyone in your class can be tolerant of their classmates beliefs, there is the potential for a very powerful and informative discussion on the topic of religion, simply proceed with caution.
Often key events in a country’s past will either establish or define that culture’s values. You can give your students an opportunity to discuss significant events in their country’s history, and if you do asking, them to explain how those events influence their people today will give you an insight into culture. If you have done other activities on culture, you may have already touched on these events when talking about holidays or money, but looking at things from a historical perspective can add another layer of understanding for your students.
Not only does a country hold particular values, but families also hold certain values that they pass on to their children. Allowing your students to share about their families can open the door to talking about the values that their families hold. Talking about these family values will also often lead to a discussion about the values of a people group. When opportunities arise for your students to talk about their families, encourage it and perhaps your students will learn a little more about one another.
Culture permeates every aspect of our beings. These topics are just a few that you can use to intentionally bring a discussion of culture into the classroom. As a general rule, take advantage of any opportunities to talk about culture with an open mind.
You will be a better teacher for it, and your students will be better leaders of their nations.
Susan likes to enjoy every day to its fullest whether she is freelance writing, teaching homeschoolers, or developing her special talent of instigation. When she is not imagining sand castles or catching others off balance, she cooks, sings, reads and takes walks in the sunshine. She earned an M.A. from the University of Delaware in Linguistics and an M.A. from Trinity School for Ministry in Youth Ministry. She currently lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with her wonderful husband and her three cheepy cockatiels.
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