Teaching U.S. Academic Values in the Classroom (Yes, You Must Come to Class, but that is Not Enough)
In every institution of learning, there is the explicit, stated curriculum: it may even be part of the institution’s mission statement of student handbook: for example, “to teach the English necessary to succeed in the workplace and institutions of higher learning.”
However, there is also what is sometimes called the “hidden curriculum”: what gets taught without being included in the formal, written curriculum. Sometimes this curriculum is so “hidden” that instructors don’t even think about it until a student questions it. It is hidden because it is implicit, assumed, and ultimately reflecting cultural values. For example, last semester I had in class two Israeli students whom I liked a lot but who nevertheless irritated me. In analyzing why, I realized it was because they would rush in and interrupt me while I was speaking –a violation of cultural norms in the U.S., where conversation is linear and sequential, with only one person allowed to speak at once. Indeed, in a formal situation, one must receive recognition to speak. These “rules” are so culturally embedded they may seem “obvious” and “natural” and hardly worth discussing—those very traits, however, reveal their nature as cultural values. In some cultures, it’s perfectly acceptable for more than one person to talk at once, and “interrupting,” seen as highly rude in the U.S., isn’t considered that big a deal in other parts of the world. The matter is not “natural” and should be taught so students can avoid violating the unwritten rule and offending others.
Some U.S. Rules and Values Students Should Know
Conversation is linear
Structured, and reciprocal. We take turns. This may be more or less formal, depending on the situation. People are expected to wait for a pause in the conversation and then contribute a comment. While interrupting someone—taking his or her “turn” from him or her—is seen as rude, it’s also rude not to say anything, to not take a turn. I’ve been in social situations with recent immigrants to the U.S. who sat at dinner and said nothing unless addressed directly and then only briefly. It was excruciating. You are expected to talk to people you’ve just met, even if you don’t know them well. It is for this situation we have “small talk.”
Small talk is discussion on unimportant or non personal topics, like the weather or sports. This kind of discussion is used with people you don’t know well but must still, for politeness’s sake, talk to. This applies to new classmates.
Time is important
As apparent by the omnipresence of clocks and watches in our society, time is highly important in the U.S. People lose jobs and relationships over repeated tardiness. It can also lower your course grade.
Actually coming to class is important
This is a surprise to some students, who come from societies that still place a lot of importance on the final exam, and whether students come to class or not is seen almost as a matter of personal choice or a private matter. In the United States, often poor test scores can be, if not cancelled out, at least mitigated by good attendance and participation.
Participation is important
The American writer, actor, and director Woody Allen said “Ninety percent of life is just showing up,” but this is only partly correct. So while actually showing up for class is important, and the teacher does take attendance in most cases, it’s not enough. Students are expected to participate by contributing (productively) to the conversation.
Egalitarianism and individuality are two important values
It is for this reason that it’s important to write your own papers and complete your own tests—this work should reflect your individual effort. It’s also why it’s important to give equal respect to everyone—that student in worn jeans and sandals might just be the CEO who interviews you someday!
Teaching Cultural Values
So there are some important American values embedded in our educational system. How does the instructor teach them?
Some should go in the course syllabus, such as the value of doing one’s own work and the attendance/tardiness policy. They can be explicitly taught by going over them and possibly giving a test on them.
Hold a discussion of “unwritten rules,” those rules that are understood within a culture but not written down anywhere. Bob Greene wrote a well-known essay on this topic, “Unwritten Rules Circumscribe our Lives,” in which he discusses some of these unwritten rules and assumptions of American life and how powerful they are: obey traffic signs, don’t take tips left for wait staff, don’t yell at others in public places, etc. Have students read the essay if possible and have a discussion about unwritten rules in their home country, the U.S., and their college.
Most values should be modeled. The teacher herself should model the values of attendance and promptness. If the teacher remains unfailing polite and respectful to every student—even if his or her own behavior hasn’t earned it—that sends a powerful message to other students on how to act toward others.
Some values, such as small talk, are more gradually learned, with practice over the course of the semester. Again, the teacher can engage in this almost every class session, at the beginning, while students drift in a settle in. At first, students may rarely participate or respond to the teacher’s comments on the weather; by the end of the term, they may be getting into more heated discussions over their favorite sports teams!
Cultural values are deeply embedded in our education system because the educational system is part of the larger culture.
These values can be difficult to discern because they are so deeply embedded. But with consciousness raising, discussion, modeling, and practice, students can learn the values of their new school system.
Dr. Stacia Levy teaches writing and reading skills at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California to both native and nonnative speakers of English. She also has taught academic and creative writing at the University of California, Davis. However, she began her teaching career twenty years ago as an instructor ESL in adult education programs and still primarily defines herself as an ESL teacher. Publishing credits include two academic works based on her dissertation, several short stories, and a novel, California Gothic, a story of romantic suspense. Google+
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