Why was the Class Empty? Cultural Practices Your Students Should Be Taught
On a Tuesday last October, a young Kuwaiti student in my morning writing class emailed me and apologized for missing class on Monday. She claimed she had been there, but the classroom was empty when she came.
Since class had gone as usual on Monday, I thought this was a poor excuse for missing, and was about to send her an email saying that I had no idea why she had found an empty classroom as we had been there at the usual hour. Then I remembered resetting the clocks on Saturday night. I amended my email with “You may be unaware that on Sunday morning we went off daylight savings time, which means we set our clocks back one hour.” She wrote back, shocked and apologetic, and thankful that I had told her, as she had missed her second class of Monday for the same reason, and emphasizing that she had had no idea of this particular practice. I believed her as in her home country of Kuwait, a desert culture, there would probably be little reason for daylight savings time. I wrote back not to worry - but to remember we would go through this same business again in the spring, when the clocks went forward as we went back onto daylight savings time. This incident highlighted for me how some of our practices, which we take for granted (although may still be confused by as native Californians make similar mistakes with daylight savings time) can really confound the newcomer.
What Cultural Practices Should Students Be Taught?
There are many, but some that may be particularly troublesome, given their uniqueness to our culture, follow.
Daylight Savings Time
This seems like a universal practice to most Americans, of setting the clocks back in the fall and forward in the spring. In fact, it isn’t—some places even in the United States don’t have it and remain on standard time all year round. Teaching this practice to students is one thing to help them cope in their new environment. Most electronic devices update automatically to the local time, so thankfully students are able to check their computers or phones for the correct time.
The Potluck, the Office Party, and Other “Casual” Celebrations
These type of casual celebrations, in which the attendees are typically expected to bring a dish to share, are in some ways uniquely American—the name “potluck,” for bringing a dish to share, is even a Native American word. These kinds of celebrations, especially the office party, can sometimes be fraught with difficulty even for Americans because although they are officially recreational and informal, they are often actually part of work and work protocol applies.
Visiting Friends: Call First
Americans are capable of strong friendship bonds, but the portrayal of those bonds tend to be exaggerated on TV and the movies. Americans also value independence, and beyond college, constant calls and visits to friends might be considered intrusive. Calling first and respect of privacy and independence is expected.
Authority Figures and How to Treat Them
Who is an authority figure in our culture and how she should be treated is problematic even to many Americans, who historically have had an uneasy relationship with authority. For example, Americans are divided on whether teachers should be considered authority figures, or politicians, or even the police. This leads into questions about what makes an authority figure: power? Exemplary behavior? There is no one agreed-upon answer. It is probably safest to error on the side of treating those in authority, particularly if they have power over you, too politely rather than not enough.
Americans frequently move and therefore might not develop deep relationships with neighbors. It’s not uncommon to live near someone for years and not develop anything beyond a superficial relationship, particularly since most of us don’t live in traditional or cultural neighborhoods and often have little in common with the neighbors.
Teaching Culture Practice
Some of this information which is factual, such as daylight savings time, can be imparted in a brief lecture, handout, and demonstration of setting your watch back, for example. This is information that is not arguable, so prolonged discussion isn’t necessary.
Some of this information makes for great discussion material—such as who an authority figure is, or the relationship people have with their neighbors and friends here and in students’ home countries. Sometimes students have great insights, such as the American habit of telling a new neighbor, “Well, call if you need anything,” is not necessarily to be taken literally.
The Case Study
Showing students fictional characters in particular situations, such as a conflict with their boss or in an awkward interaction at the office gives students the opportunity to discuss what the character did right and wrong.
TV shows, like “The Office, ” although exaggerated for comic effects, give students an opportunity to learn about and discuss some of the unique features of American life: work life, in this case, such as the episode where the office workers are more or less coerced into participating in a charity marathon to gain favor with their boss. This makes for a good discussion on the appropriate and inappropriate uses of power and what one should or shouldn’t do just because the boss tells you.
Have a little “office party” or neighborhood potluck in class; have everyone bring a dish, and roleplay the kind of conversation that occurs at these events.
Teaching cultural practices can be difficult because they are so much a part of the culture that we consider them almost “natural”—I didn’t even really think about the meaning of potlucks until a student asked about it.
It is in these “natural” parts of the culture that students might need most help in.
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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