From Balkanization to Integration: How to Improve Student Relations in Your Classroom

From Balkanization to Integration
How to Improve Student Relations in Your Classroom

Stacia Levy
by Stacia Levy 7,297 views

Almost every ESL teacher has experienced it: you walk in the first day, and find a sort of Balkanization going on in your class already, the students divided into two camps, the Soviet students on one side, for example, and the Asian students on the other.

They choose to sit with their friends and family, it seems, but at the same time they aren’t interacting much with anyone outside of their tight-knit group. As the semester progresses, the situation does not get any better: while not openly hostile to each other, the two groups also don’t talk much—which also interferes with their language learning, as English is generally not being used if students work within their own cultural groups. When you suggest and even direct students to work outside of their groups, they are resistant.

This is obviously not an ideal situation for a number of, namely because of the decreased use of English and because respect of and integration of cultural groups is an important value, as segregation was rejected in the United States many years ago. In addition, broadened world perspective does occur with learning about other cultural groups and their values and beliefs. I am a different and better person for having learned something about Mexican culture, for example, or African American culture. For these reasons, students should be nudged into leaving their own cultural groups and venturing into others, at least during the time of the class session.

Methods to Develop Relations between Students of Different Cultural Groups

  1. 1

    Acknowledge the Unknown Is Scary

    Many of us have had the experience of attending an integrated high school where the lunch room was anything but—all the white kids, African American, and Latin kids in separate corners, for example. Would you go sit at another group’s table? Probably not. Was it because of any inherent dislike of those kids? Again, probably not—it was just that the act would seem strange. And it was intimidating. So understand how difficult this might be for your students, even if you don’t explicitly discuss it during class.

  2. 2

    Readings or Movies

    Numerous stories and films touch the topic of cross-cultural friendship: a fairly recent one I can think of is Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino,” in which the Eastwood character, a grumpy old guy not at all happy about the Hmong family who has moved in next door, slowly, through a series of shared experiences, begins to see them more as family than his own daughter and grandchildren. Showing a movie like this or reading a short story on the topic can lead to discussions on the true nature of family and friendship and how important shared culture really is to that definition.

  3. 3

    Conduct a “Roundtable”

    Have students sit in a circle and all share one important thing about themselves—a hobby, interest, experience, etc. Students are likely to find shared interests and experiences across groups and might start a conversation right there.

  4. 4


    Class parties, while having the danger of falling flat or seeming “lame,” are also a good way, if planned and conducted properly, for students to get to know each other aside from as students. Besides refreshments, having some activities planned is important. More than one student usually plays an instrument and is willing to provide music, and having conversational topics prepared in advance is also important so the main goal—getting students to talk to each other—is accomplished.

  5. 5

    Conduct Surveys

    Students must gather information about different students in the class: what percentage likes different types of music, for example, which demands each student to talk to everyone. After they can pool results to come up with some statistics for the room. In the course of doing this, they are interacting with and learning about each other.

  6. 6

    Small Groups or Pairwork Across Cultures

    Once students have completed some of the less threatening tasks of surveys and large group sharing, they are ready to move on to more complex groupings. Have students complete relatively simple tasks in pairs or small groups, such as sharing ideas about a reading, and do this in culturally mixed groups. In this way, students will also be forced to use English, their only common language.

  7. 7

    Larger Groups or Projects

    Now that students have completed some of the simpler group tasks, they are ready to move on to large group, extended projects, such as a small research project and presentation on the some part of U.S. culture or history, like the history of the Gold Rush, important to my area of Sacramento, California. Within the group, goals can be laid out, such as what the final presentation will look like—PowerPoint? Film?—the roles within the group, such as leader and recorder, and the timeline for the project. Group projects are especially powerful in producing quality work and forming relations within the class, as students begin to rely on each other for the completion of the project, recognizing each other’s individual strengths and weaknesses beyond culture and language.

Admittedly, breaking away from one’s own group and venturing into the unknown is scary.

However, in a multicultural society it is a necessary and rewarding process, and there are methods to accomplish integration in a classroom through careful scaffolding of activities such as discussion of multicultural friendship, group discussion and sharing, parties, and projects so that, for the duration of the class, at least, students will work with members of other groups. However, the process of cross-cultural learning shows that once it has begun, it continues—once students take that first step, they continue moving forward in making cross-cultural friendships beyond the classroom.

What methods do you use to achieve cross-cultural interaction in your class?

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