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Teaching Culture in an ESL Classroom

What topics or content should we include when teaching students about culture?

With the increasing diversity in American classrooms, it is not enough for teachers to embrace color-blindness and the Golden Rule of treating others the way we want to be treated.

In order to connect with their students, teachers need to understand what their students have been through in their home countries and environments, prior to entering their classroom as students.

· Therefore, cultural awareness has to go beyond a list of holidays, shared recipes, or songs. For, culture goes beyond ‘content’, and includes behavioral characteristics, attitude, views on spirituality, beliefs, values, etc.

· Teachers also need to look beyond cultural stereotypes, whether these are negative or ‘positive’, for example, and “Asian American students are very good at Math”. These and other cultural stereotypes hinder the teacher from getting to know the students’ individual abilities.

· The teaching material should be diverse and geared towards making a connect with students from diverse cultures.

· The teaching in the classroom should help bridge the gap between the students’ home lives with their parents, and the school environment.

· One way I would teach culture in my classroom would be through the use of incidents or vignettes when cultural differences caused miscommunication. Every student could come up with one such incident, and the class could discuss these incidents one by one, discussing why the miscommunication happened, and exactly what cultural differences caused it.

· Different cultures have different attitudes towards issues like plagiarism, cheating – in some cultures cheating is taken as a serious offense, while in others some amount of cheating is seen as ‘common sense’ or ‘working together’.

· Punctuality may be of foremost importance in one culture, whereas a laidback attitude, for example, “Indian Stretchable Time” may be the norm for another culture.

· Teachers also need to be aware of how older persons are treated in other cultures. For example, in many Asian cultures, it is considered disrespectful to look one’s seniors in the eye, whereas in Canada, it is important to make eye contact when in a conversation with another person.

· In Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, teachers are treated with deference and are even feared, and students may not have a friendly, one- on -one rapport with them. In America, a student from the Middle East may not open up to her teacher for this reason, and the teacher might think she is being uncommunicative.

Therefore, teachers need to be sensitized and made aware of such cultural differences, so that they do not take such slip-ups on the part of their students as disrespect or deliberate flouting of the rules. They need to give their students the benefit of doubt and then steer them towards the behavior that is expected from them in the school setting.