Cultural awareness in the classroom

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If I got a penny each time I hear I’ll understand English culture when I go there for holidays I’d be the richest teacher ever. If I got a penny each time I bite my tongue and do not engage in a lengthy discussion every time I hear this phrase, I’d be surprisingly wealthy as well.

Because it doesn’t work this way, now, does it?

Cultural awareness is defined as the understanding of the differences between oneself and people from other countries or backgrounds, especially the differences in attitudes.

Now, when an unsuspecting foreigner begins his quest he’s like a child, focused on himself, not on the outside world – he’s more concerned about his well-being, work. school, daily routine etc. With time, he begins to open up to the surroundings and that’s where the first problems occur, since it’s virtually impossible to find the differences between two different worlds when you don’t even know where to look for them. As helpful as they usually are, local people won’t be much of the help because they don’t know where to look for comparison – they need to know which one of the perfectly understandable issues (like the national hobby of queuing in England) seems strange to a foreigner.

Unfortunately, the lack of knowledge may grow into resentment, fear, sometimes even hate – especially now, when we’re being told we’re living in a global village and it seems the world is not much of a village with all the varying customs, traditions and beliefs; when there are people who claim multiculturalism leads to terrorism and for all of us, who professionally deal with foreign languages, it’s an obvious lie. It is the lack of cultural awareness that makes people scared, and it is fear that leads to hatred.

Our role, as language teachers, as people who try to overcome cultural barriers, who deal with a foreign culture even more often than their native one. Our role, I believe, is to show cultural differences, to explain them, to broaden our students’ horizons in a real world, not only in a virtual classroom of grammar and vocabulary.

The key to understanding people is their language, naturally – but there are so many sources on British, American etc. culture, comparative works – even classic comparison of the most common BrE and AmE counterparts may be a beginning to a lengthy discussion about cultural differences. We are the ones who may give our students the knowledge about the world they are trying to travel to, we may give them something to make their life in new conditions easier, more comfortable.

We may – and I firmly believe we should.

Nowadays, more than ever, our role is important. People who wouldn’t listen to friends will listen to us, even if it’s only to have an argument. It is our task to make people, especially the young ones – they seem cynical, aware of differences, but the truth is I’ve often been surprised by the maturity they can show. I remember when a transgender politician became quite famous in my country and my students found it quite funny, we talked about things we don’t like about our bodies (teenagers are really sensitive about it) – and then I told them: think about it, there’s only one thing you dislike when you look in the mirror, now, think about a person who looks in a mirror and everything is wrong, the whole body is wrong, it’s not really you – how terrible it must be…

They’ve never found the topic funny anymore.

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Don’t like saying goodbye? Create a board game!

And so, we’re here at the end of the school year, our courses are ending, we’re moving on, time to say goodbye and so on and so forth. We’re handing out the certificates and then we have to do something to kill the time.

Some teachers go with the road so far activities, but I’m not really a fan of those. Who are we trying to fool, both me and my students are thinking about holidays and chilling out – I’m not really the most sentimental teacher ever, yeah, I know 😉 I mean, I don’t mind most of my students, I even like some of them, but you won’t see me cry while saying goodbye. So, to avoid embarrassing moments and awkward silence, I go with a game.

Now, during the course all of my students had more than one opportunity to play a board game, so they’re more or less familiar with the topic, they know what they like (or dislike), so I spend a lesson (90 minutes is optional for a simple game) sometime before the end of the course on making their own board games (a nice group activity by the way) and after handing out the certificate I let them test one another’s ideas.

Naturally, I can’t just give the students pens&papers and tell them “now, make me a game”. There always have to be some rules and some issues covered:

  1. Brainstorm – a crucial stage, coming up with the ideas, plot, zombies, rainbows, puppies, tanks and whatever springs to the students’ minds
  2. Goals – some basic questions need to be answered, like – how many players can participate, how long does the game last, is it based on luck (rolling dice) or skill (answering questions etc.) or a mix of both and the most important thing: how do we win?
  3. Basic rules – it’s important to write them down and read them aloud to make sure they’re really simple, we don’t have time for overly complicated sets
  4. Sketch of a board – obviously, not many board games require no board 🙂

Now, it may take some time, sometimes 90 minutes is not enough, so make sure you’ll have some spare time to finish the projects, I usually do the design part 2-3 lessons before the final classes, just to make sure everything’s ready. I want to share the simple Snakes and Ladders pattern a group of my pre-int+ girls played today. They had fun, so did I – and it was good to say goodbye after an hour of good fun.

Enjoy!

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