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It has been said that culture is like an iceberg, that only ten percent
of it is visible and the other ninety percent is hidden below the surface. For
this reason, ESL teachers must make intentional efforts to teach cultural
understanding and tolerance to their students.
How to Teach Culture In Your Classroom
Everyone eats, but not everyone eats the same
things, and the differences in diet from one culture to the next can be very
dramatic. You can let your students share their culture throughfoodby inviting them
to talk about or share dishes typical in their countries. To do this,have a cultural food fairor ask your
students to prepare a national dish in a class presentation. If everyone in
class gets a little taste, even better, just keep in mindfood
allergiesthat your students may have.
What better time to talk about traditional foods
than during theholidays.
Any holiday that pops up on the calendar is an excuse to celebrate any and all
Ask each of your students to talk about atraditional holiday from their native culture. They can give
information about the holiday itself as well as national and family traditions.
The students in your class will enjoy sharing some of their traditions as well
as hearing about those of their classmates.
Often another element of holidays or special
occasions istraditional dress. It is not
unusual for ESL students to bring some pieces of formal or traditional dress
when they travel overseas to study. If you are teaching immigrants, your
students also have a good chance of having these clothing items at home. You
caninvite your students to
wear traditional clothingon a certain day or bring picture
of themselves or others in traditional dress. Encourage each person to explain
the significance of the different pieces, if any, and give an opportunity for
everyone in class to ask questions.
While you are talking about holidays in your class,
have another conversation aboutwhat
people do in their free time. Generally, a person’s schedule
will be reflective of his or her values. Looking at the typical distribution of
time can give an insight into what is important in a given culture.Of
the 168 hours in the week, how many do most people spend working? Studying?
Going out with friends or spending quality time with family?The answers to
these questions and the differences from one culture to another will help your
students understand and appreciate what their classmates value.
While you are at it,does anyone in your class play a traditional instrument?That may not be
all that common, but most students could probably play some popular music from
their country for the class. Bring in an iPod dock and play a little rock and
roll, then invite your students to share some of theirmusic.
Again, encourage open conversation and question among your students. Be sure to
remind your class that national preferences vary as do personal preferences,
and remind them to be sensitive to what their classmates share.
Why not bring culture into the classroom with a
little show and tell? Set a day, perhaps at some point during a unit about
business, to invite your students to bring in a sample ofmoneyfrom their
native countries (which you should make note that they brought and make sure
they bring home). Either collect all the money in one place orpass it around and let your students look at
the coins and bills. Have them take note about who or what is pictured
on the money, and give your students a chance to talk about these people and
things. By sharing stories about what is important enough to put on the
country’s currency, your students will gain another level of cultural
understanding from their classmates.
Traditional stories such asfolk
talesortall talesare another way
to bring culture and history into the classroom. You can have your students
read English translations of traditional tales orhave your students tell the stories to their classmates. By noticing
who plays prominent roles in the stories and how they handle conflict, you and
your students will see some more of what motivates and challenges a national
Though religion is not necessarily a national
value, allowing your students to share their religious beliefs and those that
most members of their culture hold will also provide valuable opportunities for
your students to understand one another. With a spirit of open-mindedness and
your students to share some religious practices or beliefsand allow the
rest of the class to discuss the issues that may arise from thediscussion. If everyone in your class can be
tolerant of their classmates beliefs, there is the potential for a very
powerful and informative discussion on the topic of religion, simplyproceed
Often key events in a country’s past will either
establish or define that culture’s values. You cangive your students an opportunity to discuss
significant events in their country’s history, and if you do
asking, them to explain how those events influence their people today will give
you an insight into culture. If you have done other activities on culture, you
may have already touched on these events when talking about holidays or money,
but looking at things from a historical perspective can add another layer of
understanding for your students.
Not only does a country hold particular values, butfamiliesalso hold
certain values that they pass on to their children. Allowing your students to
share about their families can open the door to talking aboutthe values that their families hold. Talking about
these family values will also often lead to a discussion about the values of a
people group. When opportunities arise for your students to talk about their
families, encourage it and perhaps your students will learn a little more about
Culture permeates every aspect of our beings. These topics are just a few
that you can use to intentionally bring a discussion of culture into the
classroom. As a general rule, take advantage of any opportunities to talk about
culture with an open mind.
You will be a better teacher for it, and your students will be better
leaders of their nations.