Cambridge examiner and English teacher Tamara Robledo Carranza looks at how to enhance a sense of identity in an intercultural classroom without losing a sense of community.
Nowadays, schools are becoming increasingly diverse, both culturally and linguistically. As a result, teachers need to be more cross-culturally competent. In this article, I will explain why intercultural competence is so important in the modern day language school and suggest some strategies and activities which both raise intercultural awareness and maintain students’ sense of ethnocultural pride and identity.
Why develop intercultural competence in schools?
It is an undeniable fact that immigration has dramatically increased in recent decades in the European Union, and as a result intercultural classrooms are a growing phenomenon. However, are teachers ready to face this challenge? How can they effectively engage students from diverse backgrounds? Are they ready to prevent prejudice and discrimination and raise intercultural awareness? These are questions that many teachers face at the beginning of the school year, and, of course, there isn’t a magic formula for solving these issues. However, there are many useful resources that may help educators to understand this phenomenon. Our duty as teachers is to become cross-culturally competent and understand how different cultures affect the way in which our students behave and impact what they learn. The more teachers learn about their students of diverse backgrounds, the better they become as cross-cultural communicators, and the more likely they will be to contribute to optimal student learning outcomes.
Why interculturalism instead of multiculturalism?
Multiculturalism refers to two or more cultures coexisting in the same space and at the same time, not necessarily integrating their respective values, belief systems, and ideologies. By contrast, interculturalism implies contact between cultures with minds open to accepting and listening to one another. As educators, we are not only looking for an agreement such as this, but also a deeper understanding among learners from different backgrounds, which helps us to dispel long-standing prejudices.
Different strategies for introducing interculturalism
I firmly believe teachers always do their best in the classroom. However, there may be some times where circumstances, such as the flow of immigrants, are quite new and difficult for us to adapt to. If we have been used to teaching a monolingual class of twenty students, and suddenly we are faced with a class of twenty where half the students are national learners and the other half are immigrants, what are we supposed to do? We can ignore the new circumstance and teach the class the same as we normally would, or we can try to identify and adapt to the new situation in a positive manner. For teachers who are confronted with such a situation, the following tips may be helpful:
- Offer a wide variety of different activities. Using variety provides the learners with opportunities to learn in ways that are responsive to their own learning styles. It is important to bear in mind that each student learns following different paths. Don’t use activities that focus on just one skill. Try to provide student-centred activities which may help them develop and strengthen other approaches to learning.
- When developing learning aims, take into account students’ cultures, facilitating opportunities for all kinds of students. It is important to pay special attention to those students who differ in race, sex, ethnicity or religion, in order to promote the same learning opportunities. Only by taking into account all these factors will we find the best way all learners can achieve their aims.
- Keep students actively involved in the lessons and try to work in cooperative learning groups, empowering them to participate more fully. Cooperative groups help learners develop their interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence, and strengthen their social skills and their empathy towards their classmates. These cooperative groups have proven to be more effective in working through projects, as the burden of the learning process is on learners, and it brings teaching from abstract knowledge to real world application. Moreover, working on projects provides a framework for creating classes that are interesting and address students’ needs.
- Build relationships with students and their parents. We must show them we care by getting to know their individual needs and strengths and sharing their problems, joys and hopes. Students must feel that they belong and are accepted. Understanding our students’ lives will enable us to enhance the significance of lessons and will make examples more meaningful. If we get parents to be involved in different activities, learners will achieve the aims more efficiently.
- Maintain high standards for all students. Thus, they will be challenged and their learning will accelerate, regardless of their backgrounds. It is clear that students learn more if they are challenged by teachers who have high expectations for them. Therefore, it may be useful to involve students in problem-solving activities, where they are required to use analytic skills and make connections.
- Identify and dispel stereotypes. Most students show prejudices towards different cultures. At the beginning of a course, it may be worth giving them a test in order to check negative attitudes towards other cultures, and also to use open interviews in order to highlight the main points to focus on. An easy starting point may be to point out any sexist language or ethnic, racial or gender stereotypes that appear in everyday instructional materials.
- Choose materials that incorporate and reflect students’ heritage. Our students’ self-esteem will be strengthened if they see and read about the contributions made by their own ethnic groups to the history of our country. Whenever possible, adapt the curriculum to focus lessons on topics that are meaningful to learners. This allows them to practice their skills in real situations. Moreover, they will realize that teachers value and care about each student’s culture and language.
- Assess in multiple forms (reading, written, spoken and aural). Some students are stronger in different areas, so assessing in multiple forms will allow all students to demonstrate their strengths. It is also worth mentioning that, rather than relying on a single standardized test, authentic assessments such as performance tasks, exhibitions and portfolio are preferable since this assessment takes into account input, as well as process and output.
The use of storytelling for raising intercultural awareness
All this theory may seem easy to assimilate, but once we are in the class with our students, what can we do in order to raise intercultural awareness at the same time as learning English? One specific activity that has proven successful in the acquisition of intercultural competence is storytelling through literary texts.
One of the main arguments for integrating literary texts in the second-language classroom is that works of literature enable the reader to observe the world from multiple perspectives and to appreciate diversity. Specifically valuable in this respect is immigrant literature, which is an ideal source for examining cultural differences and making cross-cultural comparisons, as protagonists often have to face such differences. Within literary texts, storytelling is worth mentioning, as the stories that teachers choose to tell in class help learners to enhance their sense of identity without losing a sense of community.
Kevin Cordi, a professional storyteller, believes that stories help us make sense of the world around us. He claims that ‘by sharing our stories, communities enrich each other. We become vaster, wiser, and more compassionate. Without telling our stories, the land and those who inhabit it become alienated’. Moreover, in order to acquire knowledge about other countries or communities, we need to read and become familiar with their history and their culture. Folktales and traditional stories provide insights into cultural aspects of a group along with its values and customs. Thus, the use of literary texts and storytelling has been recognized in education as an essential tool by which we make sense of the world we live in. Crucially, it contributes to raising awareness of one’s own cultural patterns, as well as fomenting contact with different cultures.
But what happens if we are not good at telling stories? Don’t worry. The most important point is to become aware of the need to develop intercultural competence among our learners. Activities should be student-centred, so if you don’t feel comfortable telling stories, let your students do it. Look for diverse tales from different countries your students may enjoy, and plan your lessons around them. One option is to split your students into cooperative groups and give each group one story to deliver. Each group should work on their story, focusing on characters and settings, and developing different points of the culture mentioned in the story. After practising it in their groups, they can act it out in front of their classmates, telling them the story. When the groups have all performed their stories, they can choose their favourite story and draw a comic of it. Finally, they can exhibit those comics around the classroom so that the whole class can read them and learn about them. In order to assess the students, give them a quiz related to the different cultures you want to work with before doing any type of activity, then give them the same quiz once the activity has taken place to see what they have learned.
We can’t ignore change or turn a blind eye. We must get ready to face it in a positive manner. The more cross-culturally competent we become, the more we will understand how our students behave, and the more we will contribute to creating a better learning environment. Interculturalism must serve to enhance different values coexisting together, and, indubitably, storytelling is a key tool in working towards this goal. So, what are you waiting for? Once upon a time in an amazing school …
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Challenges in ELT: Developing intercultural competence