A deep dive into "Crossing Cultural Boundaries" (supplemental episode 10)
Getting students to talk about their home countries really helps on Zoom
The best part of this lesson unit was when we talked about the differences between colleges in their home countries and colleges here in the United States. I realized that my second-language students did not have a very clear understanding of higher education here in the United States.
Why did this work so well on Zoom? I think it was really hard for my ESL students to comprehend me on Zoom. So, after we listened to the podcast and took notes on it, they wanted to make connections to their own countries. I had planned something different, but it turned out that the unplanned lesson plan was better.
Because that unscripted lesson plan went so well, I started asking my students to share more information about their home countries and cultures. Here's what we learned from each other:
- People in Oromia, which is part of Ethiopia, want greater freedom. The Oromo tribe is subjugated.
- In order to milk a mean cow, you have to tie one of its back legs to a tree and have a strong man hold the horns.
- In Rochester, Minnesota, immigrant family parents still try to arrange their kids marriages, but it rarely works out as the parents hope.
- Hong Kong has more ghosts than Rochester because it has been a city for hundreds more years. So many more people have died there.
- Don't look behind you at night when walking in Vietnam. The spirits will catch you.
- It's hard to be a Somali teen because you don't speak Somali as well as your parents, and you don't speak English as well as your friends.
- Somali women think Ilhan Omar rocks!
Is it really necessary for us to learn about how to milk a mean cow? Perhaps not. On the other hand, much of the teacherly knowledge I impart to students probably isn't necessary either. Do indirect objects and non-restrictive adjectives clauses really matter that much? Probably not. So, these cultural discussions worked well on Zoom because students were relaxed, and they were able to use English at the very edge of their fluency to talk about these, and other, complicated topics.
Strategies to activate cross-cultural prior knowledge activation
Students from other countries often have great English skills. What they lack is cultural knowledge. They simply don't have the same cultural references as a person born directly in the United States. So, what can we teachers do to overcome this issue?
I learned from my Zoom discussion about mean cows, Hong Kong ghosts, and Ilhan Omar that the answer is to activate students' prior knowledge by helping them to connect what they are learning now to what they already know from their home cultures.
This works particularly well for first-generation immigrants. It is still effective with children of immigrant parents, but you need to know that they might know very little about their home countries. They still know a lot about their home cultures, though. If you are teaching a class comprised entirely of ESL learners, you'll discover that they love to talk about their home countries and cultures. I think this is because they know everyone else in the room has similar shared experiences.
However, if you are teaching a class with a mix native speakers and ESL learners, you'll probably discover that your ESL learners will not speak up as much in a classroom setting about their culture or home country. This is understandable. They might be nervous speaking English in front of a whole class. Or, they simply might not want to be seen as the Vietnamese Spokesperson or the Somali Expert.I could not get any of my ESL speakers in my mixed classes to say more than a few sentences in any Zoom class. I think if I had divided my mixed Zoom classes into small group discussions, the ESL speakers would have been more comfortable sharing what they knew.