Nathan Hall, ELL specialist at Achievement House Cyber Charter School in Exton, Pennsylvania, USA, has joined the TESOL Blog. Nathan will be blogging biweekly on secondary education.
Think back to the first day of a new school year. It’s late summer, but you feel cold and uncomfortable. You don’t know the boy to your right or the girl behind you, or even the teacher. You start to think about how different you look from the rest of the students and spend so much time wondering what they think of you that you don’t form many opinions about them. And then the teacher says it’s time for everyone to introduce themselves. You may have experienced this with the added level of not having a common language—or least not one you spoke or understood well—with classmates who have different accents.
This is nerve-racking for students, and it’s not easy for the teacher, either. It was what I faced with some students from Hong Kong and mainland China, two from Ecuador, a girl from Morocco, and others from different nations. I had to make them comfortable speaking and listening, or we would all have a long year.
To diffuse this tension, I found common ground for people from all over the world while treating them all as individuals. Here’s how I did it:
- First Impressions. Before I made the first presentation assignment, I went over some vocabulary words for airports, followed by some terms for excitement, uneasiness, loneliness, and other symptoms of culture shock. The students’ first assignments were to talk about how they felt when they first arrived in the USA. It didn’t take long for them to realize they all felt the same way.
- The Food. A common theme that came up was how repulsive my students found American food. “Everything’s frozen and processed here, not fresh like it is at home,” said an Ecuadorian boy. “And why do Americans put cheese and ham in everything?” asked a Vietnamese girl. Rather than defend the local cuisine, I gave them their next assignment: A presentation on their home culture’s foods.
- Cultural Comparisons. When Halloween came, we used ghosts as a starting point to discuss superstitions. After a spirited talk about ghosts, we went into wedding traditions, holidays, and sports. I led conversations about snow when the seasons changed, which allowed some to share their first impressions of the winter wonderland with others who were already sick of the white stuff. I took each theme as an opportunity to reinforce the targeted vocabulary while keeping the momentum going.
I made it clear that the content wasn’t as important as the presentation. Students were graded on the length of their presentations and pronunciation on forms I went over in class, but they were not graded on their opinions. They were free to be as critical of American culture as they wanted.
I also made it clear that students had to be respectful of their classmates’ differences. That became an issue when one student asked some rather direct questions about a classmate’s religion. It took some explaining to resolve that matter peacefully, which meant I gave the student the opportunity to explain how there was more to her beliefs than what the student heard on the news. In this situation, it’s equally important to let students know their opinions are valid without invalidating the opinions of their classmates.
The result? By the end of the term, my students were much more confident in their abilities to navigate American culture while expressing their opinions. I like to think these skills made their next first-day-of-class much less uncomfortable. They knew everyone felt like they did, and no matter where we come from, we all have some things in common.