Focus on Cultural Education: A Writing Activity

Living in a foreign country can be difficult if one doesn’t understand many of the cultural concepts that “locals” sometimes use on a daily basis.  When I came to the United States a few years ago, I realized how little I knew about the American culture.  I appreciated people who were willing to help me and contribute to my “cultural education.”

Accordingly, I am curious sometimes if our students are aware of the meanings, let alone the history, of the cultural concepts that they encounter during classroom activities or in readings.

I’d like to share an idea that integrates a cultural component into writing.  As examples, I used the concepts of the American culture (although some of them have become international), but this is not to say that this activity cannot be adjusted to local cultures in other teaching contexts.

Simply stated, this idea is based on having students write a definition paragraph by defining a certain “cultural term.” This activity is a practice activity, so it’s assumed that you first teach students how to write a definition paragraph.

Procedure

  1. Prepare small pieces of paper with one cultural item written on each piece.  Select the items that you think would be the most useful for your students, but also the ones that they are most likely not familiar with. The list of possible items is provided below.
  2. Each student will receive a paper with a cultural item. (Just for fun, you can use a bag, a hat, or a box to let them pick their paper.)
  3. As a homework assignment, ask students to talk to at least two local people (i.e., Americans in this case) to gather the information (meaning, examples, history) about the item they picked.  If students have a hard time finding “informants,” or if your teaching context does not allow students to interact with natives, they can use Internet resources as well.
  4. Using the information they found about their cultural items, students will write a definition paragraph, explaining the item and providing examples.

Notes

  • As seen, the described activity is appropriate primarily for beginning and low-intermediate adult learners.  However, you can adjust it for more advanced students by assigning a different type of writing assignment (e.g., a definition paper, a report).
  • You can also implement a multimedia project by asking students to create a poster, make a short video, or compose a PowerPoint presentation.
  • Students can also practice their oral presentation skills by giving a short presentation about their cultural item in front of the class.

Cultural Items

  • Cowboys and Indians
  • Kraft American cheese/Kraft Macaroni & Cheese
  • The Ford Mustang
  • Robin Williams
  • Hollywood
  • Taco Bell
  • McDonalds
  • Obesity
  • Las Vegas
  • Milkshakes
  • The Dallas Cowboys
  • American football
  • 2nd Amendment
  • The Constitution
  • The Bill of Rights
  • George Washington
  • The Chicago Institute of Art
  • The Guggenheim Art Museum
  • TV frozen dinners
  • Chinese take-out
  • Rock and roll
  • Jazz music
  • New Orleans
  • IHOP and Denny’s
  • Dollar movie theaters
  • Tailgating
  • Turkey Bowl
  • Road trips/road trip games
  • Yellowstone National Park
  • Skateboarding
  • Pop-Rocks
  • The Smithsonian
  • NASA (Space Travel or Moon Landing)
  • Southern food
  • Theme parks (Six Flags, Disney, Cedar Point, Atlantic City, Coney Island, etc),
  • Gold rush, 1849
  • Apple pie
  • The North and The South
  • Confederate flag
  • White Christmas
  • Bing Crosby
  • 4th of July parade
  • Golden Gate Bridge
  • Twist cones and chocolate dipped cones
  • The New York Yankees
  • The L.A. Dodgers
  • Babe Ruth
  • PBJs (peanut butter and jelly sandwiches)
  • Wonder Bread
  • Ebonics
  • Smoky the Bear

I hope your students enjoy this activity!

About Elena Shvidko

Elena Shvidko
Elena Shvidko is originally from Russia and has been in the United States for 7 years pursuing her education, most recently her doctorate in second language studies at Purdue University. Elena received her master's in TESOL from Brigham Young University and has taught various ESL classes both in academic and community settings. Currently, she is an instructor of first-year composition courses in the English department at Purdue University.
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