One of my favorite things about my experience teaching ESL (as opposed to my experience teaching EFL, though I loved both) was the diverse range of people and cultures that I had in my classroom. I love cultural diversity in the classroom! However, in some ways, teaching EFL to students within the same age range, upbringing, educational background, and culture was much easier. I knew who I was working with, I only had to research one culture, and most of the time the students were on the same page. That wasn’t the case with my adult ESL class.
To give you a better idea about the challenges I faced in my class, I had a 19 year old student, as well as 70+ year old students. I had students from Mexico, Sudan, and Haiti. I also had a student who was born and raised in Pennsylvania, yet never learned to speak, read, or write in English fluently. I had Muslim students, Christian students, and Hindu students. Needless to say, there was a LOT of diversity in the classroom.
Don’t get me wrong; I loved this class with all of my being. It’s part of the reason that I decided to break away from my initial plan of teaching and traveling, and stay state-side for a while.
So, how do you build a multicultural classroom community and how do you encourage diversity in the classroom? What are some steps you can take to allow students to embrace their personal culture, while also teaching them about the culture they find themselves in (or, in an EFL setting, the general English-speaking culture)? I have one answer for you: discussion. Most problems and misunderstandings in this world can be solved by discussion, and the same is true of the ESL classroom.
Discussion is really important for ESL, though, because ignoring a culture within your classroom shouldn’t be an option, and teaching about a culture you don’t understand is never a good option either. If you allow your students to have a voice in your class and to use their voice to share their experiences and upbringing, your classroom can turn into a rich, vibrant, multicultural community.
Encourage Diversity with General Discussion Topics
If you’re still uncomfortable with or unsure about cultural discussions in your class, this is a safe beginning. Some students may be unwilling to hear about other cultures and religions. Others may not feel comfortable enough to share something that is so near and dear to their heart yet.
Despite your or your students’ reservations about sharing cultures, discussion is still the most important part of building a community within your classroom and encouraging diversity.
Start with general, safe topics. Things like work, food, entertainment, animals, or other broad topics of discussion are great for encouraging students to speak, while not explicitly asking students to share about culture. General topics allow your students to share information and either avoid or share about their personal culture. The decision is up to them. It allows them to learn about one another and share cultural information, if they so choose.
Show your students a video about dance, then ask their opinion on the video, their favorite part of the video, or what they think about dance. Students then have an option whether to objectively share an opinion on the video, or to share something a little more personal.
There are some ways to encourage students to share more personal, cultural information if they feel comfortable. You can share your opinion and cultural views first. Explain to them how your culture views dance or your own upbringing with dance. It can also be beneficial to begin a discussion activity in pairs. Many people feel more comfortable sharing personal information with one person, rather than 10.
Give Opportunity to Share Cultural Experiences
If your students are more open and comfortable with sharing a little bit about their background, upbringing, and beliefs, then run with it! Implement culture into most activities! Take advantage of the diversity in your classroom. There are so many activities and projects that your students can do based on their diversity and cultures.
If your students are required or would benefit from giving presentations, allow them to present on an aspect of their culture. Not only does this allow them to focus on using English, rather than trying to learn about a brand new topic to present on, but it also allows them to share a little bit of themselves with their peers.
Another way to encourage diversity in your classroom is to implement culture into discussion activities. No matter what you’re discussing, students can compare and contrast English-speaking culture with their personal culture, share their opinions, or tell stories about their upbringing.
Include culture in small ways and big ways. If you’re discussing greetings and talking about when to greet with a handshake, have your students share how they greet one another in their culture. Or if your topic is family structures, have your students make a visual representation of family structures in their native culture. There are lots of ideas out there!
One of my favorite ways to encourage diversity in the classroom is through food. Who doesn’t love sharing snacks and meals? Some of my students have brought in cultural food to share with their peers. This could be something formal, like having everyone bring something in and having a discussion on cooking, ingredients, and the like. Or it could be more informal, by letting students know that if they ever want to bring in a snack or other piece of food to share with their class they are more than welcome to. As the teacher, start the practice! Bring in some American food to share with the class!
Diversity in the Classroom Begins with You: Talk About Your Culture
One of the most basic building blocks of teaching ESL is modeling. If you’ve been trained in ESL (or have had any experience in an educational field) you’ll know that it’s important to model language, model behavior, and model attitude! This is no different. Make sure you model cultural sharing.
Most students want to know about your culture. Share something about your culture in general, your upbringing, or your values and beliefs. This could be something simple like sharing about Jackie Robinson, or something more in depth, like talking about “the American dream.” Either way, encourage your students to ask you questions, then ask them questions!
If you share about means of transportation in your town or city, ask them what it was like in their town or city. If you talk about fast food, ask if they had anything similar. This will begin a discussion of cultures, practices, and values that can continue throughout the entire semester or year.
If you're unsure of how to share about your culture, start by making a list. Ask yourself about the ways that your upbringing has shaped you. Take an inventory of the differences between you and your students, or you and your friends from different parts of the town, country, or state. Embrace the things that make you unique!
There are so many ways to encourage diversity in the classroom, and there are times that you may not even need to encourage it. Some students are naturally comfortable with talking about their personal life and topics that could be controversial. However, if that isn't the case, use some of the tips above to create a vibrant, multicultural classroom!
When you start to think about putting the tips above into practice, you'll start to realize that they're all intertwined. Diversity can be seen in every aspect of our lives. The way we eat, sleep, interact with others, and handle money are influenced by our cultures. Therefore, discussing those general topics of life can lead to multicultural discussions.
Once your students are aware of their differences and comfortable embracing those differences, you can begin to incorporate those types of discussions into a variety of activities and projects. Nevertheless, as with all teaching, it has to begin with you. When you, as the teacher, are vulnerable with your class they will begin to mirror your vulnerability. That's what modeling is all about!
I Want to Hear from You!
If you've ever had a group of students who were guarded, share your story about how you encouraged them to open up!
What benefits have you seen from embracing the various cultures in your classroom?