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Should English Teachers Explore Cultural Topics in Class?

Nariman Mehmud
Nariman Mehmud
Should English Teachers Explore Cultural Topics in Class?
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For VOA Learning English, this is the Education Report.

If you are standing in front of an iceberg, it might look like the largest thing you've ever seen. But, you're still only seeing the small part above the water. About 90 percent of the iceberg is below the water. The same idea relates to culture, explains Amy Melendez.

Melendez teaches English and trains English educators in the Washington, DC area. She works at a number of schools, including Northern Virginia Community College and Georgetown University.

She says many students – and teachers – mistakenly think culture is just the things that are easy to see, like food, music, clothing and holidays. But, she says most culture is represented in what cannot be seen: people's expectations, beliefs and values.

So, she brings lessons about this into the classroom. She teaches learners how to understand and value cultural differences and communicate more effectively with people from other cultures.

Like Melendez, Michelle Stabler-Havener is an English educator who has taught intercultural communication. Currently, she is a doctoral candidate at Teachers College at Columbia University in New York City.

Michelle Stabler-Havener teaches English language instructors in the TESOL Certificate Program at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Michelle Stabler-Havener teaches English language instructors in the TESOL Certificate Program at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Both Melendez and Stabler-Havener explain that the subject of cultural understanding is a natural fit in language teaching. They note that language and culture are inseparable: words and expressions have cultural origins.

They also say cultural tolerance helps learners feel safe in the classroom. Stabler-Havener explains:

"In other words, they don't have to worry that people are going to criticize who they are or the things that they value most and believe in…this gives students the freedom to focus their energy on learning the language without having to be so concerned that these things that are so important to them are going to be questioned."

Out of the comfort zone

Ironically, providing this sense of safety often involves exploring subjects that pull learners out of their comfort zones. One tool both Melendez and Stabler-Havener find especially useful in the classroom is critical incidents.

A critical incident is a short description of a situation in which a misunderstanding or conflict took place between people. The problem may be caused by cultural differences or some kind of communication failure. It is the students' job to discover what happened and why. And, they are asked to come up with as many reasons as possible – other than reasons based on stereotypes.

Melendez gives an example of a critical incident she has used from a book called Tips for Teaching Culture*.

"You have two students who are working on a project. And, the student is supposed to be sharing the book with the other student. And, it's time for one of the students to leave for class. And, the older student who had checked out the book grabs the book, gets up and leaves because it's time for him to go to his next class. The other student – he's left a little bewildered (thinking) 'Why is leaving? Why is he taking the book?' You know, 'We were sharing this book.' In another part of the incident, too, with that one, the younger student had come late."

Another favorite tool of Melendez is digital storytelling. Digital stories are short movies that combine photos, video, animation, sound, music and words. Melendez says digital stories encourage healthy conversations around cultural myths.

Insook Yeo, a former student of Amy Melendez, shares her cultural experiences about her time in Turkey through a digital story.
Insook Yeo, a former student of Amy Melendez, shares her cultural experiences about her time in Turkey through a digital story.

For example, last summer, she trained a group of Panamanian teachers. Through one teacher's digital story, she learned that the person believed Americans were cold, emotionless people. This led to a productive class discussion about cultural differences in how people greet one another and their ideas about personal space.

"I think a lot of intolerance comes from the unknown. So, trying to make the unknown known, I think, is really important, even in a language classroom."

As many teachers know, classrooms can be unpredictable. At any given time, a student may say something to accidentally hurt or embarrass another student from a different culture.

To lessen this problem, Melendez has her students vote on rules for shared respect. And, they are asked to follow these rules throughout the course.

Stabler-Havener says students can also practice respect by the way they use the language. For example, they can express possibility by saying, "Maybe this is what is happening" instead of saying, "This is true for every person in this culture." And, they can show respect for others' opinions with language like, "I see your point but..." rather than "As we well know..."

To teach or not to teach

Before exploring sensitive cultural subjects with a class, Melendez and Stabler-Havener say teachers can spend time examining their own cultural biases.

Melendez says uneasy situations or subjects will probably arise in class whether or not English language teachers decide to explore the iceberg of culture. And, if a teacher chooses avoidance, they may be left unprepared.

She says a website called offers some useful resources for teachers, including web-based trainings.

Stabler-Havener says, in addition, teachers can go hear experts speak about intercultural communication.

She adds that it is a good idea for teachers to decide before teaching a class whether they will share their own opinions with students about sensitive topics.

"Are the students who disagree with you going to feel somehow maybe disempowered or concerned that, because they don't share your opinion on a topic that might affect them in the class?"

And that's the Education Report.

I'm Alice Bryant.

Alice Bryant wrote this story for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

Do you think English teachers should teach sensitive cultural topics in class or avoid them? Have you taught these topics in your class? Tell us about it in the comments section.​

*Book: Tips for Teaching Culture by Wintergerst and McVeigh


Words in This Story

iceberg – n. a very large piece of ice floating in the ocean

lesson – n. an activity that you do in order to learn something

intercultural communication – n. communication between individuals or groups of different linguistic or cultural origins

tolerance – n. the act of being willing to allow or accept something

comfort zone – n. a place, situation, or level where someone feels secure and comfortable

stereotype – n. an often unfair and untrue belief that many people have about all people or things with a particular characteristic

grab – v. to quickly take and hold someone or something with your hand or arms

bewildered – adj. very confused

myth – n. an idea or story that is believed by many people but that is not true

greet – v. to meet someone who has just arrived with usually friendly and polite words and actions

bias – n. a tendency to believe that some people, ideas, etc., are better than others that usually results in treating some people unfairly