Skills in cultural competence are in high demand as we all become more interconnected around the globe. These skills, which are essentially behaviors and attitudes that enable us to work effectively cross-culturally, are a central part of my classroom teaching. And, it starts early on. Here are a few ways that I provide opportunities for some of my youngest student to start honing their skills of cultural competence early on.
The French speaking world is so much larger than France and Canada, and I strive to expose my students to the many countries and cultures around the world that use the French language. Beyond European countries such as Belgium and Switzerland, French is used in many African countries including Senegal, Benin, Guinea, Cameroon, Chad and Rwanda just to name a few. Additionally there are francophone areas in the Caribbean (Haiti, Martinique) and the south Pacific (French Polynesia and New Caledonia). In an effort to engage students in the language and culture of these countries, my French students have been corresponding with students from around the francophone world.
Three years ago my fourth grade class connected with the Fontamara School in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The partnership was made through a connection I have with the Power of Education Foundation, which started the Fontamara School following the earthquake in 2010. My students wrote autobiographies in French to talk about their homes, families, likes and dislikes, and their school. The students at Fontamara also wrote to our fourth graders following their lead of topics which made it rather easy for my students to understand the French.
Two years ago one of my classes was paired with a Peace Corps volunteer teaching in a school in Senegal. Our Peace Corps partner, Samantha, kept a blog of her experience, and the my class was able to follow her adventure in addition to corresponding with her students in French. They even got to see pictures that Samantha posted on her blog of students in Senegal writing to us.
This year we were able to take advantage of my school’s partnership with the APAPEC School in Rwanda. Each year a teacher from each school spends two weeks in this sister school. One of our first grade teachers recently traveled to Rwanda and prior to her departure my students wrote personal letters that she presented to the APAPEC students. Many of the classes in the school are taught in French and upon her return she brought letters in French from the students in Rwanda. I put them on display on bulletin board outside of my classroom with QR codes so that community members can scan and listen to our French students reading their letters.
These connections between my students and students in Haiti, Senegal and Rwanda have been a truly authentic way of engaging the skills of cultural competence. Students are often quick to point out what we all have in common, but we as educators need to push students to look for what is different as well. This is where we have to put our cultural competency skills to work. It is easy and somewhat effortless to respect, honor and understand that which we share in common. The learning and strengthening of skills of cultural competency come from respecting, honoring and understanding that which is different.
I wrote a previous post on how a change in the words that a student uses can change a students mindset. Essentially, a mindset that is more focused on growth and overcoming challenges will lead to higher confidence and a clearer understanding, whereas a fixed mindset causes students to limit their confidence and potential (Carol Dweck, Mindset). I recently came across the results of a study done at Concordia University in Montréal, Québec that looked at how this concept of a growth or fixed mindset can be influenced by the process that a young learner goes through as he learns a foreign language.
This was an interesting study in its methodology. The children they worked with were 5-6 years old. Some children were monolingual and others were children who had learned a second language in some capacity. The researchers told the children stories about babies born to English parents but adopted by Italians, and about ducks raised by dogs. They then asked if “the children would speak English or Italian when they grew up, and whether the babies born to duck parents would quack or bark” They also questioned “whether the baby born to duck parents would be feathered or furred.” The children who had learned a second language knew that a baby raised by Italians would speak Italian, whereas the monolingual children were not as certain. The children with experience learning a second language were also more likely to believe that an animal’s physical traits and vocalizations are learned through experience or that “a duck raised by dogs would bark and run rather than quack and fly.”
The results of the study show that learning a second language (not two languages together from birth) not only promotes a growth mindset, but it can “alter children’s beliefs about a wide range of domains, reducing children’s essentialist biases,” which leads to less stereotyping and prejudiced attitudes. In addition, the study posits that “early second language education could be used to promote the acceptance of human social and physical diversity.”
In a previous post I wrote about Cultural Intelligence (CQ), which is based on David Livermore’s research and posits that CQ begins with an interest that motivates us to learn about a culture and we use that knowledge to effectively navigate and interact with the culture.
But how do we gain knowledge about a culture that gives us insights into perspectives that influence behavior, traditions and practices? There are 10 dimensions of cultural value that researchers at the Cultural Intelligence Center (including Livermore) use to compare one culture with another. It is important to point out the difference between a stereotype and archetype in this research. A stereotype is the belief that all members of a group act the same way while an archetype is a tendency of a group of people to behave in a certain way. These cultural value dimensions are based on archetypes.
I use these cultural values to engage conversations about culture that come up in classroom. Rather than viewing our own culture as the norm, we reference these cultural values to gain an understanding of the perspectives of our culture and that of another country or community. This framework helps to move beyond statements such as “Culture A is always late and Culture B is always on time.” With an understanding of the “Time–Punctuality versus Relationship” cultural value dimension there is a better understanding of how to engage with a culture that is different than one’s own in regards to this particular dimension.
I don’t reference all of the dimensions with students because it can get a bit overwhelming. Instead, I focus on a few and they learn to words to reference them in the target language. These are the Cultural Value Dimensions that tend to be more approachable for students, though more are possible with additional time and dedication.
The common way of approaching the teaching of culture in the foreign language classroom is focused on what is known of as a “functional” view of culture. This essentially means that learning about culture means knowing about elements such as what people eat, where they live, what holidays they celebrate and the structure of the government. This knowledge of the culture is a helpful starting point, but we need to take this a step further with our students and teach them how to use this knowledge to engage with the culture. There is more involved in understanding the perspectives that contribute to the behavior of any given cultural group, and you can read more about that in my earlier post, How to “Teach” Culture in a Foreign Language Class.
Knowledge is the first step in engaging with a culture. The ultimate goal is to develop a strong Cultural Intelligence (CQ), which allows us to appropriately and effectively engage with a culture that is different from your own.
CQ has 4 Factors:
To put this all together in simple and cohesive statement, our CQ begins with an interest that motivates us to learn about a culture and we use that knowledge to effectively navigate and interact.
These ideas are based on the work of David Livermore at the Cultural Intelligence Center.
There are many definitions of culture and these definitions tend to vary based on the perspective and approach of the person or organization defining the term. In an attempt to find an understandable and accurate definition that is appropriate for students, I searched the internet for various definitions from well known researches and authors in the field of cultural studies. I found 10 viable definitions. I took these 10 (often verbose) definitions and put them all together in Worlde, which is a resource for generating “word clouds” from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text. I wanted to see what the most common words were that came up in all of the definitions. I was pleased to see had the word cloud that Wordle produced provided a clear, concrete and easily understood definition. Based on the word cloud, this is the definition that stands out.
Culture: Shared patterns of learned behavior.
To begin this activity, show students two pictures that are different in some way. Ask them to take a close look and interpret how they are different. Then, they write one word for each picture that best describes it. Limiting it to one word causes students to focus on one aspect. Once they do this, the teacher can have them talk in small groups about why they chose these words or they can write about it. The activity and also be combined and students and speak in groups after writing about it. This activity lends itself to the ACTFL standards fairly well as students can be guided to speak or write in the text type of the various levels (individual words, phrases, sentences, strings of sentences, connected sentences or paragraphs). A great starting point or hook for conversations. This particular picture inspired such great conversation that I decided to make a bulletin board out of it with different languages.
The Peace Corps has been working internationally for more than 50 years in more than 139 countries. The Peace Corps has kept true to its mission over the years, “to promote world peace and friendship.” The Peace Corps is more vital than ever, working in collaboration with partner organizations and using cutting-edge technologies and well-tested best practices to enhance impact.
What better way to have students learn about the world than to partner with a Peace Corps volunteer in a country where the language they study is spoken. There is a division of the Peace Corps dedicated to providing these opportunities to teachers. It is called World Wise Schools and teachers can search for lesson plans and also apply to get a Peace Corps Exchange Partner. This program connects classrooms with a Peace Corps Volunteer serving abroad. Peace Corps Volunteers in the field exchange emails, letters, videos, photographs, and telephone calls with classrooms.
I have had a Peace Corps Exchange partner for several years and I have had novice and intermediate level exchanges between my students and students in a school in Senegal. Culture can start at the novice level. In fact, my 3rd grade class had an informative and interesting exchange. They began by writing a few sentences about themselves on one side of a sheet of paper (in French) and drew and labeled their family and home on the back. We sent these to Sam, our Peace Corps Volunteer, in Senegal along with blank copies of the paper that my students completed. Sam did the same activity with her students and sent them back. There were so many great conversations that happened simply by looking at way my students drew and labeled their families and homes and how that compared to the drawings of the Senegalese students.
Take advantage of the many great opportunities out there to connect students to the culture of the language that they are studying. No need to wait for intermediate or advanced levels, it can start at the novice level.