My ninth-grade Spanish students resisted my assignment to write about their cultures.
“My family doesn’t have any cultural traditions,” one said.
“My culture is that I’m just normal,” added another.
“I don’t have a culture,” said another.
I realized that most of my students had only learned about culture in terms of other people. For my students, culture was something exotic and foreign, the odd quirks that make “them” different from “us.” I remember the yearlong parades of cultural fanfare I experienced in high school—holidays, dances, costumes, foods—that marched along the periphery of the history or foreign-language curricula. How could I challenge my students to think differently and more deeply about how culture shapes us?
I decided that if I wanted to initiate substantive conversations about culture in my classroom, I had to give my students a clear framework for thinking and talking about it. After a good deal of research and reflection, I settled on a few principles some drawn from the work of Gary Weaver, founder of American University’s Intercultural Management Institute, to help guide my students’ thinking and my own teaching about culture.
1. There is a difference between culture and cultural identity. Culture is a set of values, beliefs and behaviors shared by a group of people. Cultural identity is the unique way in which an individual person weaves together aspects of the multiple overlapping cultures to which he or she belongs.
2. Culture is like an iceberg. Some aspects of it are prominent, like the tip of an iceberg, but the bulk of it—the values and beliefs that shape who we are—exists beneath the surface.
3. Cultural identity is like a tapestry. Each of us pulls threads from multiple cultural contexts (school, church, neighborhood, country) to weave our cultural identities. People within one culture are not all the same; they each have a unique sense of cultural identity.
4. Learning about culture is a two-pronged effort. We should reflect on our own culture at the same time as we explore another culture.
I now introduce these concepts at the beginning of Spanish 1, and return to them throughout the year as we consider other aspects of culture. I hope to teach my students to value their own cultures, craft cultural identities and become more adept at managing the varied cultural challenges that school and life present.
In the diverse urban school where I teach, my students are multicultural. Not only do they come from a range of backgrounds, but each of them belongs to a range of cultural contexts, from their neighborhoods and families to their schools, churches and peer groups. I know that many of my students struggle to make sense of their diverse cultural worlds.
In addition, most of my students hope to cross socioeconomic (and corresponding cultural) boundaries through education. They plan to go to college, where they will encounter new expectations, assumptions and practices. By teaching them to understand culture in a deeper way, I hope to equip them with tools that will help them interpret cultural phenomena and meet cultural challenges.
Melville is high school English, Spanish and drama teacher in Pennsylvania.