K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

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A collection of euro coins and paper currency.

These euro coins and bills could help bring to life a lesson about how a single currency system has transformed European economies. (Image source. More about the photograph)

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A box filled with everyday objects from another region of the world. It sounds almost magical — a sure-fire method for engaging students in hands-on exploration of culture.

Culture kits can be a powerful teaching tool at all levels, from kindergarten through high school. But too often a culture kit arrives, generates a little initial excitement, and then remains untouched in some “safe place” (like the windowsill) until it’s time to send it back.

How can teachers make the most of culture kits? Let’s begin by defining just what a culture kit is, and how it’s supposed to enhance learning about the peoples of the world.

What is a culture kit?

In a very basic sense, a culture kit is a box of realia. Realia are objects used by second language teachers to strengthen knowledge of a spoken or written word by physically connecting it for students with the object it represents. The theory is, you are more likely to remember that un billet means “ticket” if you’re able to take part in a role play — for example, buying a train ticket — that uses un billet as an actual prop. The object makes learning concrete, while the activity establishes a context and makes the experience (and learning) memorable.

Culture kits offer the same opportunity for learning about another region of the world, because they offer students the opportunity to see, touch, and, to a limited extent, use authentic, everyday objects of the region. They can include anything from tools, stamps, currency, eating utensils, clothing, books, CDs, toys, and musical instruments. Like realia in second language classes, the objects in the culture kit are meant to connect what might otherwise remain a concept with actual physical life.

Here’s how realia works in a social studies context. Think about telling your students that the new year is an important holiday in China. Now imagine your students seeing and holding authentic new year’s decorations displayed in Chinese homes. Think about your students reading about how a single currency system has transformed European economies. Now imagine your students actually handling the euro coins and bills used in the Eurozone. Suddenly the concept pops into three dimensions, reflecting not only an idea, but the reality of everyday life in another world region.

Let’s say you’ve decided to use culture kits in your classroom. How can you make them an integral part of your students’ learning?

1. Make culture kits a true part of your teaching plans

To make culture kits an integral part of learning, they must be an integral part of teaching. If you see culture kits as an “extra” or a “fun project” added to your “real” teaching plans, your students will see them that way, too. Result: some initial excitement, and then the box languishes on the windowsill, unexplored.

Take the time to coordinate your teaching goals with the opportunities presented by the culture kit. If you’ll be concentrating on descriptive writing, have students describe the objects in the kit. If you’ll be introducing graphic organizers, have students organize the items by use or by material, and chart the results. To encourage higher order thinking, use the culture kit as the basis of a Bloom’s Taxonomy activity.

Culture kits may come with their own lesson plans for using the objects. When you request the culture kit, ask if lesson plans are available. Check to see if the culture kit lesson plans correlate with the North Carolina Standard Course of Study. If they do, make note of the goals and objectives you’re meeting. If they don’t, do a little research to see if the activities might indeed connect with any of the goals you’re covering. You might add a discussion or a writing assignment using the culture kit to meet a language arts objective.

Review the lesson plans before you receive the kit in case you need extra planning or materials. The little extra effort on your part may make for a great experience for your students.

2. Introduce the culture kits while students are still exploring a culture

Don’t “save” the culture kits for the end of a unit of study, as if it were dessert. Let students use the kit to sharpen their interest and whet their appetite for learning.

Some teachers display the objects in a culture kit before they begin teaching about a country. They allow students to explore the objects, describe them in writing, and suggest their possible uses or significance. Culture kits frequently come with a list of questions, guiding students in their explorations and encouraging them to draw connections between the objects in the culture kit and familiar objects in their own everyday life. Later, as students learn more about the country, they begin to understand what role the objects play in the culture. The grounding in physical culture prepares students for further culture learning.

You can also introduce the culture kit after students have learned something of the culture of a country, but before they’ve begun a final project. That way, students can find objects that inspire them to find out more about a topic introduced earlier. For instance, the experience of seeing and handling an actual Mixtec grindstone for corn may focus a student’s theme from the general topic of Mexico to a specific exploration of how indigenous cultures have maintained their traditions.

3. Invite speakers who can tell you more about the culture

If you can request a speaker with the culture kit, by all means do so. Someone who can present the culture kit and answer students’ questions (as well as yours) about the objects and the country they come from is a great advantage in understanding a culture. If the speaker is a college student from another world region, your class may warm to them especially, and bring up great questions you didn’t think of asking. (Younger students may need some preparation on appropriate and inappropriate questions and remarks about culture in this context.)

Most speakers will be in contact with you before the presentation and are happy to stay in communication with the class even after the visit, if you have more questions. Don’t pass up this opportunity.

4. Stress similarities — not stereotypes

The purpose of a culture kit is to make an unfamiliar culture more real to students. For this reason, carefully created culture kits always offer a balance of familiar and unfamiliar, making the point that all cultures have both similarities and differences. That way exploration of the objects connects students more closely with other traditions (”oh, I get it”), rather than “exoticizing” a culture (”ooh, how strange” or “ew, that’s weird”).

Most culture kits have explanations for students, making the point that even the “strangest” objects answer a need we can understand. For instance, a Senegalese stick to clean teeth may sound awful to students at first. But if they learn that people pluck the stick straight from a fragrant tree, fray the edges, and use it as a brush, it sounds a lot less peculiar. (It might even make you wonder what people in Senegal might think of cleaning teeth with a months-old plastic brush stored in the bathroom.)

You can prepare students for a culture kit by supporting them in creating their own class culture kit, imagining that they would present it to a class in another world region. As students select objects they use or value in their everyday life, they begin to understand that any culture kit is incomplete, reflecting a part, but not all, of a culture. They also realize that the descriptions they write are formed by their own cultural assumptions. When the “real” culture kit arrives, students are more likely to accept the collection as a glimpse into a culture, valuable and exciting, but necessarily limited, just like their own culture kit.

5. Offer your own lesson plans

Many centers offering culture kits would welcome lesson plans from teachers. If you have an original lesson plan to use with the culture kit, and you’d like to share it, contact the center and let them know.

The logistics

North Carolina teachers can request culture kits free of charge from the African Studies Center at UNC-Chapel Hill, Center for Global Initiatives at UNC-Chapel Hill, and the Consortium on Latin American and Caribbean Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University. All the centers offer information about their culture kits online and will cover mailing costs for delivery and return of the kits. Some can also arrange for speakers who have lived in the country or region to come to your classroom for a presentation.

Here are some practical guidelines for requesting and returning the culture kits:

  1. Research possibilities and make your request early, ideally before the school year begins. Most centers need several weeks’ notice before they can send you a culture kit. Contact them as early as you can, and remind them of your request nearer the date.
  2. Make note of whether kits come with suggestions for activities. If they do, request to see them in advance. Some may need extra planning or materials.
  3. When the kit arrives, check contents immediately. There should be a list to check each item against. If materials are missing or damaged, let the center know.
  4. Encourage students to handle objects (except when noted otherwise). If you are concerned about objects going missing, make up charts for checking items in and out.
  5. Check the contents before returning, pack carefully, and note any problems.
  6. Return according to instructions. If you have any questions, contact the center directly.

Culture kit contacts

African Studies Center
Contact: Stacey Sewall (sewall at email dot unc dot edu)
Carolina Navigators
Contact: Tara Muller (tara_muller at unc dot edu)
Consortium on Latin American and Caribbean Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University
Contact: LeAnne Disla (leanne.disla at duke dot edu)