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K–12 teaching and learning · from the UNC School of Education

photo of a bride in India

This photo of a bride in a traditional Indian wedding provides an opportunity to emphasize cultural similarities as well as differences. (Image source. More about the photograph)

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The mission of the North Carolina State Board of Education calls upon teachers to prepare students to be “globally competitive for work and postsecondary education.” An important part of meeting that goal is to introduce students to world cultures in instruction.

Some teachers welcome the challenge of global learning, and look for every opportunity to infuse their lessons with international content. Many teach cultures expertly, but we’ve all heard horror stories of cultural lessons gone wrong — the discussion that succeeds only in reinforcing stereotypes, the “re-enactment” of cultural or religious ceremonies that show gross disrespect. Lack of knowledge or understanding, or even good intentions but poor planning can mar students’ learning about cultures.

Many teachers steer clear of cultural content for fear of making embarrassing mistakes. But now that the North Carolina Professional Teaching Standards stipulate that teachers must “demonstrate knowledge of diverse cultures” and “develop lessons that counteract stereotypes” (Standard II); and “promote global awareness and its relevance” (Standard III), teaching cultures is no longer optional.

How do you teach world cultures well? And how can you demonstrate your competence according to the specifications of the Teaching Standards? Here are some general guidelines and specific strategies for global teaching. Along the way, you’ll find a few “beginner’s mistakes,” suggestions for their correction next time, and recommendations for growing in proficiency as a global teacher.

Emphasize similarities as well as differences

“We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” The line from Maya Angelou’s poem “Human Family” sums up the most important lesson of global cultural awareness. No matter where we live, we all share the same basic human characteristics. All culture learning should present our differences as varying strategies for meeting our common human needs.

Beginner’s mistake

A teacher shows the class a photo of a traditional wedding in India. The bride’s red sari and necklace of flowers becomes the focus of the discussion, and soon all anyone can talk about is how strange it is for a bride to be wearing a red (not white) dress, and wearing flowers around her neck (not holding a floral bouquet).

Analysis

We see differences more readily than we see similarities. In this case, students saw something that seemed strange to them, and, because they hadn’t been prepared, the strangeness was all they could see. Naturally, it took over their discussion.

Next time

Before showing the photo, the teacher explains that a Hindu wedding ceremony involves special clothes (especially for the bride) and displays of flowers, just like a Western wedding ceremony. The teacher asks students to look for bridal clothes and flowers when they view the photo. In the discussion, students note the differences, but also acknowledge the similarities in how we celebrate a wedding.

Growing in proficiency

Practice using images, sounds, and artifacts from world cultures in your teaching. Whenever you teach cultural content, stress the similarities to establish a context that makes sense of the differences.

Don’t let a single tradition define an entire culture

Identifying a culture with any one tradition, especially a festival, is promoting a stereotype. All cultural stereotypes are based on either incorrect or overgeneralized information, and they survive because people pass them along without really thinking about them. These stereotypes give us a false sense of traditions and of people, and can contribute to racism and xenophobia.

Beginner’s mistake

While discussing Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, the teacher remarks that “those Brazilians are always up for a party.”

Analysis

This is an example of letting a single, very popular, event represent — and misrepresent — an entire culture and the character of its people. To put it in perspective, would you teach Brazilian students about the United States only by showing photos of Mardi Gras? It would be incomplete and misleading, at the very least.

Next time

In addition to Carnival traditions, the teacher introduces students to “regular life” in Brazil — school, work, transportation, family meals. Students learn that Brazilians spend most of their days at work or in school, just as we do. They come to understand that although Carnival is a very well-known Brazilian holiday celebration, it’s not all there is to Brazilian cultural identity.

Growing in proficiency

Include cultural information about ordinary, everyday life. Consider connecting with a class abroad through email or conferencing so students can see for themselves how people their own age live in another part of the world.

Point out the diversity within a world region or culture

Remember that no world region or culture is uniform. Be wary of any statements that characterize an entire people. Lifestyles differ according to location (urban or rural), age, language, religion, and education. Urbanization is also bringing change to traditional cultures all over the world.

Beginner’s mistake

A classroom visitor who has just visited Senegal, in West Africa, shows her travel photos, featuring many city scenes with people in business attire. After the presentation, the teacher rushes to tell students “I want you to know that this is not the real Africa that you have just seen here.”

Analysis

Africa is the second largest and second most populated continent, with more than fifty countries, highly diverse cultures, and a growing urban population. But our view of Africa is too often limited to a single image with huts, wild animals, and certain kinds of traditional clothing. This teacher is upset to see her particular view of Africa challenged by evidence of contemporary city life.

Next time

When a classroom visitor shares photos of Senegal that include urban life, the teacher encourages discussion about the streets, tall buildings, and business dress. She asks the visitor to explain more about contemporary life in West Africa, including the similarities and differences between urban and rural settings.

Growing in proficiency

The incident in this example appeared in “Teaching Tolerance,” one of many good sources for ideas about overcoming cultural bias in the classroom. Deepen and broaden your knowledge of countries and regions through reading, viewing contemporary films, and following the international news. Note differences within the cultures you study, and make use of this knowledge in your teaching.

Teach cultures across the curriculum

As the North Carolina Professional Teaching Standards make clear, all teachers — not just social studies teachers — are required to “promote cultural awareness” and “create lessons to counteract stereotypes.” Culture learning can and should be infused in all subjects — arts, math, science, career and technical education, and physical education as well as social studies and language arts.

Beginner’s mistake

“But what does my class have to do with cultures?” a teacher asks. “I teach math, not social studies!” She insists that there’s no opportunity for her to “shoehorn in” any cultural references when her students need all they time she can give them for instruction and practice in math skills.

Analysis

Overloaded teachers frequently assume that teaching cultural awareness is an “extra” they can’t find the time for. When they understand how cultural references and contexts can enhance learning in their subject, they add it to their teaching strategies.

Next time

After the teacher calms down, she sees that she can in fact combine math learning with cultural learning. She starts by using international population in mean, median, mode, and range problems. The context, she finds, helps students to understand the differences between the terms, and the purpose of each.

Growing in proficiency

Look through your lesson and unit plans to see if you can enrich your teaching with cultural learning. Start small at first, and you’ll find more opportunities as you practice. Explore cross-curricular lesson plans and units for teaching at the web sites for the European Union Center of Excellence, the Consortium in Latin American and Caribbean Studies, and the African Studies Center.

Teach diversity within the United States every month

The United States has a rich tradition of racial and cultural diversity that, until recently, was not represented in most textbooks and classrooms. Celebrating Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, and Native American Heritage Month draws attention to the contributions of cultures to U.S. history and contemporary life. But study of these American cultures should be part of instruction throughout the year, in all subjects.

Beginner’s mistake

During February, a teacher decorates the classroom bulletin board with photos of African Americans in U.S. history. She refers to the display occasionally during the month, but does not include African American contributions in her teaching at any other time of the year.

Analysis

This teacher is confining her teaching about African Americans to a single display during Black History Month. She is missing opportunities to include information about African American contributions as an essential part of learning during regular instructional time.

Next time

The teacher’s plans include study of the contributions of African Americans to American life throughout the year. In preparation for Black History Month, she works with students to design a bulletin board and other classroom displays to honor those African Americans the class has chosen for special recognition.

Growing in proficiency

Learn more about African American, Hispanic, and Native American contributions to American history and contemporary life. Include them in your teaching all year, not just as part of a celebration.

Show the same respect for global cultures that you expect for yours

Every culture has sacred rites and taboos. Before you teach about a sacred ritual, research carefully, and, if possible, talk with someone from the culture who can advise you about how to avoid disrespect.

Beginner’s mistake

In a fourth grade class, a teacher introduces the Green Corn Ceremony, a rite of thanksgiving for a good harvest sacred to the Cherokee and other Native American peoples. She tells students they’re going to “re-create” the ceremony by making rattles from plastic bottles and shaking them while sitting cross-legged on the floor, “just like the Indians.”

Analysis

This teacher means well, but re-creation of sacred rites is not only disrespectful, it strips those rites of the meaning she intends to teach. To take it from another perspective, how would dunking in a river or pool teach students anything about the significance of Christian baptism? And how would Christians feel about this “re-creation”?

Next time

The teacher researches the Green Corn Ceremony using Cherokee sources, and shares her knowledge with students through discussion and images. The class compares and contrasts the Green Corn Ceremony with other harvest and new year traditions. A Cherokee visitor to the class shares her own experiences of traditions and ritual.

Growing in proficiency

Deepen your knowledge of tradition and ritual before you teach. Research on your own, and look for professional development opportunities for learning more about cultures.

Resources

LEARN NC offers lesson plans, online textbooks, multimedia, and best practices articles to support teachers in including cultural learning in instruction. The online professional development course Crossing Cultures I: Self Awareness is very helpful in raising cultural awareness and improving understanding of perspectives and traditions. The course is offered periodically by LEARN NC.

North Carolina teachers can also connect with National Resource Centers at UNC-Chapel Hill, NC State, and Duke University for free online resources and support in teaching world regions.

African Studies Center at UNC
On the K-16 outreach page, find links to information about teaching Africa and lesson plans on Africa for many grade levels. Teachers can borrow a classroom culture kit on Senegal and learning boxes on West Africa, as well as books and films about Africa. Borrowing is free, and the center pays for delivery and return. Partial scholarships are available for the online UNC course “Introduction to African Studies for Teachers.”
Asian/Pacific Studies Institute at Duke University
The Asian/Pacific Studies Institute offers support for teaching East Asia. The center runs teacher workshops and book clubs, and offers online resources, lesson plans, and a resource lending library.
Carolina Navigators
This program of UNC’s Center for Global Initiatives makes available culture kits with lesson plans. Teachers can arrange a classroom visit from a student who is from or has lived in the country the class is studying.
Center for European Studies and European Union Center of Excellence at UNC
The centers offer European films to borrow and downloadable texts on the European Union for young readers in French, German, and Spanish. The EUCE database offers standards-based lesson plans for teaching the EU for teachers across the curriculum.
Center for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies at UNC
The center offers online resources on Russia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia. The outreach page on the website provides links to map and language arts lesson plans, information about cultural traditions, food, music, and folklore.
Institute for the Study of the Americas at UNC and the Consortium in Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Duke
Both offer culture kits, traveling exhibits, and a lending library for books and films. Outreach supports book clubs, and offers curriculum for teaching Latin America.
North Carolina Center for South Asia Studies
The NCCSAS offers workshops, lesson plans, and support in starting a book club. Look for contemporary cultural images both online and available for borrowing.