Teaching Culture

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11 thoughts on “Teaching Culture”

  1. My colleague and I have been having conversations recently about how we teach culture. I have not been satisfied, for years, in how I do it. I have often felt that it was a waste of precious CI time, and I loathe having kids memorize (well anything, but) culture facts.

    This year, I began playing with the “three P’s” of the ACTFL standards: perspective, practices and products. It was not a quick sell, but I now feel pretty strongly about this approach. Whatever the cultural theme or issue is, I can ask students to identify whether this is a traditional idea or attitude (perspective), a process, method, ritual, routine–ongoing way (practice) or a thing, an end result, something you can hold or point to, including symbols (product). And, I found that it’s fairly easy to talk about these things in Latin (conspectus animi, exercitationes, et res). It moves us from fact funk to critical thinking, and I do like that. Almost all the cultural products (res) show up in our stories as do manyy of the practices (exercitationes). The perspectives (conspectus animi) are harder, in either language, but they show up in the verbs we use: credo, puto, cogito, sentio, faveo, mihi placet, etc. So whether I teach culture or not, it’s there. The three P’s have given me another way of reconciling the horrible split I always felt between the language work we do which is really all that I think of myself as doing, and the cultures that my language take us into.

    1. Jeffery Brickler

      Bob is so right here. There is a great divide between the culture and the language. Culture is language. The way we/others express things tells us so much about their view of the world. I have struggled with this for a long time. The kids always clamor for culture and Ben is so right when he says that they just don’t want to do the rigorous activity of learning the language and listening.

      I too can admit that I get tired/lazy and I use culture as a way to get myself a break. Now with CI, there are new ways to find easier days. I am pledging that next year I will not relegate culture to a set of lessons in English where the students get to zone out and memorize information. It often is code for “doing nothing.” I pledge to find simplicity in my teaching and assessment that allows me to deliver great CI without killing myself under a insurmountable workload. I will stop blaming myself for the things outside of my control.

      There I said it. I feel better.

  2. Ooh LOVE this! deep and real. i always feel so voyeuristic with “culture,” as if I am supposed to be leading a tour in a zoo or something. ICK. So I pretty much avoid it except for authentic experiences and connections and genuine questions/observations from kids. I try to avoid the word “they.” Because we all know there is no “they” 🙂

  3. david sceggel

    Also, through some of the TPRS Publishing novels, I feel like I’m giving a good dose of culture to my Spanish 2-4 students. Most of the novels take place outside of the U.S. I will prep the day’s reading by showing pictures of San Jose or gallo pinto or the alamo, etc.

    It may not be memorizing the capitals of South America :), but I actually really like teaching culture through novels.


  4. “Kids don’t really want to watch a video when they clamor for one in the most unpleasant way to start class. They just don’t want to embrace the rigor we are about to offer them for the next fifty minutes.”

    Amen! They clamor for a number of other things and I think this is the #1 reason why. I even think it’s why I had a 4th grader ask for a worksheet. It’s “hard” (rigorous) to develop new brain pathways by thinking in the target language.

  5. Speaking of rigor, some students just informed me about a rather unusual final exam in another class (not a foreign language class). Apparently the teacher went over all the questions and answers with the students. The students meanwhile wrote/corrected their guesses/answers (I guess this is how it worked) on a piece of a paper, which they eventually turned in. On this paper, which–of course–had all correct answers, the students were told to write the score out of 70 which they feel they would have received if they had taken the test for real. The students were encouraged to treat it as a moral exercise. The three students I spoke with wrote 57, 60 and 62, respectively. Those are the scores which found their way into the grade-book.

    So, yeah… talk about rigor vs. zoning out.

  6. I am not sure what you mean by “teaching culture”. Culture is embedded in the stories I tell and experiences I share with my students. They are vitally important to making this language relevant. We ask our exchange students to contrast and compare school systems, eating habits, family structures and entertainment choices and all of this is brought into all my classes. How can one separate language from culture?

  7. But the kids don’t have enough language so I have ended up over the years going off on long 15 min. tangents in L1 about some author or painter or whatever. I don’t have that kind of time to talk about ideas the kids can’t place historically. I suck at embedding culture instruction in stories and all that.

  8. It’s helpful to distinguish between Culture and culture. Teaching Culture at the beginning levels can be difficult and also partake of something of the “oh, look at the quaint customs” sense of superiority.

    Teaching culture is easier. Every day I write the day and date in German on the board. For example: “Heute ist Mittwoch, der fünfzehnte Mai 2013, d. 15.05.13” Students are learning how to say the names of the week, ordinal numbers, and the date in a culturally authentic way. Some days I spend more time on this (“Is today Wednesday or Saturday?” “Which day is it?” “Is today Sunday?” “Is Thursday today or tomorrow?”), but every day part of the opening ritual of the class includes “What day is today?” and “What is the date?” I also ask, “How is it going?” and “Who is missing today?”

    I also teach culture when I show students how Germans count on their fingers. “One” is the thumb, “two” is thumb and forefinger, etc. I’m also teaching culture when I shake hands with students as they enter the classroom – or I go to each student prior to the start of class if I somehow didn’t make it to the door that day. I show them a “proper German” handshake and make them practice it.

    For birthdays I teach students a German song rather than singing “Happy Birthday” in either English or German. I also teach them how to wish someone a happy birthday. When I have a birthday, I bring a small treat for each student and explain that in the German school system they would be in the same classroom with the same 20-25 students for their entire school experience from fifth grade one, so part of the culture is for the birthday person to bring small treats for the rest of the class. (I even have students start to do this – this year one student brought bubble gum for everyone.)

    For other holidays I teach them some custom or product. Every year we go caroling because singing songs on the street is a German custom. One important thing to remember for this and for Culture as well as culture is that we do not need to teach them everything all at once. Did we learn everything about our own holidays and customs the very first time we experienced them? Of course not. So, we can teach a little bit at a time. We can also pre-teach the vocabulary for a holiday before we teach the perspectives, practices and products of the holiday. I really appreciate Bob Patrick’s comments on this. (See above)

    You can even do some of this with Culture. If I want my students to learn colors, I don’t have to limit myself to the white board, blue door, yellow chair, brown table, orange poster, etc. in the classroom. Why not show a slide of Manet or Monet or Degas (or Klimt, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Miró, Dalí, etc.) and talk about the colors in the painting: Are the lilies yellow or red? Is the sky blue? Students are exposed to cultural icons but interact with them at the level of language they possess. You can re-visit the same pictures next year and talk about other things in the picture. Maybe ask about what the people in the painting are doing. What were they doing just before the scene in the picture. What will they do after the picture? By year four, you can talk about some of the more abstract things like expressionism or romanticism, and they are already familiar with the products of the culture; now they learn something of the perspectives of the culture that influenced that product.

    I don’t do enough of what I just described in the last paragraph. I’m also going to suggest it to my Spanish colleagues as part of the vertical teaming they are working on. By planning this ahead of time we help ourselves avoid a major issue with culture. We know all of this cool stuff about the culture, and we want our students to know it also. We forget, however, that it took us years – decades even – to acquire this knowledge, and we want our students to know it all now. It just doesn’t work that way, especially if we want them to appreciate it.

  9. I love this idea of using paintings as a way to include culture when teaching the colors. I am going to steal it, Robert. Since starting with CI this year, I have actually been able to include more small “c” culture in lessons than what is in the textbooks. Like when the Chinese 1 students were working on “can speak” “Chinese, English, etc.” the subjects were famous foreigners who lived in China instead of the cartoon people in the book. In Chinese 2, when we worked on drinking and eating, I could give them sentences about “Chinese people like to drink green tea.” To my surprise, I actually am able to include more culture bits with CI than with the old way. Big “C” culture comes in Chinese club after school.

  10. Thanks Robert, for this practical and flexible manner of addressing culture. I like especially that you remind us that learning about culture (like reaching fluency in a language itself) is a process that takes years to acquire. It enables me more patient with my students and myself and just enjoy being in the process with them, where they are at, not where I unrealistically want them to be.

    I heard Ben saying essentially the same thing in another discussion this week – comparing the time we know it takes to really acquire a language with the time we actually have in class. It is so freeing to let go of our impossible expectations of students and ourselves and replace them with real ones.

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