Saturday, July 4, 2009

Turning a Cultural Faux Pas into a Teaching Moment

By Myra M. Medina
Professor, Miami Dade College

I tell my students that the most important day of the entire term is the first day of class. That’s the day we discuss the syllabus and what is expected of them throughout the term. We discuss not only how they are going to be graded, who their classmates are and some information about their instructor’s background, but classroom etiquette in the U.S. as well. When you have students who come from all over the world with different norms and values, a clear understanding of expected classroom behavior is essential for their overall success.

A kiss on the cheek may be charming, but . . .

In many cultures, it is expected that you greet everyone when entering a room full of people. Consequently, some ESL students have a difficult time adjusting to doing the opposite when circumstances call for entering a room quietly. I cannot forget the male student who would come into class late and greet all the female students near his seat with a kiss on the cheek. Everyone involved seemed very happy with the exchange. However, this “social grace” interrupted my class until the friendly ritual had concluded.

After this happened a couple of times, I realized that this student’s unacceptable behavior created a cultural teaching moment. It was an opportunity to explain that in this culture, if you arrive to class late, you do not walk across to the opposite side of the room, overshadowing the instructor as you walk past her. You come in as quietly as possible almost invisibly without greeting anyone. No one is going to think you are rude because you did not say “Good morning” (or kiss them on the cheek!). However, it is considered rude to arrive late, and it is considered rude to interrupt the instructor and the class.

“Collaboration” is not always appropriate in the U.S. classroom

Another cultural teaching moment presented itself when a couple of students sitting right in the front row were “collaborating” while taking a quiz. Quietly, so as not to disturb others, I approached them and reminded them that they were not allowed to talk while taking a quiz. But this was to no avail — the next thing I knew, they were collaborating again. Instead of being angry, I quickly realized that they were just doing what they had been taught in their culture to work together for the benefit of the group rather than the individual.

After collecting the papers, I explained to the class how in this culture we value the work of the individual and encourage independence and competitiveness. In taking the time to explain different learning styles and how these are influenced by cultural values and context, I believe I provided my students an opportunity to learn about themselves while learning about the new culture they had become a part of.

As a result of these situations and others we encountered, a colleague and I created a document titled “Classroom Etiquette in the United States,” which we now attach to the syllabus and discuss during the first day of class. Discussing classroom rules — beyond what is expected academically — provides the students an opportunity to learn about the culture, avoids future class interruptions, and creates an environment conducive to learning.


Comment from Robert O. Chase
July 6, 2009 at 8:10 am

Kudos to Professor Medina for reminding us that helping ESL students to function in the host culture involves discovering skills beyond the English words and structure, and for having the creativity to seize the appropriate moments to use this "realia" that is always present.

Comment from Barbski
July 6, 2009 at 9:43 am

Not only do we see these cultural faux pas in the classroom as cited by Professor Medina but also in the work place. As a supervisor I recently added a person from a different culture to my staff. This person would greet people each morning with either a kiss on the cheek or a hug, including myself and upper management staff. Needless to say, I was advised to speak to this new employee regarding what I considered a very sensitive subject. I wish that I had had in my possesion a document such as the one developed by Professor Medina and her colleague that I could review and discuss with this new employee. However, this article has made me think that our agency should have such a document that could be reviewed with new employees, especially in this day and age when many of our fellow employees are indeed from different cultures. I will put this on the table at our next management meeting. Thank you, Professor Medina!

Comment from Yanitza
July 6, 2009 at 11:36 am

I am delighted to see that Prof. Medina has taken a step forward in creating this document which in my opinion will not only serve as a behavior code for international students while attending ESL courses, but it will help them to properly conduct themselves outside the classroom, in a more professional enviroment. As a former international student myself, I would have loved to have had this paper in my posession at the beginning of my career in this country. Thank you Prof. Medina.

Comment from Anonymous
July 6, 2009 at 6:33 pm

Excellent article indeed!
As a student I see this behavior all the time. I strongly believe "Classroom Etiquette in the United States" should be implemented in every college and university in America.
Thank you,
Prof. Medina

Comment from Cynthia Schuemann
July 7, 2009 at 9:12 am

I agree with these many interesting observations about classroom etiquette! I especially appreciate how Professor Medina has conveyed a need for respect for differences and not taking student actions personally. As an ESL department chair, I have worked with some faculty who have become very upset by student "collaboration" in testing situations, seeing the cheating as an insult. In reality, there are usually more student-centered reasons behind the actions. Working with all students early on, in the proactive manner Professor Medina suggests, lays a beneficial foundation for positive classroom interactions throughout a semester.

Comment from Ismael Tohari
July 13, 2009 at 6:45 am

What an interesting and illuminating article that was! I like it so much! It is the first article on AzarGrammar that I wasn't in need to look any word up. It is really plain English.

Comment from Linda Albert
July 18, 2009 at 5:27 am

Professor Medina's article on cultural Faux Pas is inspirational in many ways because it seeks to help us understand the intrinsic cultural differences of our ESL students. In a sophisticated manner, Prof. Medina provides us valuable information on how to help these students not only adapt to their new culture, which is difficult enough, but also teaches us how to respect and consider that delicately interwoven cultural pattern that makes them so special and working with them so gratifying.

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