Archive for Tag: Myra M. Medina

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.