By Melissa Kennedy, Jon Green

24 September 2014 - 10:33

'The lessons are an outlet for students to talk freely and openly about politics, life, culture and themselves.' Photo (c) Nick Page, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.
'The lessons are an outlet for students to talk freely and openly about politics, life, culture and themselves.' Photo ©

Nick Page, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.

What happens when you combine language, culture and politics in the classroom? Melissa Kennedy and Jon Green, teachers on a two-year project aimed at raising the awareness of language, culture and politics of the European Union for 300 young Belarusians, explain.

In what ways might a lack of cross-cultural awareness create problems for learners? What miscommunication might occur?

Melissa Kennedy: Some learners might overuse sincere, formal phrases instead of their everyday, more ‘natural-sounding’ equivalents, but to my mind, none of these primarily register-related incidents have been serious enough to warrant the label ‘miscommunication’. This is probably because the learners on the Roots and Treetops project were selected through an interview process, and the skill set you need to interview well is roughly the same as that required to communicate with appropriate use of the language.

How can teachers bring cultural and political issues into the classroom? What are the risks, if any?

MK: International headlines are an obvious choice for conversational topics. It was easy to kick-start political discussions based on news reports from Crimea, for example. Similarly, the Sochi anti-gay furore was a shoo-in for conversations about Western versus Eastern European cultural values. On a different tack, useful cultural and political subtexts can be found in abridged literature and children’s classics, written in language that’s accessible for English as a second language (ESL) readers. Even Mary Poppins can be subversive if you look hard enough.

Potential risks include coming across as a smug, bleeding-heart EU citizen when inviting students to discuss the pros and cons of their own society.

Is the classroom a suitable place to express political and cultural opinions? What has been your experience on this project?

Jon Green: We taught via Skype, which distances you from the other speaker. This could mean that students are more at ease expressing their opinions. I have certainly gained a lot of insight into the lives of my students and maybe they are giving too much away. I also feel that the lessons are an outlet for them to talk freely and openly about politics, life, culture and themselves without any restrictions, and that they greatly appreciate this freedom.

Should teachers make their nationality or cultural background prominent in their teaching?

JG: My belief is that students want to hear about life and culture that you don’t normally find in the textbooks. Some students are genuinely fascinated by the background of the teacher and I believe that talking about your background is not something to be ashamed of. On the contrary, you should find the most compelling parts of your background and culture and build up a mental log that you can tap into when required. One of the great benefits of using Skype is talking to and seeing someone who you might not ordinarily communicate with.

What tips or strategies can you suggest for English teachers who want to raise cultural awareness in the classroom?

JG: I have been an avid fan of the GREAT Britain campaign for some time now but during the project I stumbled across the whole series of lesson plans to go with the videos and the campaign.

As the lessons cover many different aspects of culture, I generally use one topic per week and now I have covered almost every aspect of British culture in an engaging and thought-provoking way.

MK: Research your learners’ native culture for clues about which ‘compare-and-contrast’ questions will lead to worthwhile discussions. Be fascinated by their culture, and with any luck, they’ll return the favour.

Roots and Treetops is a language-and-more project enabling 300 young Belarusians to improve their proficiency in foreign languages and learn about the EU. As part of the project, 71 of the participants visited Cardiff and London on 24 August to 5 September to find out about life and government in the UK. The whole group will meet in Vilnius, Lithuania, for a networking and knowledge-sharing event on 24-25 October 2014.

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