Multiculturalism in the Classroom – My Workshop at the 27th ETAS AGM and Convention

I gave this talk on the 30th of January, 2011. I enjoyed it a lot and hope the participants did too!

The first slide of my presentation

Here is the talk, which was highlighted by various contributions from the participants, both positive and negative experiences they had in the classroom with culture:

Multiculturalism in the Classroom

A Presentation by Vicky Loras,

BA in English Language and Literature

27th ETAS AGM Convention, January 29-30, 2011, Lucerne

Good afternoon!

My name is Vicky Loras. I teach English Language and Literature to students of all ages…and I am multicultural.

Explaining the history of my multicultural family

I was born and raised in Canada, by Greek parents who were also raised in Canada. My ancestors dating back to 300 years ago hail from France, then they moved to Italy, then Greece….before them, who knows?

If I ask all of you in here, some of you descend from one, two, perhaps more cultures, or know someone who is bicultural, multicultural. In a country such as Switzerland, I am certain that your students are from several places around the world. Your class as a total can be a multicultural hub, buzzing with countries, languages and various traditions and customs.

Our personal or other people’s experiences are a vast resource of ideas on multiculturalism that you can use in a classroom – I call it a backpack you take with you in class mentally; the only difference is you never have to worry about packing it the night before, or carry it with you, or worry it is not full enough. It is always full and regardless of what class you teach, the age or level of students, there is a multitude of ideas you can implement in class. Why this specific topic, you may ask? The students can learn a great deal and so can you, as I believe educators can always learn alongside and from their students. Additionally, I believe that a classroom is not only a place for educators to teach and then let the students out of the room. It is a place where we can give our students values. It is a topic I have written about, read about, discussed with other educators. Why use culture in class? What can it offer?

I will start with the younger students. I have a group every Wednesday at an International School: these children are from various places around the globe and we have used this in many ways. I have them dig into their cultures and bring anything that has to do with them in class: be it a book of their country, a picture they have made themselves, a photo, an album, a souvenir, music, absolutely anything. They can even say a small phrase in their language. And then the magic begins. The children begin to participate as a group, they start asking each other amazing questions, without even being prompted. It is their natural curiosity which incites them.

Once, we took each child’s country and I gave all of them printouts with all the flags of the children’s countries. So they did not only do their own flag – they did all of them. We always talk when we are coloring (“May I have the pink, please?”, “Can you help me draw the head of my horse?”) so now they were asking each other questions like: “What colors are on the flag of your country?”, “Why?”, “Why is there a sun on your flag?” And the only thing you could hear inbetween were “wows” and “Do you hear Ms Vicky? My flag has the same colors as the other child’s!”

A good idea is to have a shelf or bookcase, even better, full of books on multiculturalism. Some titles are The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles and The Crayon Box That Talked by Shane Derolf and Michael Letzig. I have some here with me….

My sisters – Eugenia (left) and Christine: team Loras is all here!

Before Christmas in 2009, all the children, some with their parents as guests, were presenting how they celebrate Christmas in their countries, what traditions they have, the food and various other things. After each presentation, all the children in class made a poster of what they had heard about Christmas in the respective country. They had a great time and I even got to present Greek Christmas to them, which they loved!

It can also be difficult though. It is not always rosy-colored. Once (and if you are interested, I can e-mail you, in PDF form an article I have written on the subject of multiculturalism in class for English Teaching Professional), I faced a difficult situation. I was at the very beginning of my career so my shock was double. I was teaching in Greece at a time when there was not a variety of people from other countries. I had a new packet of reward stickers with faces of children from around the world. I give a student the face of a child, a child from a different country, with a dark complexion. Then came the reaction:

–         No, no! I do not want that sticker!

–         Why?

–         Because she has darker skin and we do not.

–         Do you know why she has darker skin?

–         No.

–         Because she lives in a much hotter country than we do and her skin protects her from the sun. But no matter what her skin color is, she is like you. Perhaps she goes to school, she likes playing like you do…

…and that was his aha! moment. Children need you to talk to them. And they understand, no matter how young they are and I can guarantee you that. They listen and they understand. They notice things a lot. And it takes patience to show them the way and face any misconceptions they may have.

My good luck charm, my 6-year-old niece Maggie! (Eugenia’s daughter)

In our school that we had in Greece with my two sisters (who are both here today and so is my niece), on the walls we had pictures and posters of people from all over the world: the children noticed for instance the native Americans who lived and live in Canada and the United States and asked questions about them. I had a poster of Martin Luther King in my classroom. Children as young as eight years old asked and understood notions of racism and equality. They came out of that class knowing who Dr. King was and what he did and for whom. And they came out of all the classes knowing things about people from all over the world.

As educators, we are not there to impose our opinions, but to open their minds and accept diversity as something beautiful. Because it is. I always ask them, wouldn’t it be a boring world, if we were all the same?

I recommend trying everything with our young learners and see their response. Excellent lessons full of values they can take with them for the rest of their lives.

Now we can move to adults. I am extremely fortunate to be teaching adults from various places in the world. They are also very eager to share their background with you and as I have noticed, they are very eager to learn about your cultural background. For instance, I have used my double nationality countless times in the classroom. They find the combination interesting. They ask me about similarities and differences between Greece and Canada, about the people, the weather (which is a favourite topic of theirs), the cuisine, sights and so on.

There is a multitude of activities you can do with adults. One I like to do with them and especially when we have our very first lesson comes from a book I have, called Cambridge Business English Activities. There is a sheet full of questions there and you can see some of them here. First of all, it serves as a great icebreaker for the first lesson. It unlocks them and I can learn a lot about them and where they are from. These questions from the Cambridge book combine business and culture – business is part culture, anyway. The answers we get from these questions are amazing, as we can learn a number of things about the students’ cultures. Sometimes the situations they describe can be funny, which makes them loosen up and talk more. It is very interesting to see how much they enjoy talking about their countries and commenting on similarities and differences to other countries.

You can see how much they also open up to other cultures and understand them more – they start asking each other questions and understand more about mentalities and countries in general. The only topics we try not to touch as they can be sensitive are religion and politics, in order to avoid any offence.

Adult students also travel a great deal here in Switzerland so they also like to share their experiences in class and talk about other cultures – that way we can all hear about places we may not have visited or can compare experiences if we have also visited the place mentioned.

The whole world can come into your classroom – it is an amazing thing, I can guarantee you. When we have discussions like these, no matter what the age of the students are, no matter what the level, the whole class fills with cultures and colors and beautiful people, beautiful countries and diversity – differences that make humanity so special and the world such a beautiful place! It all starts with education.

On this last page of my presentation you can see my e-mail address, my Skype identity and my Twitter handle (here I mentioned what a great tool Twitter is and how you can connect to teachers all over the world….multiculturalism at its greatest!) – please do not hesitate to contact me to send you my presentation. I also have the title to my article I wrote a few years back, if you are subscribers to English Teaching Professional (if you do not, I can send you a copy in PDF form). You can also see the URL to my blog on education – there you can read my posts and guest posts from fantastic educators from around the world, some posts of which are on the subject of culture.

You will see that once you start bringing culture into your class, you will not be able to … stop this thing you have started!!!! (cue Bryan Adams song – Here I played Can’t Stop This Thing We Started!)

Note: Unfortunately, I was unable to upload two small videos Christine took. Plus, I apologise for posting a little over a month later – better late than never!

22 thoughts on “Multiculturalism in the Classroom – My Workshop at the 27th ETAS AGM and Convention

  1. Loved your post Vicky! In my classes there aren’t so many cultures maybe one child from another country or none, but it is always fun to colour flags, and talk about other cultures!

    1. Hi Anna!

      Thank you so much for your comment. You are absolutely right, even if there are not so many cultures in a classroom, it is always great for them to learn about people from all over the world!

      I love all the work you do in your classes – very admirable : )

      Many thanks,

  2. Hi Vicky!
    What an interesting article! My classes are not multicultural even though we’re multiracial in Argentina. Anyway, I guess it must be a challenge to be able to reach harmony considering the diversity present in the classes.

    1. Hi Marisa! Thank you so much for your comment and for sharing a picture of your classroom. So far I have not had any very negative experiences in class on this subject, apart from the incident I described and happened about ten years ago, but it can be a challenge – there was a lady at my workshop who shared her experiences in class, as she was having trouble balancing out some difficulties she encountered with students. It was useful to hear that side of it as well, as unfortunately it can happen (but I hope with all my heart that incidents like this are alleviated!). Thank you so much again! Have a great day, Vicky

  3. A great talk, Vicky. I wish I could have seen it. Working with (and not against) the multiculturalism in our classrooms can produce some exciting language and understanding, not to mention discussion. It’s important (for those who have heterogeneous classes) to make use of these opportunities, which you’ve inspired well in your talk.

    1. Hi Tyson!

      Thank you for your comment. I absolutely loved this part: Working with (and not against) the multiculturalism in our classrooms can produce some exciting language and understanding, not to mention discussion.

      I wish you could have been here as well – perhaps some other time. I will try to e-mail you a video or two, which I cannot post to my blog!

      Thank you so much, Vicky

      1. Sure. Where have you uploaded it? There’s embed code on youtube or vimeo that can be used in WordPress blogs. Youtube works better, personally. If you can send it to me or a link from mediafire perhaps, then I can put it on my blog in the meantime.

      2. Well…ummm….you see, I haven’t uploaded them. (Headsmack) I thought you could just pick them off your computer files and embed them! Hee hee : )

        I will upload them to my YouTube channel (wow, that sounds cool!) and let you know about what I have done.

        Thanks for the help!

  4. Dear Vicky,

    What a fantastic presentation! I’ll join the chorus here and say I really wish I had been there. You are just the person to talk about multiculturalism 🙂 and you did it with such ease… And the activities you proposed were easy to accomplish and use with any group of students.

    Like Marisa, my context here differs from yours as all my students are Brazilian. I approach multiculturalism whenever I have a student who’s lived abroad or who has foreign descendance. But even when this is not the case, I approach the topic in my High intermediate groups. We actually have a chapter on multiculturalism in one of the handbooks – which we wrote. In the world we live in it’s impossible not to talk about multiculturalism, because it leads to tolerance and respect, to living in harmony and understanding other cultures and habits.

    What a great post Vicky! Thank you for sharing your presentation 🙂


  5. Hi Vicky,
    A beautiful talk. Thank you for sharing it! Good luck uploading the videos. We’d all love to see them 🙂

  6. Hi Vicky,

    This is 800 years late. But maybe better late than never.

    Thank you so much for your post. I have had so many mixed experiences in this area but two classroom moments spring to mind.

    When I taught in Greece, I had some real eye-opening shocks. One class of CPE students all thought it was perfectly okay to be racist toward the Nigerian men who sold DVDs in the street. The same class did not recognize a picture of Nelson Mandela. What bothered me about all this was that these kids had been going through the language school ‘frontistirio’ system for years. I can’t have been the first one to have noticed the racism. I was, however, the first one to take a stance. It may well be that the primary purpose of many of these schools is simply to ‘get through the Cambridge suite as quickly as possible,’ but I think we also have a positive duty, as you say, to encourage cultural understanding.

    On an entirely more positive note… I have just left a school in Cardiff where I had my first truly multicultural class since my CELTA. There were 12 students of 9 different nationalities. It took a fair amount of gentle management to get the best out of this class but everyone was interested and everyone had something to say about nearly everything we spoke about. Discussions were fabulous and interesting.

    One teaching/ management difficulty was the two Japanese students were politely waiting for the others to finish before they said their piece. I pondered this at home and the next day we had a lesson discussing the art of conversation around the world and playing interruption games and so on. One of the Japanese students took me aside afterwards and was so proud of himself (even though he still wasn’t entirely comfortable with interrupting, yet). Interestingly, he said he could tell I’d lived in Asia because I was sensitive to his difficulties. I’m not sure that this is true and I think that any teacher would have noticed the two quiet students. But it did set me thinking about the good multicultural teaching baggage I have picked up around the world.

    I am, however, sure that I’ve been blessed with the classes that I have taught and the people I have met along the way. I think I owe it to all my future students to share some of the wonderful things that I have seen, heard and experienced around the world. In this way, I hope that they will be encouraged feel the same enthusiasm for multicultural future as I do. Because, thinking about it, the alternative is rubbish.

    Tis always nice to hear your positive voice, Vicky.


    1. Dear Victoria,

      Thank you so much for your beautiful comment and sharing both experiences, the positive and the negative one.

      The fact that you intervened when the negative comments were aimed at a specific group of people in Greece shows how much you are not only there to teach, (come here, let’s teach you and leave, as I call it) but also to give your students something more. I applaud you and congratulate you on this and I am sure they got something out of it. They listen and they understand, as long as there is someone there to show them the way.

      The other side that you describe, the one with the Japanese students is very interesting as well, as again you are doing great things with them and trying to help them adapt to a new situation. And they are responding very well to that!

      My warmest thanks for your comment and for sharing your experiences. It is so important for education to be inclusive for everyone and full of values.

      You are a super educator and your comment illustrated this once more!

      Kindest regards,

  7. Hello Vicky,
    Thanks a lot for sharing all this information.

    I am Greek, I teach Greek adult students and I would like to comment on a couple of things.

    First of all, I am really sorry that my country, Greece, has this bad reputation concerning racism. The only good thing I can point out is that we have started empathizing with immigrants with the help of open-minded educators and journalists. Let me also mention that there are many simple citizens who help immigrants everyday in the streets as much as possible. Today even the government agreed to help the immigrants that went on a hunger strike about 40 days ago and satisfy their demands. I am optimistic about the future.

    Secondly, I totally agree with you as far as adult learners are concerned and I would like to say that Greek employees too are really eager to share their experience abroad and learn from the others. The units of the coursebooks we use that concern cultures interest them a lot and give them the opportunity for extensive speaking practice, vocabulary development and revision of narrative tenses.

    Thanks again for the post, hope you are always creative and productive as you are now. Can’t wait to read more in your blog.


    1. Hi Stavroula!

      Many thanks for your great comment.

      I do hope that things are getting better and thank you for mentioning your examples, as they give us hope that things have already started and will continue to improve.

      You are also right in saying that coursebooks now (most of them) have integrated the topic of culture and diversity, which is great encouragement for things to come. Students are actually now more exposed to these notions than in the past.

      Thank you for your kind wishes as well and all the best to you!

      Kindest regards,

  8. Χάρηκα ιδιαίτερα που σας ξαναείδα, έστω και από απόσταση! Φιλιά σε όλες σας και ένα ξεχωριστό στη μικρή που… δεν είναι πια σε καλαθάκι!!!

    Φυσικά διαβάζω τις αναρτήσεις σου και παίρνω ιδέες για τη δική μου τάξη. Θαρρώ μαθαίνω δεύτερη φορά από ‘σένα! 🙂

    Καλό βράδυ από Ηράκλειο

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s