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!