Sunday, September 26, 2010

Who We Are--Thinking About Culture

What do you think about when you think about culture? Anything like the following definitions?

from the Oxford
English Dictionary
from the Cambridge American Dictionaryfrom Urban Dictionary, an online user created wiki
"Refinement of mind, taste, and manners; artistic and intellectual development. Hence: the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.""The way of life of a particular people, esp. as shown in their ordinary behavior and habits, their attitudes toward each other, and their moral and religious beliefs.""A term invoked by people who feel pride in accomplishments of others. A justification for all kinds of human rights violation. An outcome of evolutionary beneficial group thinking, and thus a racist generalisation. Also used in conjunction with 'history' for more pride and group thinking."

The first definition is most likely the most traditional view of culture and I hope the second is the way we are moving toward conceptualizing culture. The third is not what I expected to find there. is a wonderful site that allows users to submit their own definitions for words. Readers can then give definitions a thumbs up or down to rate each. This allows for humorous definitions and definitions of slang terms that haven't made it into more standard dictionaries. I had expected to find a definition similar to the Oxford definition here but was surprised to find the slightly defensive sounding definition above, which as of today has received 101 thumbs up and 60 thumbs down. While there are a total of 14 various definitions on the site, this one is at the top because of its review numbers.

There are many definitions and perspectives for viewing the word "culture." When approaching the topic of culture in my classroom, I encourage students to think about culture in broad terms but with an individual focus. When we talk about culture, it is important to start with ourselves. Who am I? Where do I come from? What do I believe? What groups do I claim membership to and how do those memberships influence me? It is essential to acknowledge and own our identities. Once we have at least the beginnings of an understand of who we are and where we come form, then we can begin to appreciate others and tackle the concept that while we should always celebrate our diversity, we have so much in common too. By learning about and exploring our similarities and differences, we can appreciate each other and move toward a more peaceful and cooperative world.

I challenge us all think about who we are today, not just who we think we are. Do we really believe what we think we do? Or have we simply not considered some of our base assumptions closely? Self-reflection will help us appreciate ourselves and others.

"We don't see things as they are, we see them are we are." ~Anais Nin

Sunday, September 12, 2010

It Is Always About Continual Improvement: A Reaction to the Teacher’s Guide to Diversity

The interrelationship between human development, culture, and learning described in The Teacher’s Guide to Diversity: Building a Knowledge Base is multifaceted and almost overwhelmingly complex. Having always subscribed to the idea that development and learning are not finite processes but continual, never ending paths, I find my mind becoming overwhelmed attempting to focus on the scope that cultural differences play on these processes. The definitions and schools of thought employed in this text force the reader to become aware of the multitude of perspectives that contribute to how our students learn. “Development is plastic,” and therefore constantly susceptible to change from internal and external factors. Those factors influence development and learning and are based from, or are themselves influenced by, cultural factors. Basically, everything is in constant motion. Students develop and learn by, for, and because of the culture in which they exist and perceive themselves, as well as those they come in contact with.

This basic idea: that students learn and develop based on their own culture and other cultures they experience, feeds well into the ideas of social constructivism. The theory of constructivism is defined in the text as, “the cognitive theory that posits that learners actively develop new knowledge based on prior knowledge and new data,” and social constructivism as that which, “emphasizes that this construction of knowledge is accomplished within a social and cultural context, using particular cultural tools.” Social constructivism is more evident today than ever before with the advent of social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter. It is easy to get a clear visual depiction of the way learning can take place by following a #hashtag on Twitter or reading the comments on a blog or news article. A very dynamic and democratic learning scheme can be seen because of the ability to link additional resources or search for meaning and the ability of anyone to be involved in the conversation.

This has led me to wonder how the theory of information processing, “the cognitive theory that claims that individuals actively take in and organize information for storage and retrieval by coding it in particular ways, using interpretive and memory strategies,” will be affected by these newer means of learning. While in previous generations, information was very linear and limited by formally written and published texts, now information is dynamic and linked together in multiple ways. Will the way students code and retrieve information and knowledge change significantly because of the ways they now receive that information and knowledge? For example, if “language is the key to critical aspects of cognitive change,” and “learning a single new word results in some reorganization of a learner’s mental lexicon,” then how will using world-wide social media change the way our students understand and learn? The Toronto Star has released several articles discussing the transfer of idiomatic expressions to non-native regions based on their use on sites like Twitter that transcend cultural barriers. (See my blog post on the Sociolinguistics of Twitter for further information.)

This all really breaks down to awareness. As teachers we must be aware of the way personal development of individual students along their individual learning paths are influenced and formed by their own cultural contexts. It comes down to trying to get to know our students and ways they believe to be effective modes of learning so we can be efficient facilitators and guides. Students will come to us with their own goals and reasons for needing to learn what we teach based on who they are and where they are on their own individual learning and developmental paths. To keep up with them appropriately, we must keep our eyes open and use the information we learn about them to be the best guides we can be. As we continue down our own educational paths, the experiences of our students feed back into who we are and what we can continue to do to help future students. As I continue down my own personal educational path, I find that every thread worth pursuing always falls back to continual improvement, of our programs, our schools, our students, our curriculum but mostly of ourselves.

It's Not Just The Words: English-Speaking Teachers & Spanish-Speaking Parents

Most, if not all, teachers in this region of North Carolina, and many other areas of the US, are concerned with communicating effectively with the parents of their students who speak Spanish. I am often asked how to say a certain phrase in Spanish to help facilitate this conversation. Much of the time, I direct these non-Spanish-speaking teachers to the website Casa Notes which gives some standard school notes in Spanish. While this can be helpful, the issue is much larger. It is not only one of language but also one of culture. Consider the following excerpt from A Teacher's Guide to Diversity.


The language barrier is not strictly a matter of school personnel’s and parents’ understanding the vocabulary and syntax of each other’s language. Often communication problems lie below the surface, at the level of invisible cultural expectations. Teachers’ and parents’ values are expressed in the topics they introduce in conversations with each other, in the priorities they assign to these topics, and in their approaches to setting goals for children (Greenfield, Quiroz, & Raeff, 2000).22

Cross-cultural communication problems have been shown to affect schools’ relationships with families from non-dominant cultural groups (Greenfield, Quiroz, & Raeff, 2000; McCaleb, 1997; Valdés, 1996). In many cultures, personal communication is valued over impersonal communication, such as written notices or letters, and families want personal interchanges that are not always formal (Diaz, 2000; Finders & Lewis, 1994; Levine & Trickett, 2000; McCaleb, 1997; Morris, 2002; Trumbull et al., 2001; Trumbull, Rothstein-Fisch, & Hernandez, 2003). Schools, however, rely on written communication to convey many important messages to parents, a mode of communication that oral cultures may not be used to or find appropriate. Personal, impromptu interactions that may be the norm in some groups are not favored in schools: In many schools parents need an appointment to visit a classroom or talk with a teacher or principal.

In Valdés’s 1996 ethnographic study of 10 Mexican American families in Southern California, she recounts several instances of communication breakdown between parents (mainly mothers) and schools. In one case, a mother relayed a message to her younger son’s teacher via his 8-yearold brother to the effect that the younger son was not to eat the fish whenever it was provided at lunchtime because he was allergic to it. It is not clear whether the teacher discounted the message because it was verbal and from another child or whether the message was not properly delivered. However, the upshot was that the child continued to eat meals that made him miss days of school from time to time because he was sick. Not realizing that a message from a child might not be taken seriously in the way that a note from a parent would, the mother concluded that the school did not care about her son.

Other communication issues arise when the sociolinguistic norms of the dominant culture and those of a non-dominant culture conflict. This topic is dealt with in the language volume, largely in relation to difficulties students may encounter when the communication expectations of school differ from those of home. However, adult-adult communication can, obviously, suffer from similar discrepancies in rules of conversation and other forms of communication. Dominant-culture communication tends to be direct but not confrontational, whereas the communication of many cultures (e.g., Latinos and Asians of many ethnicities) tends to be indirect (Azuma, Hess, Kashigawa, & Conroy, 1980, cited in Clancy, 1986; Trumbull et al., 2001). In some cultures, such as Japanese and Arab, saying “no” to any question is avoided (Clancy, 1986; Moosa, Karabenick, & Adams, 2001). Needless to say, this conversational rule can be extremely disconcerting to a cultural outsider.

Expressions of emotion are considered by many African Americans a natural part of argumentation, and they may feel that European Americans are being disingenuous when they contain their emotions during an argument (Kochman, 1990). European Americans may be put off by the emotional elements of argumentation, believing that they interfere with logic and reason. These are just a few of the many cultural differences in communication style, differences that are rooted in the values and beliefs of cultures and—like most deep cultural patterns—invisible to people except in a sense of discomfort they may feel when their patterns are not observed by those with whom they are speaking.

With some awareness of possible sources of communication breakdowns, teachers can contribute to more successful cross-cultural communication with parents. Although it is impossible to be an expert on every culture’s style (and, of course, people within cultures vary considerably), being attuned to how parents and families seem to prefer to communicate can alert teachers to ways they can make communication more successful.

22 This observation is not intended to minimize the value of teachers’ learning a language other than English in order to communicate with families. In addition, second-language learning can be a source of cultural learning as well.

As teachers, it is vital that we remain aware of who we are teaching. Language is only one of so many barriers. Too rarely do we think of our students as being culturally different than ourselves. Just because we share a skin tone or a regional background doesn't mean we are the same. We all hear and communicate differently based on our unique perspectives and experiences. This awareness makes our job as teachers more difficult but can also make it more rewarding if we take the time to learn from those we teach.

Okay, enough of my grandstanding! What do you think? Have you had experiences dealing with students of other cultures? What about students that you assumed were part of your own culture but as time went on you realized they were different too? What have you learned?

The Sociolinguistics of Twitter

While reading, I came across this definition of Sociolinguistics: "The study of language use in social context, including perceived rules for interacting with others depending upon their age, gender, status, and so forth." (A Teacher's Guide to Diversity) As a language teacher and student, I couldn't help but wonder if anyone has started researching Twitter within this field. A cursory investigation brought up an interesting article from the Toronto Star called "Social media could help spread regional words." The idea that culture and language are now changing faster than ever due to the internet and social media is fascinating. It seems me that these tools will also encourage code-switching, which in and of itself is a fascinating phenomenon. Here's my question to you: Have you picked up any new words or phrases in this manner and found yourself using them in your everyday language? If so, please share them below and be sure to let us know the context and meaning of these words to you. Thanks for playing! :)

Can signing replace language in the cognitive development of younger children?

I'm currently reading The Teacher's Guide to Diversity and I ran across the following quote in the first section on page 9:

In many ways language is the key to critical aspects of cognitive change. The dramatic transformations in children’s thinking between the ages of 3 and 5 years are a function of the new potentials that language makes possible both cognitively and communicatively. The child can begin to understand another’s point of view as represented in the other’s expression of her understanding, and can supplement her own experientially based system of knowledge with knowledge gained indirectly from presentations of others (p. 112).

I recently attended a conference with some teachers from a school for deaf children. They expressed a concern that more children that are able to hear are taught to sign from birth than is the case for deaf children. If lots of babies are now taught to sign so young, I couldn't help but wonder...

  1. Is there any research on this in relation to babies taught to sign?
  2. Can signing replace language in this way and cause these effects at younger ages?
  3. Of course, even if they can, would this be something measurable before a child has spoken language?
I'm interested to hear if anyone knows anything about this or can point my curious mind in any new directions. Thanks for any comments!