What! I Lost a Year!

What! I Lost a Year!

by Judie Haynes

One of the roles of ESL teachers is to help mainstream staff members unlock cultural puzzles by teaching strategies that help them understand the role culture plays in the behavior and learning of ESL students. Enjoy the reprint of my Spring 2003 column for Essential Teacher.

At the end of the school year, a new Korean student came to my classroom with a message from his first-grade teacher. It said that the student had repeatedly insisted that he was 8. My colleague wanted to know why an 8-year-old had been placed in her class when the other students were all 7. I explained to the student that Americans count birthdays differently than Koreans do. In the United States, he was 7 years old. (In Korea, everyone becomes a year older on the Lunar New Year.) Several explanations later, the last one by his father, the child tearfully exclaimed in Korean, "What! I lost a year! I'm only 7 years old in the United States!"

One of the roles of ESL teachers is to help mainstream staff members unlock cultural puzzles, teaching strategies that help colleagues understand the role culture plays in the behavior and learning of ESL students. This knowledge will help them deal more effectively with cultural questions that arise in their classrooms. Of course, teachers can't possibly know all there is to know about the various cultures in their schools, but training in culture can help them learn not to interpret the behavior of others through the eyes of their own culture.

Over the years, I have collected some cultural stories about my own students. Here are some of my favorites.

What Time Does School Start?

A Chinese student, Mei, entered my school in the middle of the school year. On the day she registered, she was introduced to her fourth-grade classmates and her teacher, and was shown where she would sit. The next morning, when the teacher arrived at school at 7:45 a.m. for a school day that began at 8:30, Mei was waiting at her desk in the unlit classroom. The custodian told my colleague that Mei had arrived before 7:00. Mei spoke enough English to say that, in China, class began at 7:00 a.m. During the registration process, no one had thought to tell the student or her parents what time the school day began.

Touching a Child's Head

Teachers in my school know that they should not touch Buddhist students on the head, as it is a holy part of the body. Changing instinctive gestures is difficult, though. I recently observed a first-grade teacher line her class up for a field trip. As she walked down the line, she counted the students by placing her hand on each of their heads. Some of the Asian students cringed. Asian students who are not Buddhist are not used to adults other than their parents and close relatives touching them on the head. As a rule of thumb, it's preferable to pat your students on the shoulder when you want to count them or offer encouragement.

Smiling in different Cultures

An enraged teacher once told me that when she was scolding one of my ESL students in her classroom, the child kept smiling at her. This behavior is difficult for all teachers. A smile does not mean the same thing in every language despite the popular poster to the contrary. This child was smiling because she was embarrassed. Even if the teacher had known this intellectually, reacting to the smile without anger would have been difficult for her.

Conferencing with Parents of ELLs

A third-grade teacher in my school felt very discouraged. In a conference with the parents of an Asian student in her class, she had explained that their child needed to spend more time completing his homework. The parents kept nodding and saying "Yes" as she explained why. She was very disappointed when there didn't seem to be any follow-up on the parents' part. What the teacher didn't realize is that, in many Asian cultures, nodding the head and saying "Yes" means "Yes, I understand," not "Yes, I agree." Furthermore, Asian parents are very respectful and would never openly disagree with a teacher. Once the teacher realized the difference in interpretation, she phrased her remarks as specific questions, such as "Can you help him at home?" or "How would this work for your family?"

Learning about School in Other Countries

To best understand English language learners, teachers need to be aware of how school systems are run in other countries. I once had a Haitian student who was very proud of his outstanding ability in mathematics. In his school in Haiti, mathematical operations were done mentally. When this student performed long division tasks, for example, he didn't show any work, and his problems appeared to be written upside down, as the symbol for division is written differently in Haiti and in most of South America than it is in the United States. Imagine his mortification when his teacher accused him of copying the answers and would not accept the assignment.

So the next time one of your colleagues wonders why a student won't take a sheet of paper from a classmate's left hand or why students look upset when their papers are corrected with red ink, help them find the key to unlock the cultural puzzle.

Reprinted from Spring 2003 issue of Essential Teacher, Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), Alexandria, VA.

Related Links

ESL Teacher as Cultural Broker
Simple awareness on the part of mainstream staff members will help them deal more effectively with cross-cultural dissension. As ESL/bilingual professionals we need to teach strategies which help our colleagues understand the role culture plays in the behavior and reactions of second language learners and their parents.