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June 1995 - Issue No. #19
I would like to briefly explore a difficult issue that Intensive English Programs (IEPs) encounter: How to increase the cultural awareness and sensitivity of our students. Students often ask "How many people from my country study in your program? I do not want a class full of students from my country." Most students want to be with individuals from other countries, thinking that then they will practice their English more and, perhaps, form friendships with individuals from other countries. Once classes are underway, however, students may complain that other cultural groups can't speak English well or talk too much and ask foolish questions in class.
The fact is that students often have stereotypes of other ethnic groups, and their comments and complaints seem insensitive and at times racist. How do we deal with this insensitivity and stereotyping of other groups and at the same time deal with students' and teachers' pedagogical concerns? How do we assist students in becoming more culturally sensitive and open? How do we help them see the strengths other individuals and cultural groups have? I propose that the best way is to deal with the issues directly. Here are a few suggestions:
These are suggestions for giving students information about other peoples and assisting them in becoming culturally aware and sensitive. Despite our efforts, we may encounter students making racist and culturally insensitive statements in our classes or offices. What do we do then? I suggest that we listen carefully. We, however, need to make it clear that racist statements are inappropriate. We can say "Such statements are considered racist."
Most important in building cultural sensitivity is the tone the program sets and the role models the students see. We must set a tone of acceptance and appreciation for all groups in the IEP's statement of purpose, its orientation, its classes, and all its interactions with students and the public.
We can't solve the problem of racism in the US or in the world through these actions, but we can play a part in making each of us understand other people better. This better understanding will then be with us the rest of our lives and inform our interactions and decisions.
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