One of the greatest challenges that every teacher faces is the challenge of planning out a course for a whole year or semester through. A lot of things are planned based on the assumption that everything will go well and nothing will interrupt the existing plan. However, since we are not in control of many external factors (plus we have to consider the fact that each student is affected by a variety of different external factors that might help or interfere in the process of learning), most often, the plan is jeopardized. This becomes even more complicated when one teaches a new course.
I was in this predicament when I began my current semester (the semester is almost ending…just a few more weeks to go!). I was assigned to teach a new course, entitled Cross-cultural Psychology. When I reviewed the course outlines of all the previous teachers, I realized that they taught to the course based on a textbook from the US (most of our textbooks are from the US because we have limited literature in the area of psychology written by Asian authors and scholars). The book contains a few introductory chapters on the meaning of culture, cross-cultural psychology, multi-cultural psychology, etc. It also elucidates factors that are related to the cultural experiences of humans and how culture interacts with other social-emotional-psychological experiences. The first few chapters of the book give readers an overview of the subject matter. However, the book goes on into the specific cultural groups and ethnic minorities in the US. So, except for the first four chapters in the beginning, the rest of the book has very little relevance and connection with the type of students I would have in my class.
I thought hard about this and wanted to make sure that I don’t introduce and entertain anything that is NOT meaningful and relevant to the students. Learning is frustrating when the material to be learned and mastered is something devoid of meaning and relevance to one’s own life (I experienced this when I was in both the elementary and high school and I know how annoying it is). Because I wanted to make sure that students do not get frustrated with the kind of materials used for learning, I decided to use only the four first chapters of the book (which can be covered in four weeks; there are 9 more weeks left in a semester!).
The problem now is what do I do for the remainder time of the semester? Well, spending time thinking about this problem helped me to come up with a very creative plan (everyone is creative; they just need to spend time thinking!). I decided that I would divide the class into different cultural groups and have them present their own cultures as part of their requirements. This way, they get their points that will eventually make up their grades, and we as a class, get to learn something meaningful and relevant!
The groups consisted of all the cultures represented by the students in the class (Karen, Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai, the Dayaks (Borneo Island), American & Canadian, Japanese, and African). Apart from presenting their own cultures in the class, I also required the students to stage a cultural program showcasing an unique item that will proudly celebrate an aspect of each of their cultures (students came with the theme “Wonders of the World” for the show). It was open to the whole college and it was their final exam (instead of paper and pencil exam, I chose the performance-based assessment). We all worked together and the program was a success!
So, the lessons that I want us to learn from this experience is summarized as follows:
- Although textbooks help us as framework for classes, let us not be rigid in using the knowledge presented in them. Tailor-make the lesson to suit your own class depending on the nature and needs of your student group.
- Inject your own creativity into teaching. Don’t rely on what was already done before or on what is the ‘standard practice’. Be different in what you do as a teacher. This will communicate the need to ‘think out of the box’ to your students too!
- Make sure that everything that takes place in the classroom (whether big or small, whether an exam or instruction, whether individual or group work, etc.) is RELEVANT AND MEANINGFUL for the learners.
- Put yourself in the learners’ shoes and ask if you will enjoy the kind of learning materials being presented in the class.
- When you know something doesn’t smell right, don’t hesitate to identify and remove it. Students appreciate teachers who admit mistakes and are willing to change for the good. Students treasure teachers who remember that they are ‘humans’, just like their students. Students admire teachers who accept their ‘humanness’ and celebrate it in their teaching.
- Empower, encourage, and be support! Stand alongside with your students. Be there to guide them. But never spoon feed them! Keep telling them that they are CAPABLE of doing great things! (I played the role of a motivator in the process of preparing for the big cultural show…and eventually, students became internally motivated to give their best. Each item was a success).
- Be proud of your students and their accomplishments. Tell them that you are proud of them. They deserve to know that they are valuable in your eyes.