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Cultural Sensitivity in the Classroom People of many cultures and backgrounds
People of many cultures and backgrounds are required to speak and use English on a daily basis. Students who study in an English speaking country will have classmates from other (and unfamiliar) cultures. Also, ESL teachers teach classes, but often do not know about their students' cultures. This inevitably leads to issues regarding students' cultures or religious beliefs. ESL teachers regardless of where and whom they teach, must embrace a more 'culturally sensitive' curriculum which welcomes all cultures.
An ESL teacher not only represents an educator, but also as a student and class moderator. A teacher is culturally sensitive when he or she possesses 'a multicultural perspective in which is about creating a fair learning environment for all students. Therefore, teaching ESL students is not just about helping them retain content information,' but also about making them become part of the school community' (Hepp 49). They are also aware of the important aspects of students' cultures which influence how they act and learn. These teachers 'create an environment that is representative of all cultures and 'provide opportunities to explore attitudes toward their own and other cultures and to engage in critical thinking' (Hepp 50). They also provide a safe environment in which students feel comfortable, students would use and experiment with the language.
The demand for more ESL teachers around the world is high. It has become easier for college graduates to teach English in countries around the world, without having any formal teaching training or experience. And without any teaching training, he or she may have not been taught how to handle sensitive cultural issues. Teachers or professors often do not mention anything in order to prevent being 'insensitive' to a specific gender or race (Dawson). Students also enter ESL classrooms unaware of other students' background due to ignorance or lack of exposure to other cultures. Milton Bennett's states in 'The Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity', that people through stages ranging from denial (people are simply unaware of others' backgrounds), acceptance (people understand actions and that their meanings vary country to country), and integration (people can go between two cultures and manage any cultural issues that occur) (qtd. in Cartlidge).
Though not entirely the students and teacher's fault, the curriculum is one of the major causes of cultural insensitivity in the ESL classroom. Osburg insists that 'subtle language prejudices surface today'because the curriculum, however accepting'is designed primarily for a homogenous group-the English speaking, white, middle class' (qtd. in Hepp 23). This is why students from other cultures often may not make connections to the curriculum or text that doesn't embrace their culture, thus disconnecting them further. A popular solution to this problem considered by many and myself, is to incorporate literature into the ESL curriculum. In the book, Dealing with Diversity through Multicultural Fiction, Johnson and Smith state that 'by discussing multicultural literature with students, the staff found they too, became more comfortable in dealing with issues of diversity that in arose in the classroom or in the school environment' (qtd. in Hepp 25). If teachers consistently provide students with literature that represents them and their backgrounds, they will not only feel represented, but also reflect on their own ideas and experiences. According to Hepp's research, 'students should be encouraged to read and write as well as to speak and listen from the beginning of their experiences with English'and that comprehension is often enriched by literary experiences' (Hepp 26). Teachers must get to know students before deciding which books to incorporate into the curriculum. Materials should reflect the students' personalities, not just their cultures. When studying literature, students should be given choices, and this allows for students to become part of their own learning. It's important for teachers to encourage students to study literature and to engage themselves in other cultures. Students also begin to question and discuss cultural issues (Hepp 28).
Cultural sensitivity in the classroom can be difficult for teachers and students to get used to. It is, however, the teacher's job and responsibility to maintain and engage students in an environment in which they are comfortable, confident, and ready to succeed, regardless of their cultures.