Imagine this: walking anxiously through unfamiliar hallways, attempting to timidly read foriegn environmental print at every corner of each monochromatic wall. Apprehensively smelling and tasting strange food at the cafeteria table. Hearing the familiar laughter of peers playing and chatting with one another but not being able to converse with them because you don’t know their language and they don’t know yours. You try to communicate your thoughts and needs in other ways, but feel like an outsider in a strange new world; a world where no one seems to understand you. It’s as if you are speaking inside a soundproof booth, pounding at the glass to somehow get your message and emotions across to someone.
An overwhelming sense of not belonging strikes, feeling more isolated from peers. You are thousands of miles away from your homeland. A feeling of nostalgia pours over you while thoughts of comforting memories clashes with this uncomfortable scene like water hitting hot oil. Nerves trembling from the top of your heart dropping to the bottom of your stomach. The burning sensation of sorrow settles there. You want to go back home and reactivate the innate senses of your old life; the automatic gratification of reading signs and symbols in your language, the joy of listening to your country’s music from the local radio station, the consoling aromas from your grandmother’s cooking, and the instinctive release of laughter when playing and communicating with your friends in your home language. Where the small pieces of home completes your inner peace.
This image paints an emotionally heavy, but realistic scene of a newcomer’s initial experience at school. It’s description is not to harden your heart, but to soften it with empathy. A way we can soften similar situations like this with empathy is by discovering more about your students besides their academic strengths and weaknesses. Implementing elements of their surface culture in your classroom and lessons will provide ways to explore aspects of our students that are important to them. Learning about their cultural identity first will uncover individualized approaches that will help support them to achieve academic success.
What is surface culture? According to Zaretta Hammond’s book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, culture operates on a surface level, an intermediate or shallow level, and a deep level. Surface Culture is made of observable and concrete elements of culture such as food, dress, music, and holidays (Hammond, 2015). As one interprets this unclouded definition of Surface Culture, what does it mean to you? What might it mean for your students and their families? How can we honor all our students’ surface culture in a school setting?
Oftentimes, surface culture is dismissed as unimportant and acknowledged once a year as a hollow centerpiece of diversity for all to see then forget. In my experience as an English language specialist for emerging bilinguals/multilinguals of both children and adults, I believe surface culture should be represented in the curriculum and school environment on a continual basis because it encourages students to develop confidence and pride within themselves while making meaningful connections with peers. During morning meetings with my students we would sit in a circle, use respectful gestures such as eye contact, and naturally exchange parts of our surface culture because they reflect our daily lives. Topics such as cultural food, music, dances, movies, and celebrations consistently arose. I would also encourage these themes by formulating authentic questions to elicit discussions on how surface culture shapes their everyday experiences. Even the students who were less proficient in English would still be eager to express their stories and experiences (in their home language or with a peer translator) about their family traditions. At times, their stories were expressed through drawings, images, photographs, or videos. This was an extraordinary way to bond with one another. We connected through our similarities, and learned from our differences. My students’ engagement and excitement of sharing their cultural stories made it evident it was their favorite part of the day. We got to let loose and be ourselves. No judgement, just joy! As the year went on, these conversations became part of our daily rhythm. My students would look forward to sharing their input and insights about their family and culture, and related it back to content being taught. Through these discussions, our relationships flourished organically and fostered skills such as defining identities, strengthening student voice, and developing empathy.
Surface culture should not be presented as superficial, but as significant. It is the sacred visible component of a culture; a collective community of customs which were built from prior generations. Heartfelt memories and fragile emotions adhere to our family’s history and ethnic roots. When we expose students to many surface cultures, we are creating an atmosphere of unbiased understanding and compassion with one another. Our world needs these critical skills to be introduced and cultivated at an early age and reinforced as they get older. It is simply the prerequisite of deep culture; a concrete starting point by which transcends into the substructural abstract. American anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher, Edward T. Hall (2010) proposes that the only way to to learn the internal culture of others is to actively participate in their culture (Edward T. Hall’s Cultural Iceberg Model, 2010). We must begin at the surface engaging our five senses to then progress downward into the profound, in-depth intricacies of deep culture (the unspoken rules & invisible elements of culture).
How can we address the needs of culturally diverse students? Initially, we need to learn about their surface culture. We can gain this knowledge through the gradual process of engaging in purposeful conversations, collecting data from multilingual surveys, family/community collaboration, and research. Listed below are some ideas to incorporate surface culture into your classroom curriculum and environment:
- Invite family/community members to present parts of their culture that are significant to them
- Demonstrate and discuss various folkloric literature, dance, music, and art
- Present and explore important historical figures and events
- Celebrate and acknowledge ceremonies/festivals/holidays throughout the year on the days they occur
- Grow indigenious foods at your school’s garden where students can demonstrate how to prepare them and speak about the their cultural richness
- Honor cultural hobbies and learn their unique techniques (basket weaving, pottery making, etc.)
- Exhibit a multitude of flags, fabrics, and artwork from the countries represented in your school
- Display multilingual environmental print and universal symbols to aid with directions, instructions, and vocabulary
Although surface culture is only ten percent of Edward T. Hall’s cultural iceberg, it is the part of the iceberg that is seen and exposed. As humans, we build meaning of our environment and connections to each other using our five senses. All these senses evoke and awaken emotions and memories. When culture is attached to these senses, they become part of our soul, heart, and essence. They are the force that propels the deep cultural parts of us to move and become alive. Without acknowledging the fundamental traits of surface culture, we will not be able to reach the depths of deep, internal culture. Surface culture is the visible gateway to our invisible beliefs, values, and ethics. One cannot exist or be meaningful without the other.
In closing, take some meditative time to think and reflect on the elements of your own surface culture. What do they mean to you? Do they automatically warm your heart? That’s what I hope it does for you.
Edward T. Hall’s Cultural Iceberg Model. (2010). Retrieved from https://college.lclark.edu/live/files/21270-iceberg-model—optional-reading
Hammond, Z. (2015). Culturally Responsive Teaching & the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students (1st ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.