The Classroom: Building A Cultural Community

I walked toward the International Market on Allen Street with nerves jumping around in my stomach. I didn’t know what to expect, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to find what I was looking for here. What was I looking for anyway? What would it be like in here? Would I be allowed to take pictures to document this experience?

A variety of Chinese sauces.

I paused at the entrance door, took a deep breath, glanced at the OPEN sign, and walked in. I poked my head around the corner to find a calm, happy gentleman sitting on a stool behind the register. “Hello!” He greets me with gusto. I was shocked at his genuine politeness and happiness. I’m sure he doesn’t get many people like me in here. I explained my project to him, asked if it would be okay to take pictures, and he responded yes, proceeding to tour me around the store and tell me about all the different sections.

Indian, Turkish, Japanese, Muslim, Chinese, Indonesian. Sauces, spices, olive oils. Everything imaginable it seemed…except for, he told me, he was running out of his frozen meats. I joked and told him he’d have to stock up some more. The man was genuinely friendly and interested in my project, asking me about my major, so English education, right?

He asked why I had to do the project because it didn’t make much sense to him for an English Ed major. When I explained it was for a class to help teach English Language Learners, his eyes lit up. Oh! Like ESL! His wife teaches ESL in Boucke Building on the Penn State campus. Small world, no?

And that’s just how I felt walking around in the store taking pictures of foods from all over the world. Such a big world, and so much of it fits into this little store on Allen Street. This man, all this food, the other customers in the store, and me…so many cultures and experiences brought together in the small rooms of this house-converted marketplace. I couldn’t help but smile as I left, listening to the exchange between the man and a young girl.

An entire shelf dedicated to different soy sauces.

She was buying a Japanese item, pulling out coins. He said, “And do you still owe me from that one last time?”

“No,” she replied. She’d paid a couple days earlier.

A financial trust existed here. A lending system. An understanding and an almost family-like bond. I’d like to see this happen in any American store.

(For a quick read on the important on family in Chinese culture, check out this link.) 

What I take away from today is that America’s white privileged culture is so hyperaware of their own culture and so panicked to preserve it that we don’t stop to answer questions and share so openly as this man did. Most of the time we act scared, feeling our power and our privilege threatened, when really, maybe we should just take a step in the direction of other people, of all people. Maybe all we need to do is to learn, to ask, and to be open.

I think it also speaks volumes that this man, who is obviously a minority here, has become so comfortable with his culture and expressing it on his own terms. He is excited to share his culture, just like the people I met at the Chinese Alliance Church. His job is to make sure people can preserve their culture while in State College, while he shares a bit of his own. I think we all need to learn to have a little bit more of this mindset.

It is extremely important, then, to walk into the classroom environment with this mindset and with knowledge of this experience. As a teacher, I need to know that there is a chance that every student–including my English Language Learners–may be coming to school and to my classroom afraid. They might have the same nerves, the same questions I was having before I entered the International Market. I was different, and I felt it. What makes the real difference is the response the student receives when coming into the classroom. This response will shape the entire school year and potentially the student’s view of school in general.

As such, working on that first impression, building a community, and instilling in students that their culture, their language, and their thoughts are valued is extremely important in the classroom. Once this is accomplished, meaningful learning and growth can occur. As the following video suggests, this support for English Language Learners (and all students!) is absolutely essential.

In this approach, not only are the students learning English, but the teachers are learning more about the students’ languages and cultures. I believe this is a necessary step in pulling together to form a community in the classroom. Embracing each student’s individuality and differences helps to give all students similar knowledge, helping them to bond and learn in the classroom. No matter the content area, this is a helpful overview of the classroom that can help each class run more smoothly. Building a community by finding and creating commonalities is at the heart of my teaching philosophy.

Larry Ferlazzo, an educator known for his book “English Language Learners: Teaching Strategies That Work,” agrees on this point and expands on it in his article for the New York Times, “English Language Learners and the Power of Personal Stories.” Ferlazzo also goes into some really interesting tips on how to help ELL students work their way into the classroom and acquire English in a less stressful environment. Ferlazzo’s interest in and depth going into the very personal subject of ELL’s in the classroom ignites my spark again as a thinker and as a teacher. It has me itching to try some of his ideas for reflection, for learning by doing, and for making connections to personal history. It has me thinking once again that it’s a small world after all. Even though Ferlazzo’s ideas are aplenty and diverse, they still reflect a lot of my own ideas. Maybe I’m not so different after all. Maybe we’re all not so different after all.

In the end, it’s people like Larry Ferlazzo and the gentleman in the International Market on Allen Street that make me realize I’m not alone on this teaching journey, which shall be my eternal learning adventure. It encourages me as an educator to have an open mind, to share of myself and accept the sharing of my fellow learners, and to always try new things…even if they look a little scary at the beginning.

Fried gluten. Like a cultural adventure, you never know until you try it.

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