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Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Great tools to understand the culture of Colombian students in American classrooms

By Rolando Fourcand

Special to CSMS Magazine

Educators of students in ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) courses are faced with a host of challenges that go beyond the curriculum set forth by school districts throughout the nation.  ESOL students face not only the usual academic challenges common to all students but they face language and cultural adaptation challenges.  ESOL students also face the daunting task of adjusting to educators who for the most part may not be well versed in dealing with and teaching to the myriad of cultures they face.  All this is happening despite the fact that many elementary, middle, universities and colleges offer education degrees to make provisions in their curriculums in order to address the needs of ESOL students.  However, it is evident that this may not be enough to properly address the needs of all ESOL students.  

ESOL students should be handled differently, depending on the culture they are from.  There seems to be a tendency to “lump” all ESOL students, regardless of their cultural background into one group.  This in effect, in my opinion, delays educational achievements and progress. Each student should be looked at through their own cultural prism and his or her educational plan set accordingly. To accomplish this, teachers, educators should be given specific briefings on communication styles, cultural nuances, the student’s home country’s facts and statistics.  In an effort to contribute to this and perhaps guide and assist other future teachers, I have created a brief report on Colombian students that address some of what was mentioned in the aforementioned paragraph in the hopes that it can be applicable to the Florida Sunshine State standards.

            Colombia is a country of over 45 million located in the southern hemisphere.  It is bordered by Ecuador, Brazil, Panama and Venezuela.  It is important to note that even within the country; there are many subcultures with their own unique cultures.  Ninety percent of Colombians are Roman Catholic—important things to note since many have strong moral values and beliefs when it comes to their overall world view.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are over 700,000 Colombians in the United States.  Of that, over 500,000 are foreign born.  The majority of those Colombians, who have decided to make the U.S. their home, reside in Florida, New Jersey and New York. Colombians for the most part have high educational attainment.  Of those in the country, only 16.3% have below a high school degree.  The rest of the population has at least a high school diploma with 24% of the population having at least some college or an associate’s degree.  This is an important fact to note since Colombian families place a high emphasis on educational attainment.  Literacy rates in Colombia hover around 92%.  The country is infamous for its “drug cartels” and its 40 year old war with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).  The latter gave way to the Colombian disproportionate that increased the number of Colombians here in the U.S and in Europe.  The main cities that Colombians migrate from are Medellin, Cali, Bogota and Barranquilla.  These are the four largest cities in Colombia in terms of population.

            The Colombian student comes to the states, as mentioned before, fully prepared mentally and academically for the rigors of school.  According to Professor Jairo R Ledesma, Adjunct Professor of sociology at Miami Dade College in Miami, Florida, “Colombians students come here with the expectation that they will be challenged academically”.  The reality is that Colombian students are “disappointed” with the lack of academic challenges placed on them. They are surprised to find out that they are more advanced in the areas of math and science then their U.S. counterparts.  The curriculum they face in their countries forces them to take “hard sciences” and math throughout “bachiller” or high school which coincidently starts in grade 6 and not 9 like we have here. The real challenge for them is the language and cultural adaptations they must endure.  The student, depending on his or her age at the time of entry into the States may already have some basic knowledge of the English language but is still limited in his or her communications skills.  This is complicated more by the fact that they must adapt to the slang, idioms and clichés that are prevalent in the English language. 

            Colombians for the most part are very well mannered, respectful, polite and happy people.  In fact, Colombia was recently ranked the 4th happiest country in the world despite their 40 year old internal conflict.  This is attributed to their rich culture of music, art, literature, sports and family cohesiveness.  The Colombian student is one that places great importance and respect for his teacher.  In fact, it is recognized that Colombian ESOL students, no matter the age will not call you by your last name. Instead, they will say “teacher”.  It is unthinkable for them to address a teacher by his last name.” A Colombian student will at first not feel comfortable in asking questions since they are conditioned not to question the authority and knowledge a teacher has.  This obviously could be problematic since it could mean a student just sits there without asking the important questions that need to be asked.  The student will need some coaxing and some positive reinforcements to assure him that it is okay to ask questions. 

            The relationship and communication between parent and child is one of boss and employee.  The parents for the most part are considered strict, especially with girls.  They are considered to have lots of respect for their elders and keep them in high regard.  It is not unusual to have Colombian parents very involved in their children’s education.  However, parents may have a difficult time reaching out to teachers since they lack the English language skills necessary to have consistent dialogue with them.  In that case Colombian parents will make an effort to have someone translate for them. They appear passive. However, because of their own educational experiences, they are well versed in the responsibilities both children and teachers have.

These cultural briefing reports can assist a teacher meet some of the Florida Sunshine State Standards by:

Sunshine Standard- L.A., states that a student will make a formal oral presentation for a variety of purpose and occasions, demonstrating appropriate language, the use of supporting graphics, charts and illustration charts. The student will be given the chance to talk about his or her country, something that will surely make the student more comfortable and will allow him or her to practice their newly acquired language skills. 

Sunshine Standard- L.A. States that the student will ask questions of speakers using appropriate tone and eye contact.  This will allow the Colombian student to get used to asking questions and to realize that this is okay. 

Sunshine Standard SS.4.C.2.3 States that explain the importance of public service, voting and volunteerism.   This standard will allow the Colombian student to incorporate themselves into mainstream U.S. culture. 

The Colombian student will be willing and able to eventually adapt to the U.S educational system. Parents should be engaged early on and differences from their own home cities should be noted.  Those from the capital Bogota and Medellin will tend to be more conservative, while those from Cali and Barranquilla will be more inclined to be more spirited and more liberal. 

Note: Rolando Fourcand is an education major at Nova Southeastern University near Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Also see Creating culture diversity

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