By Susan MaldonadoSpecial to CSMS MagazineWhen we think about a particular ethnic group, we may have a stereotyped image flash before our eyes. We associate Germans with drinking beer, eating bratwurst, and working hard and we know the French as passionate lovers, drinking lots of wine. We see the Irish as hot tempered, and all Sicilians belong to the Mafia. Labeling ethnic groups makes it easy to discern and neatly categorize each culture according to our preconceived perceptions. In the United States, each person is a member of an ethnic group. Some have recently immigrated and others have been here for generations. In this article, I will explore the culture of Mexican immigrants, especially those who have recently immigrated and who have not yet began to understand the English language. Each culture dictates rules for certain expected behavior and each culture shares specific values and beliefs. The United States is a melting pot of hundreds of different ethnic groups; each in itself is a distinct culture. Most immigrants choose their relationship with their native and their newly acquired culture. It often happens that through assimilation the pure native culture is slowly lost, thus merging the old and the new culture and making them, after a period of time, indistinguishable. When immigrants experience this, they adopt a second set of cultural rules, which can coexist with the rules of their native culture, replace the rules of the old culture, or modify the old rules so that they complement the new ones. Not too many immigrants are truly bi-cultural; nor most of them maintain and use two cultures simultaneously with equal intensity. Most of us know very little about the students to whom we are teaching English. Most of the ESOL classes here in Flagler County consist primarily of Hispanic students, although many languages and cultures are represented in our classes. Presently, reasons for immigrating to the United States, especially from Mexico, are for reuniting with families and for poor economic conditions. We can become teachers that are more effective when we become literate in the culture of our Hispanic students, which is the intent of this article. To become more culturally sensitive toward our students, we must first recognize that there are, indeed, cultural differences between the Anglo culture and the Hispanic culture. Because our values are such an integral part of our behavior, they can have a considerable impact on the classes we teach. Here are some things I came up with to help explain how our Anglo beliefs can affect an entire class. Our personal goals are sometimes valued over the goals of the group. A teacher can attend more easily to the needs of a few “good students” and leave the rest of the class behind. However, this can also go in a more positive direction in which a few students who are struggling to keep up can be helped along, even at the expense of the rest of the class. Making communication skills a priority paves the way towards communicating facts in an objective manner, but can also lead to overlooking the more subtle levels of communicating like sharing feelings, or nurturing. Using a person’s name frequently may make some students feel awkward, but may also engender a sense of congeniality and connection. I knew, and most other pre-service teachers know that it is best to call a student by his/her name. However, what I did not realize was that by doing it frequently a student might feel awkward. The teacher’s belief that competitive is good may feel strange to some Hispanic students, but it will prepare them for the reality of American life. These were just a few values that might conflict with the values of Mexicans. There was a very interesting point that one of the teachers I observed pointed out to me. She made me aware of the difference between working in a group and working individually, which can also point out a major difference between the Mexican culture and the American culture. Here in America, it is considered cheating if a student helps another during a test. For Mexicans, it is showing respect, and it is allowed. Mexicans are brought up to be cooperative; where as Americans, we tend to be brought up to be a bit competitive. We also need to know that we have different perspectives about the present and the future. For Mexicans, the present has more value than the future. Mexicans focus more on the present needs. Therefore, it would be important for us to realize our Mexican students would focus better on short-term goals than on long term ones. If an ESOL teacher placed a lot of emphasis on fast moving and closely timed activities, it would put a bunch of stress on a Mexican student. We have to remember this child grew up in a relatively relaxed home atmosphere, where time did not really play a huge part in their life style. The communication style of Mexicans is much more formal than that of us Americans. Respect is highly valued and shown by using formal titles. Hispanics tend to show affection through touching. Friends can kiss, and males hug, shake hands or pat each other on the back. This has somewhat influenced the American behavior in recent times. Mexicans tend to be very polite, which can be interpreted by Americans as being passive. They use phrases like “at you command,” “at your service,” “my king,” or “my queen” in their everyday conversations. As I said before, cooperative learning is very important to Mexicans. They do not seem to want to show what they know for fear of embarrassing those who do not know. It is not common in a Mexican family to encourage children to excel over siblings or peers; rather, it is considered bad manners. The teacher of Mexican ESOL students should familiarize him/herself with a variety of cooperative learning techniques. ESOL teachers can easily misunderstand what their students are expressing if they are not familiar with the differences in their communication styles. A Mexican student can come across as being shy when praised by the teacher in front of others. The style he/she is used to is not a show in front of other classmates, but rather a touch, a smile and a quietly spoken word of praise as a reward would be better for Mexican students. Some Mexican students are terrified to speak aloud in class. I t is very important for a teacher to not call on a student too often if he/she does not feel comfortable answering aloud. This shyness is something that comes with the embarrassment of a Mexican child who tries their hardest to answer a question in English to only stumble over their words and not make sense. In these cases, a teacher needs to be able to translate what ever the child says and let them know it is okay to make mistakes. It is the responsibility of the teacher to try to accommodate to that child’s needs. By trial and error, every teacher has to find the communication techniques that work best for him/her. When we are teaching ESOL children, it is very important to know and understand some of their history and cultural artifacts. Mexican holidays would seem to be an important part of their culture to know about and incorporate into our curriculum. On January 6th they celebrate La Noche Buena, which marks the end of Christmas, the twelfth day. In their culture, it is when the children receive their gifts. But today’s children usually receive gifts on the 25th of December and on the 6th of January. On November 2nd they celebrate the day of the dead by bringing food to cemeteries and putting it on the graves of the loved ones they have lost. This holiday is somewhat similar to Halloween. Cinco de Mayo is May 5th and celebrates the battle of Puebla, which marks the end of the French Intervention in Mexico in 1862. El Dia de Independencia is celebrated on September 16th, which is when Mexico declared independence from Spain in 1810. This holiday needs to be mentioned because it is very important to them just like July 4th is very important to us. We need to do our best to know as many things as possible about the Mexican history and culture so that we will be able to understand what the ESOL children in our classes have been through and what they believe. Knowing about others’ differences will empower teachers to better understand their culturally diverse classrooms, thereby making it easier to meet the needs of multiethnic and multicultural students. Also see Role of alternative languages in our society Tips for teachers who teach ESOL students of Cuban originNote: Susan Maldonado is an ESOL teacher with the Flagler County School District. She lives and works in Palm Coast, Florida.
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