INTRODUCTION: I teach a four unit college and life management class that is linked to a basic skills class in College Reading. When the class was doing a unit on appreciating differences and the concepts of culture, I sought an activity that complemented our readings and discussions on communication, diversity, and relationships. I wanted to encourage students to think about their personal cultural identity in a safe environment. I also wanted them to realize that, like themselves, their classmates have many facets of identity and experience important to them.
This activity can be adapted for use in a number of education settings. It’s a great icebreaker in any course, provides a great prompt for a writing assignment in English or a presentation in speech, an intriguing discussion starter in sociology or anthropology, and certainly would be valuable in any course or group that addresses issues of cultural diversity. Individuals, pairs, or teams of students could even present and explain symbols of college or campus culture, and the activity could be adapted for a career class where students can present professional artifacts to describe an employment area of interest.
The time required for this activity depends on the class size. For a class of 20 students, I allocate about 90 minutes.
- To facilitate personal and cultural self-awareness.
- To help students become better acquainted with their classmates.
- To give students the tools to look beyond stereotypes.
SUPPLIES AND SET-UP:
- *Handout #1: CULTURAL ARTIFACT: A Self-Awareness Activity (appended below)
- *Handout #2: REFLECTIVE WRITING: Cultural Artifacts (appended below)
1. Provide Handout #1: “CULTURAL ARTIFACT: A Self-Awareness Activity,” which contains the assignment to bring an artifact to the next class and be prepared to speak about it for 3-5 minutes.
2. During the next class, have each student show and explain their cultural artifact. Remind students to discuss their reasons for selecting the artifact, what it means to them, and how it represents their culture. I share a cultural artifact first to model what students are to do in their presentations.
3. After the presentations, ask students to pair up and discuss their experiences and insights. Post (or provide a handout of) the following questions for pairs to discuss:
- What was the purpose of this activity?
- How did this activity help you learn about or increase your awareness of yourself? Of others?
- How does the difference between how you perceive yourself and how others perceive you affect you as a student?
- What have you learned about culture (yours and others’) during this unit?
4. Discussion: Ask volunteers to share with the whole group their lessons learned.
5. As homework, provide Handout #2: “REFLECTIVE WRITING: Cultural Artifacts.” I gave students a week to complete this writing.
The students’ choices of artifacts, along with their explanations, effectively illuminated the great diversity in the class. One student brought a globe as his artifact, saying it represents all of the places that he has lived and his diverse group of friends. The student was born in Iran, raised in Germany, and is now a United States citizen. Another student, who was raised in the San Francisco Bay area, brought a book about Iran. She had never been there, but talked about how her parents were born in Iran and immigrated to the U.S. Neither student had known about their common Iranian roots.
Another student who grew up in the foster care system in California talked about not knowing her family history. She admitted that this activity made her uncomfortable at first, because she could not talk about her family culture. She shared that when growing up she had been told one story about her birth parents, but later learned that it was not true. She brought a mirror to represent her personal culture of independence and honesty. She explained that the mirror reflected what SHE saw, not what others saw. Her culture, she said, was a mix of difficult life experiences, independence, and relationships.
A student shared about the native culture in Taiwan . He brought a picture of a festival with Taiwanese dancers. He mentioned the relationship between Taiwan and China. He said that many native Taiwanese identified differently from Chinese, but that there was growing pressure to have a Chinese identity. This raised some questions from two classmates who did not know much about the political situation between Taiwan and Mainland China.
Another student who had served in the Navy shared how this experience had transformed him. The class knew that he had served between high school and college, but the artifacts (pictures and a jersey that he wore when he worked on the flight deck of a navy carrier) and stories placed his experiences in a different light. Some students asked questions with amazement about his basic training and job responsibilities. By their comments and tone of voice, I could sense a new level of respect for their classmate.
Some students shared artifacts that had been passed on for generations. Two students had family bibles, another had a cross that his father gave to him, and another brought a Greek artifact called the Mati which translates as “Evil Eye.” She talked about the belief that this object protects against all evils, envy, hatred, and bad luck. Many students had heard or used the expression “evil eye” before, but did not know its origin.
Students mentioned how surprised they were that they had so much in common. They indicated that appearance did not reveal much about each other’s backgrounds and experiences, but that these presentations really helped them to get to know each other. One student connected with the others who brought their family bibles. He shared more about the role of religion in his life. Two students talked about how this activity helped them to reconnect with their grandparents with whom they had not spoken in years.
When I asked students for feedback about the activity, a number of them wished that we had had more time for each presentation. Students who expressed concern about having to speak for at least 3 minutes had no trouble sharing for that amount of time. In fact, in many cases, I had to curtail the questions and follow-up discussions in the interest of time.
This activity certainly met my first objective of increasing the students’ personal and cultural awareness. In our follow up discussion, one student commented that he wanted to study his religion more because he felt that he had forgotten things that he had previously known. A few said they felt more connected to their ancestors and families as a result of doing this exercise. Many expressed a definite appreciation of family history and cultural background. As one student said, “By knowing about my past, I now know where I am from, and where my ‘roots’ are.” One woman summarized her own awareness and the perceptions of others by stating, “Other people usually identify you as one thing, but you look at yourself as so much more and a lot different from the way that others look at you.” Three students mentioned that this activity reminded them of a part of themselves with which they had lost touch. One student said that she wants to continue her discussions with her grandmother about their family history. Another said that he wants to restart his religious studies. The tone of all essays expressed great pride in each student’s history.
My second objective for this activity was to help the students become better acquainted with their classmates. I have used this exercise with a number of classes now and I find that students really enjoy learning about each other. More than one student commented during the class discussion that “you can’t judge a book by its cover” and that there is more to a person than meets the eye. One student admitted, “I sometimes stereotype and prejudge when there’s more.” She went on to say that she wants to change. Another said that it was a good reminder that “we often make assumptions based on differences.” A student mentioned that she was not aware just how diverse the students in the class are. After this activity, students seem to bond more as a community of learners.
The presentations, discussion, and essays gave students the opportunity to look beyond stereotypes, my third objective. During the presentations, I observed the students listening to understand. They asked questions to expand or clarify. For example, one student talked about his talus and his Bar Mitzvah. Another student, who was unfamiliar with Judaism, asked what the equivalent experience was for young girls. In another presentation, one man brought a chain that his mother gave him after his baptism. He is Mormon and described the importance of the baptism in his religion. Another student asked a question about the Mormon tradition. This experience was a great opportunity for the students to dispel some myths and stereotypes. The questions were genuine without the assumption that any student spoke for everyone of his cultural background.
In the future, I plan to modify the assignment somewhat. I will first provide students with a broad definition of culture to more closely model the assigned readings in the paired course. These readings will cover factors that shape cultural identity including ethnicity, race, religion, family, education, and occupation.
On a personal level, I found it challenging to choose a cultural artifact of my own. Like many of my students, I did not want to limit myself to one item. I was very aware that the item that I selected would influence the impression the students had of me. I selected a pin which shows the United States and US Marine Corps flags. This artifact represents my role as a military family member. Most of my students did not know this about me. (I do have a picture of my husband in uniform in my office but few had noticed.) This gave me the chance to dispel some negative stereotypes and assumptions that people make about Marines and military families. As a result of my own presentation, I recognize how much of a personal risk the students may feel about opening up in front of the class.
I adapted this activity from an assignment used by Hans Peeters, an Instructor at Ohlone College. Professor Peeters says he learned it from faculty members in the Speech Communications Department at CSU Hayward, but I suspect that the activity goes back even further to a source unknown to me.
Handout #1: CULTURAL ARTIFACT: A Self-Awareness Activity
HOMEWORK ASSIGNMENT: Select an artifact that tells a story about your cultural background that you can share with the class. This artifact can be a picture, a coat of arms, or an object (a piece of clothing, jewelry, a tool etc.). You will probably want to select something that is easy to transport so you can bring it to class.
If possible, choose an item that illustrates something about your cultural background that is not obvious. For example, a former student who appeared to be African-American brought an artifact that denoted her Filipino background; another, a “white” male, brought an arrowhead because his grandfather was Native American. We want to learn something about your background that is not readily apparent.
If you cannot find a “hidden” part of your background, teach us something we may not have known about your culture.
Turn to your family members to learn more about your background. If that is not possible, do research so that you have something significant to share with the rest of the class about your cultural heritage.
If you do not have an object to bring from home, copy an appropriate picture from a magazine or book, download an image from the Internet, etc. Remember, the visual component of this exercise is important.
Be prepared to do a 3-5 minute presentation to describe your artifact, explain why you selected it, and answer any questions. Students who do not come to class prepared on the date of the presentation will receive no presentation points.
Handout #2: REFLECTIVE WRITING: Cultural Artifacts
Write a one-page typed reflective essay discussing what you learned about your background and yourself from this exercise. Please proofread your essay carefully for spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
by Kristin Samarov, Instructor/Counselor, Freshmen Experience Learning Community Program, Foothill College, CA