The cultural syllabus and its effect on the English language teaching profession in the town of Shoumen

Written by: Violeta Mondashka, ELMS, Shoumen
Stanislava Ivanova, Naval Academy, Varna

 

Quite recently, while still writing this paper, the Bulgarian government started the official negotiations for the country’s integration in the European Community. This lays the foundations of a long and difficult process of radical changes in all spheres of our political, economic and social life aimed at successful integration.

In the context of these changes and in view of the new opportunities they will provide, foreign language teaching acquires even greater significance with its aim of enabling successful communication in a foreign language setting. Linguistic performance alone, however, without cultural awareness does not warrant this success – an aspect that has long been neglected by our educational system. The Cultural Studies Syllabus has been created to fill in this gap and to propose a way of integrating the teaching of language and culture. It proceeds from our belief that language is part of a culture and to participate meaningfully in an inter-cultural context, one needs to possess knowledge as well as skills for inter-cultural communication.

The Syllabus promotes a new understanding about culture teaching in terms of what and HOW to teach. “What” is concerned not merely with provision of information but with developing inter-cultural awareness. Such awareness as stated in the Syllabus, grows out of a combination of knowledge and skills. The skill-based approach is crucial in helping the students to develop not only knowledge but also willingness to understand the complex aspects, which constitute culture. Thus the CS provides not only the aims of cultural education but it also proposes a new methodology for achieving these aims. (How)

Since its publication in September 1998, a series of seminars have been run throughout the country “to enable a wider circle of practising teachers of English and other foreign languages to use the Syllabus creatively and through changing their own views on the teaching of culture and improving their classroom behaviour to contribute to a large-scale process of change in language education”. (Leah Davcheva, Head of Cultural Studies, the British Council, Sofia)

The present paper is an attempt to assess the innovative effect of the Cultural Studies Syllabus on the English language teaching and learning practice in the town of Shoumen. It is mostly based on the reports of the teachers who participated in the double seminar on the Implementation of the CS and carried out their small action research projects in their classrooms between November 1998 and December 1999. It also includes our impressions from conducting the seminar, observing our colleagues teaching with the syllabus and discussing related issues in both formal and informal situations. And last but not least, it is an account of our personal experience of teaching cultural issues.

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Profile of the teachers

The teachers who responded to the idea of integrating culture in language teaching came from different schools.

Schools Number of teachers Class Age of students
Foreign languages Medium school 6 Preps 13-14
Eight 14-15
Ninth 15-16
Tenth 16-17
Eleventh 17-18
The School of Humanities 2 Tenth 16-17
Maths and Science School 1 Preparatory 13-14
Secondary Comprehensive School 1 Sixth 11-12
Private Language School 1 Pre-intermediate Level 12-13
Muslem Religious School 1 Tenth 16-17

The variety of the schools, as well as the different age groups of the students included in the research, provided the opportunity for exploring the effect of the syllabus in a number of different teaching contexts.

Since the Syllabus aims at innovation and change, further on in this paper we shall deal with the different aspects of the teaching-learning process and how these were affected by the Syllabus. We will be looking at changes in the conventional teaching practice, what the students gained from it and how it affected the teachers themselves. We will also deal with the innovative principles of the Syllabus that have been verified through our experience.

An important feature of the CS Syllabus is that it is skills-oriented (critical reading, comparing and contrasting, ethnographic and research skills). This gives the teacher the freedom to use different topics to practice the skills while at the same time avoids repetition. The topics suggested by the Syllabus proved to be both interesting and provocative and found remarkable emotional response among the students. These include: Christmas, Teenage Problems, “Fur Game? Fur-Get It!”, “I thought my teacher fancied me”, “Cross-cultural comparison of tourist materials, Reading photographs, Third Age, “Are we racist and xenophobic?”, etc. Many of the topics were chosen by the students themselves. By comparing and contrasting different Christmas practices, the problems of Bulgarian and British teenagers, different British/Scottish advertsing strategies in in tourist materials they became aware of different patterns of behaviour under similar circumstances, arising from different cultural background (“I thought my teacher fancied me”). In “Teenage work” they compared their predictions about finding work and the reactions of others (what employers, teachers, parents, peers think) and the reality of their findings.

Part of the learning process was taken out of the classroom and the students were encouraged to take a greater responsibility for their learning. In many cases the comparison was based on research that the students carried out in their own culture (by developing ethnographic skills) on different occasions: Christmas, teenage working, third age problems, etc. The students were provoked to find more about their own culture and acquire understanding of their own culture, a prerequisite of dealing with culture per se, before they could successfully develop awareness and tolerance of foreign cultural practices. Ethnographic research helped students realize that learning can happen outside the classroom, that by objectively observing they can learn more about themselves and gain increased awareness of changes in their own culture. The students in the 11th class admitted they could not attach the same emotional response to Christmas that they used to experience on New Year’s day.

In the 11th class the syllabus prompted the idea of self-designing a lesson on Christmas food and eating habits. The students were asked to research specific social practices like fasting and celebration of the night before Christmas; the symbolic meaning of the vegetarian and the number of dishes laid on the table. They provided typical Christmas recipes from the Bulgarian national cuisine. In the process of research, however, the students came up with unexpected results. They explored how the Bulgarian cuisine has been influenced by the Greek, Turkish and Italian cuisine and how in turn it affected our neighbouring countries. A special presentation was devoted to the Shoumen region, which added the local colour to their intra-cultural awareness. As a whole, Bulgarian cuisine was identified as a source of national pride.

Information was also collected from the Internet and, along with the British tradition, the students learned a lot about Mexican and Chinese ones. The comparison was followed by a discussion on the changing nature of habits and traditions, English breakfast was discussed as well as different strategies for fasting and dieting. Thus, the students were exposed to a variety of cultural diversities.     The CS was found extremely helpful by our American Peace Corp teacher. As a foreigner she found it natural to share parts of her own culture with the classes she taught. The Syllabus, however, provided a more structured approach to cultural comparisons. She tried the Christmas lessons in the prep, 8th and 9th classes and found both the procedure and the materials equally relevant to these three age groups. She particularly liked the cross-cultural approach, which turned the lesson into a comparison between Bulgarian and American Christmas traditions and not just a provision of knowledge about the target culture. Another aspect that was highly appreciated was the emphasis on intra-cultural awareness. As a follow-up to the lesson, she assigned a homework asking the students to describe the Bulgarian Christmas traditions. This is what she shared:

“Reading these was probably the most rewarding part of the lesson. Our discussions had helped them to delve deeper, to think more precisely about their own traditions and what they mean to them, as well as to recognize those things which are unique about their own culture.” The emphasis on intra-cultural awareness was highly appreciated by the American Peace Corps teacher. “The first step toward understanding another language is to recognize that our opinions are in part shaped by a specific culture (our ‘box’), and that other people in other places might approach a similar problem in entirely different ways. The new cultural studies syllabus encourages students to take the first steps in this process by introducing interesting and relevant topics that elicit debate and response, and then by asking students to compare this response with how people in another culture would respond.”

While comparing facts and social practices from their own culture and the culture of the target language they seemed to acquire a broader perspective of the role of both native and foreign culture for the development of their personalities. By exposing the students to a variety of cultural contexts we equip them with the tools they need to process information and form an opinion of their own.

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Versatility

An important feature of the syllabus is that it is extremely versatile which allows the same topic to be used at various levels in a number of different ways. The the topic of Christmas proved be the most enjoyable one round Christmas and it was explored in the widest possible range of age groups (from 12-18). In each of the classes however the lessons on Christmas were focussed on different aspects of the holiday depending on the language level and background experience of the students.

The CS crept into a quite unexpected teaching setting like the Muslim Religious secondary school. The topic of Christmas provoked the idea of comparing and contrasting different religious holidays and the social practices that accompany them. Residing in Bulgaria the students knew about Christmas but they have always felt it to be an exotic holiday, alien to their strong Muslem religious self-awareness. However, they were well familiar with the story of Ramazan Bayram from the Quran. The lesson encouraged the students to look deeper into the significance of their holiday as a symbol of purity and sincerity in human relations and respect for the elderly people in the family. A comparison between the two holidays and the messages they carry for the members of the two different religious communities raised their awareness of the existing common values along with the cultural and religious diversities. They realised what an important significance Christmas had for the Christian community. The lesson, while respecting their ethnic and religious identity, made it possible for them to identify with a different perspective, thus engendering tolerance.

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Flexibilty & Appropriateness to young learners

When writing the syllabus the target audience we aimed at were the English teachers at the Language, Maths and Humanities Medium schools. However, a belief was expressed that it could be of help to any language teacher. Being among its authors, we were curious to see how it works with very young learners. Violeta tried the second Christmas lesson from the Syllabus with her young students at a private language school. Those are 12-year old children whose level of English can be defined as pre-intermediate or lower intermediate. The aim was to practice comparing and contrasting and research skills. Before the Christmas holiday break, The students were asked to carry out a small research in their own family and relatives’ circle, answering very simple questions like:

  • Why do we celebrate Christmas?
  • Who do you celebrate with?
  • Where do you usually celebrate?
  • What do you / your parents / your relatives do before Christmas/ on Christmas day / on the next day?

The students responded sincerely and brought an account of traditional practices many of which we were not quite familiar with. They talked about “Budni vecher”, the vegetarian dishes, and the traditional Christmas symbols. It was difficult for them to express themselves fluently while describing specific practices but the emphasis being the cultural context, they were not corrected, just provided with the words they needed. When they had agreed on the list of typical Bulgarian Christmas activities, they were handed the photo from the Syllabus and made a similar list of the British common activities. Additional information was also provided from “Discovering Britain” with a glossary of the anticipated unfamiliar words. Then they were asked to find the difference between the two lists. The comparison between the two lists of activities brought awareness mostly at affective level. Some responded emotionally and quickly jumped to conclusions like “Our holiday is better!”. In the discussion that followed there was a lot of comparing and contrasting. It turned out that Bulgarian children enjoyed the way they celebrated Christmas. They liked the presents, disliked the turkey and the Christmas pudding and wanted the Bulgarian “banitsa” with the lucky charms in it. However, they were attracted by particular items in the other culture as well – mostly by the firecrackers and the Christmas stocking, though doubts were expressed as to its practicality in terms of the size of the presents that can fit in it. They learned about Boxing Day and compared it with our tradition of “Koleduvane”. They were also made aware of the mobility of cultural traditions. One of the families had celebrated the holiday abroad and another boy reported about a family that chose to have turkey for their Christmas meal.

Another enjoyable Christmas lesson with young learners (in the fifth grade) was based on comparing and contrasting Christmas cards. Since those children study Russian along with English, the teacher chose to compare Bulgarian, Russian and British Christmas postcards. Again the children showed great enthusiasm, learned a lot about Christmas symbols and made interesting observations. They responded not only to the images but also to the quality of the design. They recognized the uniqueness of the Bulgarian images: the traditional “buklitsa” and “surovaknitsa”, the apples and nuts on the folkstyle tablecloth – things they could not find in the other cards. They admired the images of the animals and the fairy-tale characters with “Snegurachka” (Snow White) in the Russian cards. They wondered why a view of Kremlin or of the Houses of Parliament should be sent as a Christmas greeting. They liked the Christmas stocking and disliked the religious texts of the Christmas carols.

Both lessons proved to be successful in providing young learners with insight into a foreign culture and traditions on a par with their own. Given the students age (12) it was unrealistic to expect them to speculate about or account for the reasons of the cultural diversities and similarities they noticed. Yet, a lot of comparing and contrasting was practiced, which enhanced their observation skills and provoked them to think about diversity, to say nothing of the new words they learned in the most enjoyable way. Thus with a slight adaptation in the procedure and the materials the Syllabus proved to be helpful for practicing the three cultural skills with younger learners.

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Emotional Response

The opportunity to participate in the selection of topics not only enhanced the students’ motivation but also stimulated a surprising ingenuity in providing additional topic-related materials from most varied sources: questionnaires and interviews carried out in their own culture, Christmas cards from different cultures, newspaper articles and photographs, tourist materials, Internet, etc. The students were eager to discuss, competed to be presenters, to shift the focus to topics they thought were relevant. While discussing animal rights and xenophobia, such diverse topics as stray dogs, animals in Bulgarian zoos, dancing bears, the war in Kosovo, etc., were touched upon. Various teaching techniques were employed. All the students got involved in taking interviews and making posters in Jana’s project on teenage working. As some of them shared, they felt like journalists and ejoyed it very much.

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What the students gained

The direct results that could be observed were the practical skills that the students acquired:

  • developed inter-cultural competence and ability to successfully communicate within a foreign cultural environment
  • enjoyed reading the authentic materials in the syllabus and the freedom to practise the language in discussing interesting topics
  • developed their linguistic competence, improved their linguistic skills (reading authentic materials, writing on interesting topics, speaking, etc.), gained fluency
  • practiced research and presentation skills (collecting and processing information, interviews, speaking in front of an audience, etc.)

However, there were some indirect influences on the students participating in the lessons, more subtle changes in their personal life philosophies. The confrontation with another perspective of reality, another alternative view of the world, helped them shake off their ethno- and egocentrism and grow as persons and citizens of the world. These are some of the qualities that were aimed at:

  • adaptability to changes in their own and foreign cultures
  • tolerance: while working in teams they learned to listen more attentively to each other, to respect each other’s opinion, team-work and team-spirit
  • ice-breaking experience: changed the atmosphere in class, improved relations with other students, fostered new respect for teachers who teach interesting lessons in an enjoyable way
  • built-in tolerance in the process of learning: appreciation of the opinions and values of others, sensitivity to cultural diversity, became more positive of their culture
  • broader perspective: the Syllabus encouraged them to reconsider the cultural framework they have been brought up in and to acquire skills that will enable them to observe and analyse encounters with diversity and to extend these beyond the framework of their culture
  • emotional connection to material, satisfaction of challenge
  • students’ attitude to work changed as a result of comparing predictions and findings
  • ethnocentrism – the students putting Bulgarians in the first place in terms of racism and xenophobia realized it is not true
  • perception of “right” and “wrong”: students realized their view is not universal (changed attitude towards the teacher in “I Thought My Teacher Fancied Me”)
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How the teachers changed

Students were not the only ones affected by the changed approach to culture. Some changes can be observed in the teachers as well. The experience affected them on two levels: as professionals and as persons. The professional growth can be better understood if we list some of the possible problems identified at the first seminar. In spite of their willingness, the participants expressed a lot of concerns, i.e.:

  • lack of authentic materials, reference books and native speakers to consult
  • lack of cultural experience on the part of the students and the teacher
  • lack of interest and motivation
  • lack of confidence in dealing with sensitive topics
  • suitability of lessons and topics to students’ age group and language abilities
  • curriculum constraints

The teachers felt challenged though not quite confident at the beginning. They started by sticking closely to the Syllabus, and (in many cases) by trialling the sample lesson that was taught during the first seminar: ‘Cross-cultural comparison of tourist materials’.

One and the same lesson was taught with different success in different classes (“The Fur-game”). In one of the classes the students were shocked by the cruelty with which animals are killed for their fur. They claimed they would never wear fur.’ The discussion shifted to cleanliness in our town and they wanted to organise group to keep nature clean. In a different class, same age level, taught by the same teacher, students refused to see the problem or identify with it. They thought that even if they stopped buying fur clothes that would not change things. This made the teacher aware of how difficult it is for to attitudes change.

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Problems encountered during the lessons

Teaching the lessons had both a liberating and threatening effect on teachers. It enriched them, provided them with many opportunities for growth and improvement in their professional capacity, helped the overcome the problems envisioned in the beginning, but also brought to the surface other unforeseen problems.

  • Timing – difficult to plan
  • Sensitive topics – not all students felt comfortable with discussing them; some refused to voice their attitude on xenophobia; or the clash in Kosovo (probably they didn’t share the same value system)
  • Danger of imposing your own ideas; evaluate phenomena instead of objectively comparing them.
  • Tight spots and losing control of the lesson (a young teacher was asked, ‘What would you do if you received a love letter from your student?’)
  • Lack of up-to-date information (British newspapers) – there were questions about the British school system that she was unable to answer.

In these days of the learner centered approach, the responsibility for learning is the learner’s. “The teachers may help overcome difficult stages, may organize learning activities and try to stimulate the process, but can never predict the outcome” (de Jong, 1996). Still, it was an ice-breaking experience for the teacher/students relations: teachers came to know their students better; provided for openness and mutual trust in their relations. All the teachers recognized this as a positive experience:

Gergana:’I found the lesson about fur…an enjoyable and valuable experience. Even though it didn’t show change of attitudes in one of the classes it provoked them to think about these matters…’

Janeta:’Working on the project was difficult and time-consuming but the students enjoyed it and the results were rewarding.

Gabriela: ’…an enjoyable lesson. Everybody was eager to present.

The Syllabus gave them an insight into their new role of culture teachers – as mediators, consultants and monitors of the process of teaching culture and not providers of knowledge.

  • Provoked an interesting way of revising grammar through the CS materials; Ex. Conditional sentences-‘I thought my teacher…’
  • Provided a new perspective of the nature of cultural teaching and learning and a more structured approach to it.
  • Supplied ideas on selecting and adapting materials that provoke students’ interest.
  • Gained in confidence – ‘Each time it is better.’
  • Acquired a better understanding of what students think/feel; of how they perceive themselves as individuals – leads to better relationship with the students.
  • Improved classroom dynamics and classroom management.
  • Learned how to design their own lesson around skills.
  • Higher respect on behalf of the students.
  • Fascinating connection between teaching ‘pure’language+culture+‘life’-skills.

The Syllabus changed them on a personal level as well. Teachers:

  • gained in confidence
  • improved relations with colleagues (they observed each other, discussed possible problems)
  • became more tolerant of others and “otherness”
  • increased their own cultural awareness

The aim of the cultural studies teaching and learning, as exemplified by the Syllabus, and as evidenced in this paper is not only to develop language and communicative competence, but also “to expand one’s own cultural awareness by learning about the cultural heritage of the English speaking peoples and by so doing to arrive at a livelier appreciation of both cultures” (Byram, 1997). The Cultural Studies Syllabus has already made a tremendous impact on the ELT practice in the town of Shoumen and has changed the way teachers and learners view the world and themselves. The process of introducing the syllabus to the ELT community in Bulgaria is on-going and will undoubtedly contribute to the future integration of Bulgaria in the European community.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Billington, R. Strawbridge, S. Greensides, L. Fitzsimmons, A. Culture and Society: A sociology of Culture, 1991, Macmillan Education Ltd.
Byram, M. Teaching and Assessing Intercultural Communicative Competence, 1997, Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Davcheva, L. Berova, N. Discovering Britain, 1991, Prosveta
de Jong, W. Open Frontiers: Teaching English in an intercultural context, 1996, Heinemann ELT
Montgomery, M. Reid Thomas, H. Language and Social Life, 1994, The British Council

THE CULTURAL SYLLABUS AND ITS EFFECT ON TEACHING IN SHOUMEN

The Cultural Studies Syllabus has been created to provide means for integrating the teaching of language and culture. It promotes a new understanding about culture teaching, a combination of knowledge and skills, and proposes a new methodology for achieving these aims.

Since its publication, a series of seminars have been run throughout the country. The present paper assesses the innovative effect of the Cultural Studies Syllabus on the English language teaching and learning practice in the town of Shoumen.

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