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Cultural Identity Activities in the ELL Classroom

  • Cultural Identity Activities in the ELL Classroom

The following blog post was written by Edi Casimirri, a faculty member at the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement.

What’s the difference between an icebreaker and a cultural identity activity? That’s one of the questions my colleague Andrea Scholes and I addressed at three recent workshops we delivered in Calgary. In this blog, I’ll highlight some interesting takeaways for me after doing the activities with learners and presenting the activities to other teachers.

In answer to the above question, the main difference between an icebreaker and a cultural identity activity is TIME. Icebreakers are short, one-offs. They can be fun, casual, and don’t require deep thought. Examples include “find someone who” or improv/circle games, or introduce your partner. Cultural identity activities, on the other hand, can be layered and built upon. They require people to think deeply about who they are, their place in their environment(s), and what their future might look like.

Cultural Identity Thematic Unit

The activities we shared at the workshops were developed for a Cultural Identity thematic unit in the Bridge program. The activities themselves aren’t particularly novel (i.e. we didn’t “invent” them), but the order in which we packaged them or presented them was unique. The process was one of gradual exploration of the broader topic, as well as the exploration of self. The activities can be described as going from low-tech to higher-tech, from nonverbal to verbal, or from individual to group, and back to the individual.

Completing a survey

One of the revelations for me was the buy-in for every aspect of the project. The first part involved learners individually completing a survey about what’s important to them. This allowed people to be introspective. We’ve all encountered a learner at the beginning of a class or semester who comes in with the look of a deer caught in the headlights. I’ve personally had learners who haven’t spoken or wanted to speak, for weeks. So doing activities that don’t require speaking right away can be comforting for those who are going through a quiet or silent phase.

Nine squares art project

This project brought home the point that it is important to make room for art or different levels of expression in a classroom. One of our projects was a nine squares art piece, with each square containing a visual depiction of one thing that is important to us. Modelling is an important aspect of our teaching and each instructor in the Bridge program created the 9-squares art piece, then explained the piece in front of everyone. It gave all learners a chance to meet and learn something about each instructor. After learners created their own art piece (using pencil crayons or pictures cut out of magazines), they presented one-on-one to a classmate. People did not want to stop talking to each other, explaining their pictures or hearing about others’ pictures. The amount of conversation created/generated far surpassed anything you’d expect from a “share with your partner” activity.

Individual writing & audio recording

Individual  writing flowed from this activity, and I do mean flowed.

Individual writing flowed from this activity, and I do mean flowed. It seemed effortless for learners to write based on the pictures. Lower level classes wrote sentences. At the higher levels, learners created paragraphs and essays.

Introducing technology at the final phase was the cherry on top, for learners and for instructors.

Learners used the preceding writing piece to make a recording of one thing that is important to them. The recording was made on individual laptops using Audacity, but it could also be done during a listening or computer lab using Voice Recorder or the free program Fotobabble. A one-minute recording is ideal, especially for Fotobabble. About 155 words can fit into a one-minute recording.

At the workshops, when other teachers listened to the recordings, they were amazed by how well-spoken learners were and how natural they sounded. It was hard to admit that it was the learners themselves who did all the work, self-correcting their own pronunciation and other aspects of their speech such as volume and pace. The final project was a PowerPoint with an audio presentation called My Story.

Learner feedback

I’ve skipped through a lot of details here, but it’s hard to summarize six weeks of work into one blog. All of the above activities were just part of the thematic unit, which also including readings about culture and identity. Feedback from learners was extremely positive. I’ll end with a couple of quotes from learners reflecting on the unit and activities.

  • “I liked hearing about other people’s lives.”
  • “We found a chance to talked about who we really are and learned new things from each other’s.”
  • “I like this kinds of projects so I was wondering that if we can make this kinds of projects in every semester.”
  • “Every person has different identity and if we share with others maybe we get surprised if we hear new things about the people.”
  • “I want to draw more picture for the next time and I don’t want to choose from magazine.”
  • “For the next time, if they going to give me this kind of project, I will try to do different information about my identity because one person have a lot of different kinds of identity.”
  • “I like to find the pictures and each picture talks about me.”


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Patrick Kelly

Thanks Edi and Andrea. It's very interesting to hear how the students self-corrected and worked hard to make the recording close to perfect. That shows that you have a great project hear.