Gino Learns to Play Kickball: Bridging the Cultural Gap Between Teachers and English Language Learner

Michele Harr tells the story of how one teacher's experience with other cultures helped her facilitate interaction between mainstream U.S. students and an immigrant newcomer student. See Roberta K. Weber and Thomas Doyal's Portal article, "To Understand Diverse Learners, Leave Your Comfort Zone," Essential Teacher, October 2009.

Gino was a fourth-grade student who loved to read. At recess, he preferred to sit alone and read a novel rather than participate in kickball games with other boys. Because his family had moved to the United States from Italy at the beginning of the school year, his teacher was impressed with the rapid development of Gino's reading ability in English. This teacher described Gino as a loner and was not concerned about his lack of socialization at recess. However, one teacher found his behavior to be unusual. Krista, the student teacher assigned to Gino's classroom, was concerned about Gino's isolation.

While Gino adjusted to fourth grade in the United States, Krista volunteered to participate in a series of workshops for student teachers designed to raise their awareness of the social and academic issues experienced by English language learners (ELLs). During the workshops, Krista spoke about her own background experiences with other cultures. She had traveled extensively throughout Asia, Africa, and South America and had numerous experiences with miscommunication and cultural misunderstandings. Because of her past experiences, Krista suspected that Gino most likely wanted to play with other children at recess but was inhibited by language or cultural barriers. Krista became so interested in Gino's lack of socialization that she was motivated to focus her thesis project on finding ways to help him socially adjust to his new environment.

Krista's Project: Understanding Gino's Difficulties at Recess

To effectively intervene, Krista had to first understand the difficulties Gino was having at recess, so she completed a series of observations on his behavior at the playground. Gino was not an aggressive child, but Krista had observed that his methods of initiating play, which included tackling other boys, were not acceptable to children in the United States. When Gino's attempts to play with other boys were rejected, he withdrew and spent his recess alone with a book.

Krista wanted to help Gino fit in with other students, but in a way that would not make him feel that he had a problem. She decided to create a club called the Lunch Bunch for all of the students in third and fourth grades whose families had lived outside of the United States. In the first Lunch Bunch meeting, Krista held a group discussion in which she asked students to share their impressions of the differences that they had noticed between children in the United States and children in the other countries. Gino really opened himself to the group and described why he hated boys in his adopted country. He reported that he thought they spend too much time playing video games and that they only like to play sports that were not popular in Italy, such as baseball, football, and kickball. Gino said that he tried to participate in a kickball game at recess, but when he asked another student how to play, he was told, "It’s just like baseball except you kick." Obviously, this explanation was insufficient considering Gino had never played baseball. As a result, his attempt to participate in kickball and to fit in with the other boys was a failure. The other Lunch Bunch students were supportive of Gino; all of them could identify with his failed attempts to fit in.

Kickball Lessons

After learning about Gino's struggle to learn to play kickball, Krista decided to use a Lunch Bunch session to teach students about this game. She drew a baseball diamond on the chalkboard and explained key vocabulary such as catcher, bunting, foul ball, innings, and pitch. Then she placed pillows on the floor where bases would be located, and acting as the pitcher, she rolled a ball to the students, giving each child the opportunity to kick and then run around the bases. Finally, Krista took the Lunch Bunch outside to practice a real game of kickball.

The next day, she announced to all students in Grades 3 and 4 that she would start organized kickball games for any student who wanted to play. Twenty-six students joined the game, and all of the Lunch Bunch students were active participants as well. Krista noticed that Gino was quite a good kicker and that he received praise from the other boys. The following is an excerpt from Krista's project that explains the changes she witnessed in Gino after his participation in kickball:

During the next Lunch Bunch meeting, I asked the students how they felt during recess. All of them agreed that they love to play kickball now! Gino stopped bringing his books to recess. He was also getting a lot of positive praise from the other children. I was seeing his self-esteem improve tremendously! I watched as the "popular" fourth-grade boys invited Gino to sit with them at lunch. They asked him more and more questions about life in Italy. It was obvious that Gino was on a high because he didn’t stop smiling the whole day. Instead of being yelled at by the other children, he was being welcomed.

The Gap Between Teacher and Student Background

The good news in this story is that Krista, motivated by her own background experiences, realized that Gino was not happy spending every recess alone. Because she had the opportunity to experience cultural misunderstandings during her travels, she understood that cultural barriers may have caused Gino's lack of socialization at recess. Krista's observations of Gino led her to design an intervention that eventually allowed him to learn to participate in recess activities with other children. Although Krista was able to intervene with Gino, an unfortunate fact illustrated by this story is that she was the only teacher to see that Gino's lack of socialization was even a problem. The other teachers were content to label Gino as a loner. Because he did not have a behavior problem, the other teachers were not concerned about helping him develop his social skills.

Without background experiences like Krista’s travel, teachers who do not share the same culture as the students they teach may be unaware of the multitude of social issues faced by ELLs. The U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (n.d.) data from the 2003–2004 school year show that approximately 83% of teachers in the United States are classified as White/non-Hispanic. However, the 2007–2008 school year data show that approximately 20% of all students enrolled in Grades K–12 in U.S. public schools are Hispanic, 16% are African American, and 4% are Asian American (Keigher, 2009). These statistics show that between one-quarter and one-half of all children in the United States are educated by teachers who do not share their cultural and linguistic background. When teachers do not share this background with students and lack experiences with diverse cultures outside of the classroom, situations such as Gino’s may often be overlooked.

Bridging the Cultural Gap

There are several ways that school districts and university teacher education programs can help teachers bridge the gap between their own cultural background and that of the ELLs in their classes. First, at the school district level, teachers of ELLs must learn to understand and value the cultures represented in their classrooms. School administrators could show ELLs' parents that diverse cultures are valued by asking parents to share information about their culture with teachers at workshops or in-service days. Suggestions for parent presentations include the sharing of customs and traditions celebrated at home as well as their daily routines. Learning about behavioral norms that vary from culture to culture, such as children's roles and responsibilities in the home, can increase teachers' understanding of ELLs' backgrounds.

Another way that school districts could help is to offer teachers continuing education credit for study of the first language (or one of the first languages) of the ELLs that they teach. Study of a second language serves several purposes. First, even limited knowledge of an ELL's first language increases the teacher's communication opportunities. Second, study of a second language helps teachers learn the linguistic patterns of an ELL's first language and enables them to understand and anticipate student errors. Third, study of a language often involves study of the culture of the people who speak that language. Finally, as they learn and make mistakes with the new language, teachers who become language learners will gain a deeper perspective of the struggles faced by ELLs.

At the university level, teachers can gain experience with diversity as part of their teacher preparation program. Ideally, candidates seeking initial teacher certification should be exposed to linguistic and cultural diversity before entering the classroom. One approach is to provide them with diversity experiences through service learning projects. Service learning projects are more than just volunteer programs; they involve meaningful community service combined with instruction and opportunities for reflection. For a service learning project to yield educational value to the volunteer, it must include carefully planned and simultaneous integration with an academic course (LeSourd, 1997).

Service learning projects can take place either close to the university or abroad. Examples in the United States include community service in a soup kitchen, adult literacy program, or afterschool program. Service learning projects abroad may include working in a hospital or a women's shelter or teaching English to children. In both instances, the project gives the participant an opportunity to interact with members of another culture. The purpose of the personal interaction is to begin the process of breaking down cultural barriers that may exist. The added advantage of the service learning projects that take place abroad is that participants have the opportunity to experience how ELLs feel as they navigate a new country and a new school system and struggle to communicate in a new language.

Research has shown that teachers must understand how culture, language, and background experiences influence learning and social behavior in order to understand the challenges encountered by ELLs (Baker & Hornberger, 2001; Ovando, Combs, & Collier, 2006; Valdes, 1998). Although the majority of students who pursue the field of education in the United States are White, middle-class, monolingual individuals, teacher preparation programs in this country prepare certification candidates to teach students of all cultural backgrounds. Therefore, it is imperative that school districts and teacher education programs prepare teachers to understand the backgrounds of culturally and linguistically diverse learners. As schools become more diverse, this is critical in order to bridge the cultural gap between ELLs and their teachers.

I would like to thank Kristen Sigler, the student teacher who made this article possible.

References

Baker, C., & Hornberger, N. (Eds.). (2001). An introductory reader to the writings of Jim Cummins. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.

Keigher, A. (2009). Characteristics of public, private, and Bureau of Indian Education elementary and secondary schools in the United States: Results from the 2007–08 schools and staffing survey. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved September 21, 2009, fromhttp://nces.ed.gov/pubs2009/2009321.pdf

LeSourd, S. (1997). Community service in a multicultural nation. Theory Into Practice, 36, 157–163.

Ovando, C., Combs, M., & Collier, V. (2006). Bilingual and ESL classrooms: Teaching in multicultural contexts. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (n.d.). Schools and staffing survey, 2003–04: Table 18. Retrieved September 21, 2009, from http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/sass/tables/sass_2004_18.asp

Valdes, G. (1998). The world outside and inside schools: Language and immigrant children. Educational Researcher, 27(6), 4–18.

Michele Harr (harrm@ohiodominican.edu) is an assistant professor of TESOL at Ohio Dominican University, in Columbus, Ohio, in the United States.