Dec 292015

5 tips to encourage diversity in the classroom by fostering friendships

Fostering friendships among students is an important part of supporting diversity in the classroom.  Today’s tips on how to do this are brought to you by Amy of The Gifted Gabber, an experienced English as a Second Language teacher.

As an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, I love watching friendships blossom between young people from all over the world. Watching a friendship grow is always a magical thing to observe but even more so when the parties involved come from different walks of life.

It’s not hard to reason that Mexican students might find it easy to befriend one another in an ESL class in the United States, or that two students from India might form a bond when placed in a class together on the other side of the world. It would also be reasonable to think that the life of an immigrant student would be a lonely one – at least for the first few months in a new school. In my experience, newcomer students seem more willing to engage with students of different colors, languages, and backgrounds. Maybe this tolerance towards diversity stems from a place of loneliness, but it’s a good thing, regardless.

One of the most entertaining friendships I observed began five years ago when two young ladies – both looking lost – entered my ESL classroom on the first day of their sixth-grade year. One’s native language was Vietnamese, while the other spoke Gujarati and Hindi. Neither could communicate verbally with the other at first. Yet, a week into the school year, they were fast friends.

The student from India had learned a bit of formal English before coming to the U.S., and the student from Vietnam knew none. However, the two managed to communicate and figure each other out. And their open attitudes did not end there, as they also extended friendship to the Guatemalan, Iraqi, Mexican, and Filipino students in the class. To boot, I often saw them in the halls between classes, interacting and laughing with American students. Just as these girls embraced a new land, they welcomed any and all friends that came along with the deal.

I can’t tell you how many laughs I had over the next three years with these two sidekicks in my class. They bickered like sisters. They giggled together like sisters. They wanted to outdo each other like sisters. They defended each other like sisters. In short, they were sisters: sisters who found themselves together in a new world with new curiosities and new beginnings.

Considering this pair, I pondered some things that teachers can do to foster open attitudes and new friendships within an ESL classroom or any classroom with cultural diversity. I brainstormed the following list with some of my former ESL students.

Diversity in the Classroom: 5 Ways to Foster Friendships

  1. Make time for the fun stuff. A former student told me that one of the best memories she has was playing board games in class every Friday. During this 20 minutes of free time, my only rule was that the games had to be played in English so that no one felt left out. For instance, if the small group had two students from Mexico, one from Honduras, and one from Vietnam, they should not speak Spanish as that would isolate the Vietnamese student. Instead, they were encouraged to communicate through their limited English. Something about the challenge and the friendly competition seems to help create a bond with students.
  2. Assign projects which incorporate information about the home countries or home languages. Students love to show off their homeland to others. In fact, kids love to talk about themselves in general. Remember participating in show and tell, anyone? I find students gain more of an appreciation and curiosity for a country when a student from that country presents the information. Of course, these types of projects have to be created and assigned with the students’ individual communication levels in mind.
  3. Partner new students with trustworthy “nice” kids. Once, I made the mistake of partnering a new Korean girl with another young lady who I didn’t really know simply because they shared a homeland and a language. The other girl had moved to the U.S. as a young child and was very “Americanized.” It turns out, she was rather rude to my new student and snubbed her when her friends were around. I learned it is better to choose a welcoming and friendly classmate even if there is a language barrier than to choose someone simply because they share a culture or a language.
  4. Design curriculum around small-group discussions. Allowing students to participate in small groups in which personal thoughts and opinions are exchanged allows students to gain a sense of who the other students are and how they think. This helps the students identify connections they may share with others.
  5. Lead by example. Greet students in their native language or attempt to learn basic vocabulary words.  Ask questions. Have them show you things about their home using Google images or Google Earth. Make a point to let all the students see your interest in the students, bringing focus to the value they bring to the group. As unfortunate as it is, many students grow up in homes with parents who do not demonstrate an acceptance for diversity. Showing your students how interesting it is to embrace other cultures and languages will speak volumes. Once you model this interaction regularly, they will want to interact and learn more about the new students, too.

These tips will help teachers establish an environment for friendships between students of any culture, but they can be modified for parents who wish to encourage global friendships for their own children. For instance, if your child plays on a soccer team with some children from Costa Rica, you can make an extra effort to learn some of the Spanish words used in soccer. Likewise, you can invite some neighborhood Russian children over for an afternoon play date of board games. You might even ask them to teach your family how to play some of their favorite Russian games.

Year after year, my ESL students have taught me the same lesson – friendships are out there for the taking, no matter the diversity of the individuals involved. Language barriers and land borders are no match for the quest for friendship.

Amy is a wife, mom, and Spanish/ESL teacher in Little Rock, Arkansas. At The Gifted Gabber, she blogs about mommy-and-me fashion, thoughts on teaching, bilingual parenting, recipes, and home life. Proud of her Panamanian-American heritage, she loves to adorn her closet, her kitchen, and her classroom with global touches.

  2 Responses to “Diversity in the Classroom: 5 Ways to Foster Friendships”

  1. As a school counselor, I wholeheartedly agree. I love the lead by example. Kids are watching our every move and are inclined to follow the leader. Great post!

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