Facilitating Dialogue and Learning Across Language and Cultural Differences in American Cultures Courses

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Frances Ramos, Graduate School of Education

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2019

The American Cultures (AC) requirement provides Berkeley students with the opportunity to critically explore the complexities of our society and the contributions, experiences, and challenges of peoples historically marginalized in our curriculum. AC courses not only enrich the learning experience of students, but also have the potential to benefit society by creating more culturally, historically, and political astute citizens. However, there are often challenges to achieving the goals of AC courses.

One such challenge that I have encountered in my courses relates to student classroom discussions and dialogue. While class discussions and dialogue can offer students the opportunity to learn from each other, they require a minimum sense of safety for students to participate. Through course evaluations, I have learned that some students do not feel sufficiently safe to fully engage in classroom discussions and dialogue, even in small groups. This has been especially true among students who perceive a lack of representation of other students who share similar positionalities (for example, in gender identity or cultural, ethnic, linguistic, or socio-­‐economic background), and for international students whose emerging fluency in English make them hesitant to speak in class.

Because I believe that student discussions and dialogue can facilitate deep learning and meaningful relationship-building, I have sought ways to mitigate these challenges. One especially fruitful strategy is the gallery walk activity, where I post different questions, quotes, or images around the room on pieces of poster paper, and students walk around and write answers to or reflections on the prompts. After giving students time to respond and react to the prompts, I then provide additional time just for reading each other’s responses and marking those comments that resonated with them in some way. As a class, we then have a dialogue about their responses and reactions to the prompts and to each other.

Evidence that this pedagogical strategy has been effective comes from two sources. First, in mid-term and end-of-semester evaluations, students commonly name this activity as a favorite learning experience from which they gained new understanding. Also, when students have to plan and facilitate a lesson (a requirement in my classes), this is one activity that they tend to use. Sometimes students modify the activity in creative ways to make it their own. This semester, a team of students took pictures of the poster papers after everyone had read and reacted to the original responses. The teaching students then uploaded those pictures into their PowerPoint presentations to highlight some common themes for the class.

This activity allows a group of learners to share their thoughts and engage in deep dialogue and reflection, even in cases where they may not feel very comfortable speaking up. It also makes the sharing more equitable in that no one student is able to dominate the conversation. Finally, the thoughts that are shared are captured in writing, enabling ongoing reflection. I believe this pedagogical tool allows us to meet the goals of the AC requirement even in situations where Berkeley is experiencing dramatic shifts in the type of diversity we have in our classrooms.