Engaging International Students in Your Classroom

By Summer Li, Rubicon International

An International Perspective:

Reflections from an International Student & Tips for Successfully Engaging Them in Class!

As a new school year began this year, an American colleague of mine shared her concern that her kindergartener was afraid to ask for water at school. He was afraid to bother his teacher or interrupt the learning of his peers. As a mother, her heart ached. She did not want her son to worry about inconveniencing his teacher for such a necessary thing as a glass of water.  Yet, what could she do to change the fear he had, but to encourage him to speak up when he needed something.

Her story made me reflect on similar experiences I had during my childhood. Growing up in China, if something similar had happened my mother would have urged me to keep quiet, waiting to make my need known until I was asked. The different reactions of my mother and my colleague paints a sharp and poignant picture of the fundamental differences in American and Chinese education. In China, we were never taught to be outspoken. Quite the contrary, we were taught to listen and learn. To give you a better image, we were always told that “the bird who stands taller gets shot”. Growing up, I learned quickly how to blend in, obey, and follow the rules. I assumed this was how all students should behave. I didn’t know that this was not the way of many students around the world. As a student in China my educational experience was shaped around one thing: preparing for exams.

The Exams

For context, there are two entrance exams in China, one at the end of middle school, which determines which high school you will go to, and one at the end of high school which determines your fate for college. Our sole purpose once we entered middle school was to do well on the exam that gives us entry to high school. Once admitted into high school we then spent three grueling years preparing for the college entrance exam.The pressure of preparing for the entrance exams hung over our heads each day.  These exams ruled our educational experience until we completed our senior year of high school. Due to the amount of information teachers have to squeeze into 40 minute classes, most of the sessions were lectures with no room for discussion of any kind.  As a result, opportunities to interact with our classroom teachers were severely limited due to the fact that the exams dictated a rigid educational system that is test and score oriented. In order to achieve higher scores, we were taught how, but never to question the why. Critical thinking simply wasn’t a part of the curriculum.

Classroom Culture Shock

In 1986 my mom had the opportunity to study abroad as an English teacher in Missouri. The American cultural influences she brought back with her helped shape my childhood. Even before I was old enough to understand what it meant to live and study in another country, I wanted to follow in my mom’s footsteps.  When I was 16 I was fortunate to have the opportunity to come to the U.S. to attend high school through a study abroad program. One of the things I noticed immediately on my first day of American high school was how active the students were in American classrooms. Students could speak freely and lectures were much more like discussions than the lectures I was accustomed to back home. Some of my classmates even took pride in challenging their teachers. In China, this would have been considered rude and disrespectful.  There were strict protocols students had to follow. To this day I still remember the first time I was taught to sit with my hands behind my back. Unless the teacher called upon you, you were to keep quiet at all times. There was even a proper way that we had to raise our hands. Your elbow should form a 90 degree angle with your thumb pointing to the direction behind you. If you did not follow this position, your teacher might not pick you to answer a question. The contrast of my new American peers’ casual and often rude way of interacting with the teacher proved an overwhelming and stark contrast to my educational experience back home in China.

How Can You Support International Students?

In recent years, there has been a surge in the number of Chinese students coming into the U.S. The differences between the two education systems caused inevitable challenges for American teachers, which I am sure you must know about if you have ever had a Chinese International student in your classroom. One of the roadblocks for most teachers will be getting more active involvement frInternational_Studentsom the Chinese students during classroom discussions. To reiterate the reasoning behind this phenomena means that we must keep in mind the differences in education. Chinese students were not raised to express their opinions freely and they were not encouraged to practice forming their own opinions. Therefore, in any classroom, they will perform to their version of normal which means that they will remain silent unless the teacher speaks directly to them. It is very important to understand the cultural implications of these students’ behavior. Don’t assume the behavior comes from a natural inclination towards shyness. The behavior will and can adjust as a student is given different instruction that allows them the freedom to act in a way that their American peers act. Similarly, just because someone does not understand a concept in ENGLISH, does not mean that they do not understand or possess that knowledge in general. Chinese students work very hard to memorize and retain huge quantities of knowledge, and they may need a moment to recall the information in their native language. This can add an additional barrier, preventing them from speaking up in the classroom.

Learning to Speak Up

The following are tips that can help you connect with your International Students and enhance their experience in your classroom.

1. Ask yourself: do they understand the question or the action item?

When I first started communicating in English, besides not being able to understand some of the things (in English), there were often situations where I thought someone meant one thing while they really meant something else. People often felt uncomfortable asking me whether I understood or offering correction on vocabulary. After all, I was a “grown-up”. After a few mistakes, I learned to have doubts and really think hard about what the person was actually communicating. Because of this, I was afraid to answer questions because I was unsure if I even understood the question. For this reason, make sure your students understand what you are asking to build their confidence in answering out loud in class.

Tip One: Rephrase a question if you get a blank stare from your student. Additionally, give them a question ahead of time to allow them time and space to ask for clarification. They may even want to look up a word or two in their electronic dictionary before responding.

2. Build a personal relationship with your student

The most important thing my teachers ever did is to give me lots of encouragement both during and after class. When I didn’t participate actively in class, they didn’t give up on me and label me as shy. They continued to call on me, which made it easier for me to speak up over time. Additionally, my teachers checked up on me after class and got to know me as an individual. Being able to build a personal relationship with my teachers outside of the classes helped me to feel more comfortable “having a conversation” with them in class. Consider this… what if you were a student studying abroad and it was “normal” for students to dance on top of their desks any time they felt like it? Wouldn’t it be hard for you as an outsider to also dance on top of the desk? Wouldn’t you want quite a bit of validation that your “dance” was appropriate and interesting enough to share?

Tip Two: Build a personal relationship with international students and check-up on them both during and outside of class. Remember these kids are away from home for an entire year! They are probably feeling more than a little home sick. Ask them how studying for their exams is going while they are away. Check-in on how life is going with their host family.

3. Validate the discomfort and encourage a change in behavior

As I mentioned earlier, I was raised to not express my opinions freely in public. One of my American teachers asked me why I was so quiet during discussions, and after hearing my explanation, she said to me with a smile, “We are no longer in China!” She explained that expressing my thoughts will not be considered ignorant no matter how far-fetched that thought might be. She just wanted to hear what I had to say. The teacher also explained that everyone in the classroom brings a different perspective and being able to share that perspective with other students helps to broaden all of our horizons.

Having my teacher acknowledge that the environment I came from was different, while still explaining the “new rules” allowed me to address those powerful cultural norms that I was just learning how to navigate. As a teacher, ask yourself how many of your students may be sitting there during a discussion thinking, “Is my opinion good enough to share?” or “But my idea is so different than everyone else.  It must be wrong!” Alleviating the cultural stress around speaking up is necessary for your Chinese international students, and really all of your students regardless of their cultural background!

Tip Three: Directly address cultural differences with your international student. Give them the freedom to ask questions about the “rules” in your classroom. Additionally, define the rules of discussion with your entire class. Here is a quick look at some rules teachers have used in their classrooms.

4. Create Smaller Groups

Last but not least, smaller groups helped me to step out of my comfort zone. People often feel obligated to participate in smaller groups. I know I did. And eventually, that small group got bigger and bigger. Once I felt comfortable in a small group, I could practice speaking in front of the entire class. These skills, which I learned in my American study abroad experience, helped me to acquire public speaking skills. These skills opened doors down the road in college when I was able to qualify for employment opportunities that required public speaking and facilitation. One of the positions even covered my tuition for graduate school! For this, I am extremely grateful to all of my American teachers who took the time to encourage and relentlessly guide me.  Little did they know how the extra steps they took to make me answer questions in front of a class of 20 eventually helped me to overcome the fear to speak in front of hundreds.  True educational moments might not always be the ones that change someone’s behavior immediately, but rather make an impact years down the road. 

Tip Four: Push your International Students gently out of their of comfort zones. The fact that these kids came across the world to study in your classroom shows the adventurous spirit they have. Capitalize on the fact that this is a cultural experience and encourage them to try new things and actively engage in your classroom.

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