INTRODUCTION: I teach a four
unit college and life management class that is linked to a basic skills class in
College Reading. When the class was doing a unit on appreciating differences and
the concepts of culture, I sought an activity that complimented our readings and
discussions on communication, diversity, and relationships. I wanted to
encourage students to think about their personal cultural identity in a safe
environment. I also wanted them to realize that, like themselves, their
classmates have many facets of identity and experience important to them.
This activity can be adapted for use in a
number of education settings. It’s a great icebreaker in any course, provides
a great prompt for a writing assignment in English or a presentation in speech,
an intriguing discussion starter in sociology or anthropology, and certainly
would be valuable in any course or group that addresses issues of cultural
diversity. Individuals, pairs, or teams of students could even present and
explain symbols of college or campus culture, and the activity could be adapted
for a career class where students can present professional artifacts to describe
an employment area of interest.
The time required for this activity depends
on the class size. For a class of 20 students, I allocate about 90
SUPPLIES AND SET-UP:
1. Provide Handout #1: “CULTURAL ARTIFACT:
A Self-Awareness Activity,” which contains the assignment to bring an artifact
to the next class and be prepared to speak about it for 3-5 minutes.
2. During the next class, have each
student show and explain their cultural artifact. Remind students to discuss
their reasons for selecting the artifact, what it means to them, and how it
represents their culture. I share a cultural artifact first to model what
students are to do in their presentations.
3. After the presentations, ask students to
pair up and discuss their experiences and insights. Post (or provide a
handout of) the following questions for pairs to discuss:
4. Discussion: Ask volunteers to share with
the whole group their lessons learned.
5. As homework, provide Handout #2:
“REFLECTIVE WRITING: Cultural Artifacts.” I gave students a week to complete
The students’ choices of artifacts, along
with their explanations, effectively illuminated the great diversity in the
class. One student brought a globe as his artifact, saying it represents all of
the places that he has lived and his diverse group of friends. The student
was born in
Another student who grew up in the foster
care system in
A student shared about the native culture in
Another student who had served in the Navy
shared how this experience had transformed him. The class knew that he had
served between high school and college, but the artifacts (pictures and a jersey
that he wore when he worked on the flight deck of a navy carrier) and stories
placed his experiences in a different light. Some students asked questions with
amazement about his basic training and job responsibilities. By their comments
and tone of voice, I could sense a new level of respect for their classmate.
Some students shared artifacts that had been
passed on for generations. Two students had family bibles, another had a cross
that his father gave to him, and another brought a Greek artifact called the
Mati which translates as “Evil Eye.” She talked about the belief that
this object protects against all evils, envy, hatred, and bad luck. Many
students had heard or used the expression “evil eye” before, but did not
know its origin.
Students mentioned how surprised they were
that they had so much in common. They indicated that appearance did not
reveal much about each other’s backgrounds and experiences, but that these
presentations really helped them to get to know each other. One student
connected with the others who brought their family bibles. He shared more
about the role of religion in his life. Two students talked about how this
activity helped them to reconnect with their grandparents with whom they had not
spoken in years.
When I asked students for feedback about the
activity, a number of them wished that we had had more time for each
presentation. Students who expressed concern about having to speak for at
least 3 minutes had no trouble sharing for that amount of time. In fact,
in many cases, I had to curtail the questions and follow-up discussions in the
interest of time.
This activity certainly met my first
objective of increasing the students’ personal and cultural awareness.
In our follow up discussion, one student commented that he wanted to study his
religion more because he felt that he had forgotten things that he had
previously known. A few said they felt more connected to their ancestors
and families as a result of doing this exercise. Many expressed a definite
appreciation of family history and cultural background. As one student
said, “By knowing about my past, I now know where I am from, and where my
‘roots’ are.” One woman summarized her own awareness and the perceptions
of others by stating, “Other people usually identify you as one thing, but you
look at yourself as so much more and a lot different from the way that others
look at you.” Three students mentioned that this activity reminded them
of a part of themselves with which they had lost touch. One student said
that she wants to continue her discussions with her grandmother about their
family history. Another said that he wants to restart his religious
studies. The tone of all essays expressed great pride in each student’s
My second objective for this activity was to
help the students become better acquainted with their classmates. I
have used this exercise with a number of classes now and I find that students
really enjoy learning about each other. More than one student commented during
the class discussion that “you can’t judge a book by its cover” and that
there is more to a person than meets the eye. One student admitted, “I
sometimes stereotype and prejudge when there’s more.” She went on to
say that she wants to change. Another said that it was a good reminder that
“we often make assumptions based on differences.” A student mentioned
that she was not aware just how diverse the students in the class are. After
this activity, students seem to bond more as a community of learners.
The presentations, discussion, and essays
gave students the opportunity to look beyond stereotypes, my third objective.
During the presentations, I observed the students listening to understand.
They asked questions to expand or clarify. For example, one student talked
about his talus and his Bar Mitzvah. Another student, who was unfamiliar
with Judaism, asked what the equivalent experience was for young girls. In
another presentation, one man brought a chain that his mother gave him after his
baptism. He is Mormon and described the importance of the baptism in his
religion. Another student asked a question about the Mormon tradition. This
experience was a great opportunity for the students to dispel some myths and
stereotypes. The questions were genuine without the assumption that any
student spoke for everyone of his cultural background.
In the future, I plan to modify the
assignment somewhat. I will first provide students with a broad definition
of culture to more closely model the assigned readings in the paired course.
These readings will cover factors that shape cultural identity including
ethnicity, race, religion, family, education, and occupation.
On a personal level, I found it challenging
to choose a cultural artifact of my own. Like many of my students, I did
not want to limit myself to one item. I was very aware that the item that
I selected would influence the impression the students had of me. I selected a
pin which shows the
I adapted this activity from an assignment
used by Hans Peeters, an Instructor at
CULTURAL ARTIFACT: A Self-Awareness Activity
HOMEWORK ASSIGNMENT: Select an
artifact that tells a story about your cultural background that you can share
with the class. This artifact can be a picture, a coat of arms, or an object (a
piece of clothing, jewelry, a tool etc.). You will probably want to select
something that is easy to transport so you can bring it to class.
If possible, choose an item that illustrates
something about your cultural background that is not obvious. For example, a
former student who appeared to be African-American brought an artifact that
denoted her Filipino background; another, a “white” male, brought an
arrowhead because his grandfather was Native American. We want to learn
something about your background that is not readily apparent.
If you cannot find a “hidden” part of
your background, teach us something we may not have known about your culture.
Turn to your family members to learn more
about your background. If that is not possible, do research so that you have
something significant to share with the rest of the class about your cultural
If you do not have an object to bring from
home, copy an appropriate picture from a magazine or book, download an image
from the Internet, etc. Remember, the visual component of this exercise is
Be prepared to do a 3-5 minute presentation
to describe your artifact, explain why you selected it, and answer any
questions. Students who do not come to class prepared on the date of
the presentation will receive no presentation points.
REFLECTIVE WRITING: Cultural Artifacts
Write a one-page typed reflective essay
discussing what you learned about your background and yourself from this
exercise. Please proofread your essay carefully for spelling, grammar, and
by Kristin Samarov, Instructor/Counselor,
Freshmen Experience Learning Community Program,
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