Dagmar Wallenstorfer | PhD Candidate, University of Graz
“The teachers assumed, that he was somehow cheeky or aggressive, although that was just his accent and he did not mean it like that at all. And he was scolded regularly for things he didn´t mean.”
Culturally Diverse Identities in the Austrian AHS Classroom: A Case Study
The quote above is taken from an interview I conducted with a group of students in an AHS in Austria. The topic was the multicultural classroom, and in which areas the students experience positive and negative effects of cultural diversity in their schools. The students then told me the story of a former classmate, let´s call him Lucas, who came to Austria at a young age, German not being his mother tongue. He then learned German, and became fluent in the language, however, had a strong accent; an accent that has lead to his teachers thinking everything he says is meant aggressively. As the students said, even when he suggested that he could clean the blackboard, the teachers thought he was ironic and provoking trouble. The student then quit school, the students told me, they do not know what he is doing now if he attends a different school or has a job.
Stories like that are not a rarity: miscommunication, false interpretation of utterances and wrong ideas about students and classmates, are a recurring issue in the culturally diverse classroom. The other, or everything different and not familiar, is often interpreted as wrong, while behaviour that is strange for me often stems from a background that is unknown to me. Going back to the story of Lucas – how can his environment, mainly his teachers and classmates – be made aware of the issue being his accent and not his attitude? How can society be made aware of the fact that what we see of a person is just the surface, but we cannot know what lies underneath and affects this person´s actions?
The What: Challenges of the Diverse Classroom
The research question of my thesis is: How can teachers and educators be supported in teaching the students how to become members with cultural awareness and cultural competence of our society? However, in order to get to the How, the WHAT needs to be asked first. Hence, the empirical part of my research focused on the What by interviewing teachers in Austrian AHS as well as students on their perception of the multicultural Austrian classroom. While, according to the teachers and students interviewed, students who attend culturally diverse classrooms tend to be more open-minded, have a higher tolerance towards individuality, and are more culturally aware, the interviewees highlighted a number of issues that need tackling. In the interviews, numerous issues were addressed, such as prejudgment of students based on their lack of German language skills as less intelligent, assumptions that students with a history of migration do show more behavioral problems, as well as directions of suppression of cultural practices in the school context. In a society where diversity gains more and more importance due to the increasing numbers of immigration to our country, mutual understanding is the key to successful coexistence. Instead of parallel societies that seemingly do not understand each other and have nothing in common, an entanglement of experiences, of thoughts and ideas has to be promoted. Discourse is the key to understanding, and understanding is the key to acceptance and opening up towards what is new and different.
The How: Teaching Cultural Awareness
Turning to the EFL/ESL classroom, the HOW gains center stage again. How can we support our students in understanding, in comprehending, in developing? Turning to Foss (2002), the identity intersection is crucial for a basic understanding of diversity. According to the author, understanding the complexity of identity, and in that cultural identity and diversity itself, is the comprehension of ones´ own identity and diversity. Identity intersections visualize the complexity of individual identity and the impossibility of reducing a person to one of the many components it contains. As Fuss (2002) claims, components of an individual can be age, race, gender, nationality, level of education, religion, class, sexuality, language, ethnicity, physical ability, urban/suburban/rural background, family structure, geographical/regional association, to only name a few. Including this theory in teaching, and making it visible by including the students´ very own identities, can create a broader understanding of these issues.
However, a project can not stop there. Having completed the first step, being triggering understanding for the complexity of individual identity, and the problematic nature of the reduction of a person to one of its identity components. The reading and analyzing of American Young Adult Literature texts addressing issues of young Americans who have a history of migration, the discourse of the topic of belonging and acceptance will be opened up. In that, the novels will lead to the students firstly seeing the issue through the eyes of a fictional character, and then comparing these characters to their own experiences. The narratives triggered in that process will ultimately be processed in the final step of the project: The creation of digital stories.
Digital storytelling is a methodology that has been found to positively affect skills such as problem-solving, argumentation, decision-making and cooperation among students by Niemi and Multisilta (2016). Wu and Chen (2020) defined eight outcomes of the usage of digital stories for students, among which they rank affective outcomes such as empathy, cognitive outcomes such as critical thinking, conceptual outcomes such as understanding and critiquing concepts, and ontological outcomes, such as self-awareness and intercultural awareness. The creation of digital stories will thus not only lead to a self-reflection of the students and their own identities but by sharing the stories with their classmates, with the society, they create a discourse apart from professional media, as Hartley (2009) states. Students can make their voices be heard, becoming part of a broader discourse, and in that create an intimate public, as according to Berlant (2008).
The field of diversity teaching is a broad one, and numerous scholars and educators are constantly working on improvement. What the teachers need, is a hands-on guideline, project material that can be used in the classroom and that tackles specifically the issues in the Austrian classrooms. The aim of this research project is precisely that. In doing so, this PhD project will contribute to the field and open up the discourse in the Austrian classroom alike, and in that in society itself.