Teacher’s Corner December 2020: Using The Cultural Iceberg to Teach Holidays

As we all know as language educators, there really isn’t any “easy” part of our job. While we all have different areas of challenge and areas of expertise, one of the universally acknowledged most challenging areas for teachers is adding authentic culture in the classroom. 

For many of us, culture in the language classroom as learners was simply a matter of “bonus questions” and interesting facts, and not a deep understanding as to what culture is. Although ACTFL has standards regarding culture, it can be difficult to know how to naturally incorporate them, especially if they are not part of your curriculum.  Recently, the idea of interculturality and having students learn culture via a comparative approach has gained attention, but for those of us accustomed to the old way, this can feel like a daunting task.

However, as we are in the middle of the holiday season, now would be the perfect time to try some new ideas and get a good grip on what intercultural teaching can look like. As a teacher of heritage Spanish speakers and level 4 Spanish learners, I want to go beyond simple facts, but still give my students an enjoyable way to learn about Christmas and other holiday traditions that are different from their own. This week and next I will be using the cultural iceberg as a way to challenge my students appropriately while still giving them an opportunity to have fun and celebrate the season.

Many of you are probably familiar with some version of the iceberg analogy, which effectively describes that you can only see 10% of anything; whether it be effort, success, or culture, there is a lot more “under the surface” that supports what we are able to see.

For our first day of culture, I am introducing the idea of the iceberg, and having students divide cultural vocabulary into the categories of “visible” and “invisible.” In terms of Christmas, decorations, traditional dress, presents, the mythical figures who give gifts, etc., are all examples of visible culture. They are immediately apparent based simply on a picture. However, religious values, history of a region, views on raising children, and values are all equally as important to culture, but they are the “invisible” part of the iceberg, and require further understanding. 

After introducing students to this iceberg, the best way to have them take a deeper dive is, as always, wise use of your authentic resources. For example, for my non-native Spanish 4, a short video clip explaining that Christmas in many Latin American countries and Spain is really celebrated on the Epiphany will give them their visible culture. This can also be a springboard for them to explore the religious beliefs that have led to this different interpretation of the same holiday. 

From there, students will be able to compare and contrast, one of the ACTFL skills directly mentioned in the Can-Do statements, and also part of the Culture standards, their own cultural celebrations of a holiday with how it is celebrated in another country. They have achieved intercultural proficiency, while also still having a more relaxed, fun lesson that allows them to celebrate the season. 

Intercultural lessons do not have to be confined simply to holidays. Food, transportation, government, and other challenging topics can all benefit from this comparative study, and it will help your students create more empathy and comprehension of other cultures, a 21st century skill we should all be striving for.