On the first day of class, I always try to do an ice breaker. One of my favorites is to ask students to tell us about their name. Why was this name chosen? What does it mean? Often this exercise helps me remember students’ names and helps me learn a little more about them.
In my nearly 15 years of teaching English as a Second Language at the University level, I have put a lot of thought into how I present myself. With a wide array of students from different cultures in every classroom, I always want to be sure that I am not too alienating to any of the students, so that I can build relationships with them. Creating this trust between us helps them invest more in the class material. In addition to trusting me, the students need to learn to trust one other. Creating the culture of the multinational classroom is a negotiation among all of our cultures.
As students get to know each other and get to know me, each student tries to create a frame of reference for our characters that they can relate to. Inevitably, students ask me my zodiac sign (Pisces), my Chinese zodiac (Rabbit), and even my blood type (I am not sure, but my Japanese students suspect that I am an AB, because I can be outgoing yet shy, trustworthy and somewhat responsible). By knowing these things about me, students feel that they “know” me and can get on to the business of learning.
Once, on the first day of class, one of my Chinese students announced that he would be comfortable in the US because he already knew about the Six Personalities of Americans. I have never heard of this one before. My student went on to explain his theory that all Americans fit into one of the six personalities of “Friends” characters. There is the Rachel type: spoiled, image-conscious and fashionable. The Monica type is an obsessive, bossy, neat-freak. The Phoebe types are naive, straightforward and artistic. Joey types are simple-minded, sensitive and promiscuous, while Chandlers are funny and loyal friends. The final type is Ross, a good-natured, nerdy and socially awkward character. According to my student (who identified himself as a “Chandler”), I am a Phoebe.
This student had clearly been studying the English language and American culture through American TV shows. I was surprised when , all of the other students in the class latched on to this idea. Not all of them knew about blood types and zodiac signs, but all of them had seen episodes of “Friends.” This TV show created the cultural bridge that connected the students, and helped create a safe space for students to take risks.
It’s important that those of us working with international students seize the cross-cultural opportunities that present themselves. My best planned icebreaker was nowhere near as effective as “Chandler’s” approach to understanding Americans. The best classroom moments are those when our students teach us how to make those safe spaces.
Next time you are in a meeting that has gone on for too long, try categorizing the attendees into the Six Personalities of Americans. Not everyone may fit into one of the personalities, but you will enjoy yourself in the process and you will have learned a lesson from my international student.