African Ceremonial Mask
What would it be like to grow up in another culture? One way to explore this question is through memoirs and novels. Now, with the Internet, you can offer your students an interactive means to venture outside the borders of their own experience to try on an alternative cultural identity.
Introduce this lesson by asking students a series of simple questions about American life that demonstrate how much we take our cultural knowledge for granted: What is the capital of the United States? Who are some famous American authors? What holiday marks the end of summer? What is a touchdown?
Have students work in small groups to create a series of questions to guide their research into an unfamiliar culture. Their aim will be to produce a questionnaire that profiles the knowledge and experience of a person their own age. Some topics they might cover include: form of government, political system, national leaders, international relations, economic development, historic milestones, architectural landmarks, great works of art and literature, religious traditions, family life, educational system, trends in popular culture, foods, climate, and environment. Have students share their questionnaires with the class and help them develop a consensus research tool they can all use. Be sure they include follow-up questions that explore the roots of cultural identity - e.g., How did the culture arrive at its form of government? What factors have influenced its cuisine? The final questionnaire should also ask for a map of the country, a photograph showing a typical scene (e.g., family life) and an example of the country's traditional arts.
Introduce students to the three regional websites now featured on EDSITEment : African Studies WWW, LANIC, and SARAI. Have students work in research teams to investigate the culture of one of the countries listed on these sites, with different team members responsible for completing different parts of the questionnaire. For country listings, see the "Country-Specific" link at African Studies WWW, the "Country Directory" at LANIC, and "South Asia Resources by Country" at SARAI. All lead to well-organized directories that link to specialized websites on different aspects of national life. If Internet access is limited among your students, have two or three group members at a time explore the Internet under your supervision. To help students prepare for working on the Internet, provide each group with print outs of the directory pages for their countries so they can work out a research strategy together.
Advise your students that many kinds of information are available on these websites, ranging from almanac-style summaries to museum-size exhibits, and that their sources of information can include newspapers, magazines and even citizens of the country contacted by e-mail. In planning their research strategy, they may want to mark certain topics (for example, popular music or sports) for exploration beyond the borders set by their questionnaire. Students also might supplement their Internet research by contacting members of their community with a family link to their target country.
Have students consult traditional print resources in their research as well. Ask them to compare print and online resources: Which is easier to use? Which seems more reliable and why? Make a list of the virtues and limitations of each.
When their research is complete, have each group report their findings to the class. Reports might take several forms: an exhibit, a panel presentation, a web page, etc. Focus discussion of these reports on the similarities and differences that mark teenage life in unfamiliar cultures from teenage life in your community. Build on these points of comparison to help the class formulate some general conclusions about factors that help constitute cultural identity. You might clarify this issue by asking, "What distinguishes two teenagers in two different cultures if both are wearing blue jeans and t-shirts, both listening to the same music, both watching the same movies and both learning about other cultures in school?"
Conclude this lesson by asking your students to imagine that they are growing up in one of the countries they have explored and having them write a letter to a pen-pal in the United States explaining what life in their country is like.
Depending on your curriculum, this lesson might lead to ongoing e-mail correspondence between your students and their peers in a distant culture. You might also re-shape the lesson to focus class attention on a region or nation in the news, on a region that is part of your students' cultural heritage, or on a country that is the setting for a novel or story you will study as a class.
2 class periods