Classroom Chat – Talking Stereotypes

People smiling

– Kali Thurber (ILAC Teacher)

The topic of today’s class was stereotypes, which is always an interesting issue to open up and unpack like a suitcase with a group of people from different cultures. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “stereotype” as: “(noun) a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing”; however, I believe it’s more complicated than that.

While we form generalized ideas about groups of people, often out of ignorance, it is also common to recreate ourselves to fit into other people’s stereotypical images of us. Instead of working to dispel stereotypes we sometimes find ourselves frustrated with simplified ideas of our culture and end up allowing stereotypes to define us. This is why I like to open up the issue with ESL classes in order to broaden awareness and generate discussions that help all of us learn more about other cultures.

One of the things we did in class was to brainstorm stereotypes about our own cultures. We started with mine: Canadian. The students were a little hesitant at first. They didn’t want to offend me. I started things off by clarifying that we weren’t brainstorming true facts about Canadians. Rather, ideas that people outside the country might have about Canadians before getting to know enough actual Canadians to develop a well-informed understanding of them. Stereotypes are all about assumptions we make of people we don’t really know much about.

To loosen the class up on this topic, I drew a picture of an igloo (a house built of snow) on the board and told them that everyone in Canada lives in one. This was especially funny to those students who have been living in Toronto since the summer and experienced the 40 degree heat wave in July. I also drew a picture of a toque (a Canadian word for a knitted, wool hat) and added that we are all wearing these inside our respective igloos.

The class came up with more: Canadians also travel by dogsled (a vehicle pulled by a team of dogs in the snow and ice), play hockey everyday, drink beer and tell stupid jokes. This last one I had never heard before, but it reminded me of something: Do you know what the longest English word is? Smile. Why? Because there’s a mile between the first and last letter.

Cultural stereotypes also depend on the country you’re from. For instance, the South American students in the class all agreed that Canadians are cold (not in temperature, but in temperament), while most of the European students thought Canadians were all extremely friendly and polite.

I finished my illustration on the board with a stereotypical lumberjack wearing a plaid jacket and a baseball cap who was standing in front of his igloo, patting his large beer belly. The students had a good laugh at this (and my pathetic drawing abilities) and agreed that they had never actually seen anyone in Toronto who resembled this character.

Although this is true, I know that when I travel outside of Canada, I find myself playing into these stereotypes. I say “sorry” when someone steps on my foot on the bus in Seattle, I talk about the weather everywhere I go (have you noticed that Canadians love to talk about the weather?) and I make a point to talk about my toque in other cold countries.

The students then drew their own stereotypical image of someone from their own culture and shared their image with a partner. That day, everyone left with a smile on their face, an open mind, and a deeper understanding of the various cultures in the class. It’s a good day when these three factors are present.

– Kali Thurber

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