Cultural Awareness Workshop at Putney

ESOL Workshop and Teacher Orientations at The Putney School Summer Program

This summer, I’m going to be teaching an ESOL workshop to a small group of international high school students at The Putney School Summer Program in Southern Vermont. The ESOL workshop aims to provide international students an immersive language learning experience. They will take various art studio classes with American students during the afternoons and have English language classes in the mornings to practice and work on developing their English language skills.

The summer faculty, bringing a diversity of experiences and art practices, arrived at The Putney School from a variety of locations: California, Maryland, North Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Northampton, Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont. While some of the faculty will be teaching at the Summer Programs for the first time, others are returning for another summer.

The Putney School is a private high school located in a peaceful, green and inspiring hilltop at Putney, Vermont that houses its own working dairy farm, horse barn and several gardens which some of the food on campus is supplied from.

Cultural Awareness Workshop

I recently attended two days of the orientation for faculty where I had the chance to explore the Putney hiking trails, meet and chat with most of the faculty, and enjoy delicious food both on campus and at the Putney Mountain trail head. Hiking to the summit, much to my happy surprise momentarily reminded me of the Mediterranean landscape features on the Lycian Way in the South of Turkey. I was transported, in one instance, by stepping on largish rock structures right near the summit!

As part of the orientations, I was asked to lead a twenty – thirty minute workshop on cultural awareness for teachers and staff. To understand cross-cultural contact and competence, it is helpful to reference the iceberg metaphor for culture. Many cultural elements are easily visible and sit at the tip of the iceberg while several are hidden from plain sight, living deep below the water/surface of the iceberg. Cross-cultural contact can occur by means of language such as in intonation, idiomatic expressions, register (formality versus informality), pronunciation, direct or indirect style of communication, and listening. Social norms, relationship to personal space, relationship to time and schedules, non-verbal interaction and cues such as facial expressions and levels of eye contact are some other ways by which cross-cultural contact, differences and communication breakdowns may emerge.

The main aim of this workshop was to provide participant teachers and staff ways to explore cross-cultural contact by utilizing three experiential activities* focusing on the areas of language and social norms that explore encounters with names, expressions and cross-cultural differences.

The following is the outline for the workshop:

Experiential Activity 1: Encounters with Names and their Meanings

Participants are divided into groups of five/six and are asked to imagine a scenario where they are at the grand opening of an international art exhibition, a biennial. Some artists are exhibiting at the biennial, while some are perhaps aspiring artists and are eager to meet other artists.

Each participant takes a slip of paper that has an English translation of the meaning of a Turkish name. The participants are not told this fact until the whole group reflection session.

Names on slips of paper
Waterfall War Leaf September
Island Hope May I always be remembered Loved from the heart
Thunderbolt Loving moon Revolution Cute like a child
Ruler of the seas Invitation Mystery The queen of roses
Dew Offshore breeze Flood of light Full moon
Story Early morning wind Volcano

The task is to mingle for four-five minutes and meet as many artists and to remember as many of those names as possible.

Reflection: In order to help make the interactions a little challenging and move beyond just exchanging names, one thing that could have been helpful was to include an extra set of instructions. One way this could have been done was by giving talking points. Talking points such as the following could be included and participants could be asked to utilize at least one talking point before moving on to another interaction:

  • Ask/describe what his/her work is about.
  • Share thoughts on the exhibition in general.
  • Ask/describe what her/his art process is like.

Feedback: Once the mingle ends, participants get back to their initial groups and spend three-four minutes talking about:

  • who they met, what their names were
  • what they observed about these interactions

Experiential Activity 2: Encounters with Expressions

In this activity, participants stay in the same groups or form new groups of five/six. One volunteer from each group receives a slip of paper with a French expression** translated into English. The volunteers are the only people who should know what is written on their papers. In this four-five minute conversation activity, the volunteer’s task is to initiate a conversation with her/his group on a topic of his/her choice. S/he should use the expression during the conversation, but should not translate the meaning.

Expressions on slips of paper
Use this expression in conversation. Don’t explain the meaning. “I’m not in my plate.” (Meaning: to feel bad)
Use this expression in conversation. Don’t explain the meaning. “It’s taking my head.” (Meaning: It drives me crazy)
Use this expression in conversation. Don’t explain the meaning. “I’m struck by lightning.” (Meaning: falling madly in love)
Use this expression in conversation. Don’t explain the meaning. “I have bread on the board.” (Meaning: I have a lot on my plate)
Use this expression in conversation. Don’t explain the meaning. “I have a blue fear.” (Meaning: to be afraid of something)
Use this expression in conversation. Don’t explain the meaning. “I have a bowl full of it.” (Meaning: fed up with something)

Feedback: Once the conversation ends, participants reflect on the experience by sharing their observations with one another in their small groups.

Experiential Activity 3: Meeting Cross-Cultural Differences

This time the participants are split into two big groups. One group is given a set of instructions reflective of a low context culture while the other group is given a set of instructions reflective of a high context culture.

Group A’s Set of Instructions Group B’s Set of Instructions
A.   High Context Culture B.   Low Context Culture

·A meeting needs to start with connecting. Offer some tea, make chit chat before talking about anything work related.

·Make little or no eye contact.

·Sit or stand very close to the other person.

·Things don’t need to be spelled out explicitly. Communicate in indirect ways.

·A meeting needs to start on time and end on time.

·Make direct eye contact.

·Maintain an arms length of distance.

·Things need to be fully spelled out. Communicate in direct ways.

They are asked to imagine a scenario where they need to have a short meeting (four-five minutes) with a new colleague. In the Putney School context, I asked the participants to think about the teacher and apprentice teacher meetings they were going to have later on that day.

Once everyone understood their role, they were given the option to choose to role-play one or all four of the norms listed in the instructions. Each person is to then pair up with one person from the other group and start his/her meeting.

Feedback: Once the conversation ends, participants get into groups of five/six and

  • reflect on the experience by sharing their observations with one another and
  • brainstorm top three strategies for dealing with cross-cultural contact.

In the wrap-up, participants share with the whole group the feedback discussions they had within their smaller group.

Variation 1: The workshop could end with a discussion about the culture iceberg and locating these cross-cultural contact experiences within the iceberg.

Variation 2: The workshop could end with a written component asking participants to share strategies for dealing with cross-cultural contact and/or provide feedback on the workshop.

Observations and Reflection

Overall, the activities flowed well and allowed the participants to engage in cross-cultural contact in lighthearted and non-threatening ways. Verbal feedback from participants regarding the activities was positive. One feedback about the ‘Encounters with Expressions’ activity was that all group members organically started using the translated expression in their conversation.

The meaning of a name could presumably carry many sociocultural layers and provide a deeper understanding of a culture, the society and possibly the naming traditions of that culture. In a cross-cultural experience, these layers may not be immediately noticeable. A name, highly visible, sits on the tip of the iceberg. Perceiving the meaning of a name, through further connection and dialog, allows us to see what may be hidden and below the surface of the iceberg.

One point to consider is the inclusion of a set of reflection questions for the final whole group discussion in order to give the group enough reflective time to discuss strategies for dealing with cross-cultural contact.

During this experiential activity, the participants did not know that they were sharing the meanings of some Turkish names translated into English. Most Turkish names have meanings and a lot are nature-based such as a name meaning ‘offshore breeze.’ As a Turkish person facilitating this workshop and coming from what could be considered a high context culture, the aim was to raise awareness and noticing of the meanings and cultural layers involved in names/name giving in a fun way. A set of reflection questions could follow this activity:

  • What happened when you exchanged names?
  • How did people react / respond to your name? How did you react / respond to other people’s names?
  • What did you notice about the names you heard?

At the end, I shared with the participants that one of these names was the translation of the meaning of my own name (loving moon) and that all were translations of meanings of Turkish names. One way to conclude could have been to ask everyone to share with the group their assigned name and invite reflections:

  • What did you notice about the meanings of these names?
  • How could this insight help you in cross-cultural contact?

To conclude, as a bilingual Turkish person living in the US for now almost two years and exploring my own linguistic and sociocultural experiences, this has been a self-reflexive process, adding another cross-cultural dimension to the workshop.

*This workshop was collaboratively developed with my former SIT classmate and teaching colleague, Jessmaya Morales, who generously  brainstormed with me, posed great questions and reflected with me on cross-cultural differences prior to the workshop, all of which inspired and contributed a great deal to the reflective planning process and to the design of this workshop. 

**The expressions are gathered from the list “Twenty-one French expressions that will make you laugh” by Jonathan Ducretot.  Available from


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