Making international students feel at home in the classroom

  • Eleanor Liu Robinson (center) with some of her past English as a Language students.

Leaving home to attend boarding school presents difficulties for even the most independent student. But imagine that the student comes from a different cultural and linguistic background, and you may have an idea of what English as a Language students face when they attend a school here in the United States.

Interlochen Arts Academy helps its international students and their families make the logistical and cultural transition easier by recognizing areas where incoming students may need specialized help. One of these ways is by incorporating the multicultural experiences of our faculty and staff through engagement with families, individual connections with students, and in the way in which our teachers target their instruction.

Interlochen Arts Academy Instructor of English as a Language Eleanor Liu Robinson is incorporating lessons learned while in China into her own classroom, and is sharing that information with her colleagues. Awarded an English Language Fellowship from the U.S. Department of State in conjunction with Georgetown University, Ms. Robinson spent the 2014-2015 academic year teaching at the Capital Normal University at Beijing, China.

“I worked part of the time in the Haidian District at Capital Normal University,” Robinson elaborates, “and part of the time in the Chaoyang District at the Regional English Language Office, which is an arm of the Public Affairs Section of the U.S. Embassy.”

“I taught at the University. I taught English to freshmen and also to masters in translation students. I also taught a couple of masters in ESL courses, like Language Acquisition Theory and Teaching Practices  And then I travelled around China doing professional development presentations to help them with best practices in teaching English.”

Now back at Interlochen, Robinson hopes to share cultural nuances and academic practices with her fellow Academy instructors in the hopes of breaking down barriers that can exist between teaching and learning styles. “I would like to do more training for my colleagues here. I think one thing that has made it easier for me is knowing that this really isn’t common knowledge, necessarily. I think a lot of the faculty here are touched by the international students in some way or another.”

Robinson believes that understanding foreign cultural affects, more than just being able to speak the language, can help in making both students and teachers more comfortable and less stressed during the teaching process. “To talk about culture, it’s like the water around you,” she says of the difficulty in explaining or pinpointing cultural issues. “People don’t even see it. You can ask people and they don’t even recognize what the issue is.”

Cultural behaviors are not always obvious, according to Robinson. International students, she says, can sometimes bring with them a series of cultural behaviors that are either not recognized within an American classroom, or are not a part of the cultural dynamic. These differences in “invisible expectations” between student and teacher, also known as affective filters, can sometimes lead to difficulties and misunderstandings if not explored and brought to light. “For both sides of that interaction it’s stressful!” she admits. “Everybody’s confused, and you don’t know why you’re doing all the things you were taught to do and still there’s this gap between what you wanted and what the student thought they were delivering. They think they’re being polite! Not even being rude, but making the effort to be polite!”

Robinson believes her work in identifying this difference in behavior, especially with Chinese students, can be beneficial to both the students and their instructors here at Interlochen.

“I think I know some things I can share with people,” Robinson explains. “In terms of making the invisible visible, I would like to work with other teachers to help them see those parts that they might not know are invisible. Like these expectations they have which might not necessarily be a given to every student. One big problem (Chinese students) can have is that class sizes (in China) are so big that a lot of students don’t get an opportunity to speak in class or to use English that much. They have a lot of lecture methods still. You don’t answer unless you’re certain of the answer, or you don’t answer unless you’ve been asked to answer.”

Experiencing these kinds of cultural differences first-hand has helped Robinson see the many cultural filters she didn’t know existed. “This is why it was so valuable to go. Because there were things that were obvious to all of the other millions of Chinese people around me, but not obvious to me, even though I think of myself as well-cultured, a well-educated adult who’s half-Chinese and knows some things about Chinese culture. I was still shocked by the things that shocked me!”

Robinson feels it is important for international families to realize the cultural differences that will occur within an American classroom, and to allow students attending Interlochen to make behavioral decisions on their own.

“Our class sizes tend to be smaller than most class sizes I visited while I was in China,” she sais. “We have times built into the schedule for students to get one-on-one time with their teachers, so I think there are a lot of supports in place. But I think parents need to know—especially Chinese parents—that in Western culture, teenagers are almost adults. … So that changes the way we handle problems and difficulties. We expect students to initiate a lot of contact, or if they need help we expect students to initiate it.

“We don’t mandate that they do homework at ‘this time’ or that they come see us at ‘this time.’ We let students self-select in that way. Which can be troublesome for students who are not accustomed to making those sort of decisions for themselves. Students … get a lot of opportunities to make decisions for themselves earlier than they might be able to in China.”

While her emphasis has been mainly on Chinese culture and educational practices, Robinson is quick to point out that the entire Interlochen faculty is open to and aware of the needs of all international students.

Several teachers in Liberal Arts have lived abroad for extended periods of time, she said. “Marvine Stamatakis lived in Greece for 10 years. Karen Libby lived abroad and every summer goes to Switzerland and lives abroad with her whole family. We’re all pretty well traveled, I think.

“Of course I think that our arts faculty here is incredible, but I do have to say that the academic faculty here is not too bad either!

—Scott Miller, Interlochen Center for the Arts Editor/Writer