To Find Cultural Awareness

by Laura Libéria Fabbrini SantosGISIG Newsletter No. 172005

The following article explains a wonderful exercise in learning about “The Foreign, the Unknown or the Strange”. Understanding things, peoples or objects we do not comprehend is a first step in accepting these. The beauty of the exercise in this article is that it is initially non-verbal. The “blocks” in question can be found on the website given and their simplicity and colourfulness make them exciting tools. Of course, you do not need to use these “blocks”; just bring in two objects from different countries/areas and do this exercise. I find it fascinating that such a simple technique can have to such wonderful consequences: understanding the other!

Wolfgang Ridder 

Quilting Samba Do Crioulo Doido
To Find Cultural Awareness

by Laura Libéria Fabbrini Santos in GISIG Newsletter No. 17

Language and culture relations have long intrigued anthropologists, linguists and, more recently, language teachers. How one influences the other is not clear cut, but what one cannot deny is that words have a  “relative power on our ability to understand, act in, and ultimately affect, our psychological and social worlds” (Duranti, 2000). Therefore, as language teachers, it is important to keep in mind that these two aspects of the human condition are inseparable, and that culture and language should play the same role in the classroom. The challenge is how to approach cultural issues in a way that makes sense to the ones who experience it – what to bring to the classroom to spark lively discussions about meaningful topics and to promote language learning and cultural awareness at the same time.

The Canadian project  Invitation: The Quilt of Belonging has been an important source of inspiration and motivation in approaching global issues as well as promoting real communication and ultimately promoting cultural awareness in my classroom since 2004.

Started by the visual artist Esther Bryan in 1998, this collaborative piece of art reflects the ethnic formation of Canada in a 36 meter long, 3.5 meter high hand-made textile mosaic. Composed of two hundred and sixty-three 9” blocks, the mosaic is the representation of the Canadian family: aboriginal and immigrant, and thence their descendants from world nationalities. It was officially launched on April 1st, 2005 at the Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec. More information can be found at the website: www.invitationproject.ca

This project started small, but it grew larger as, little by little, people from all over Canada joined in. The idea behind The Invitation Project, according to Esther, is that by learning about other people (we all have textiles that reflect who we are and record our cultural histories), we can better understand how we can all work together in the future. It is a vision of what we can and should be as a global family… there is a place for everyone in Canada, and there is a place for everyone in the quilt of belonging. (The Canadian Quilter, 2003).

The Invitation Project in education

The Invitation Project has been used in a context of monolingual classrooms, with approximately thirty pre-service teachers, taking the Linguistics and Literature Studies in Minas Gerais, southeastern Brazil, since 2004. It has been an important tool in my classroom for many reasons: it promotes language learning; the students get involved easily, given their curiosity to find out more about each other; it promotes real communication; it introduces interesting information about many different peoples and their cultures; it ‘warms up’ meaningful discussions about relevant topics in a variety of subjects; and they find it a pleasure to work with the blocks.

I start by giving some information about its history and let them enjoy some of the blocks by distributing colorful A4 laminated copies of the blocks. After giving them some time to have their first impressions, students are asked to write down opinions, questions or feelings, and to guess which part of the world, or which country, they think each block represents.  At this phase there are many discussions and questions about the vocabulary they don’t know. The designs of some of the blocks call for a lot of vocabulary work and dictionary look-ups.

The following step is all about making associations between the objects and what they represent. These associations go beyond one’s initial understanding, especially if the block represents people whom they have little or no information about.

After drawing their own conclusions, they will be hungry to know if their guesses were right. It is advisable to number the blocks you are going to work with. A couple of suggestions:

  1. Put all the definitions of the blocks together in the same copy and ask students to match them to the corresponding pictures. Go over their answers one by one;
  2. Give each student one or more definitions (depending on the number of students and blocks), ask them to match the pictures to the texts and then to share with the whole group.

With option one, the best way depends on the aims of the lesson, the number and level of students, time available, etc. Option two promotes more real communication since the information is shared within the whole group. It is also an integrative activity of reading, listening and speaking skills.

Depending on the interest and level of the group, the teacher may want to design activities to enhance vocabulary, as well as to propose interdisciplinary research with subjects such as Geography, History, Art and Design, Social Studies, Environmental Studies, etc, or to propose a discussion on topics inspired by the blocks you are working with at that moment. Discuss how the block represents your own country, draw a new block, use different signs to represent it if you want.

The criteria of choice in using the blocks depends, of course, on the aim of the class. I selected blocks from diverse continents according to the topics they suggest. Some of them are: Beothuk, Mauritius, Guatemala, Botswana, Benin and Brazil.

The Beothuk, once the Aboriginal inhabitants of Newfoundland, are now extinct. This block was made in memory of this Canadian aboriginal people, who were probably the first North American natives to encounter European explorers. The discussion about their way of life as hunters, and what dies with culture and language, is as motivating as it is important.

Mauritius is an independent island republic located in the southwestern Indian Ocean. This block is represented by the extinct Dodo bird. Research has shown that one species of tree coincidentally stopped reproducing around the time that the bird became extinct. It seems that the Dodo ate the fruit of this tree, and it was only by passing through its digestive tract that the seeds germinated and could grow. So, as a direct consequence of the Dodo’s extinction, this tree specie will soon also cease to exist. This information brings environmental issues under discussion.

The Guatemalan block features the “Worry Dolls”. A tradition in Guatemala is to place these dolls under one’s pillow at night and tell them the problems to be resolved by morning. This curious cultural tradition brings lively stories from the students’ own family backgrounds, which I think would be even richer in a multicultural classroom.

The ceremonial kgotla, or council chair, in Bostwana’s block is one of the most enigmatic designs. Students usually associate this chair with everything but with what it represents: a traditional form of government in which all have a voice.

Two blocks: Benin and Brazil

Below there are two blocks and their descriptions  an example of what is found at the website www.invitationproject.ca.  Following the descriptions there is some information about the history and location, in addition to other curious and/or useful information, of the country or native people.

Fig 1: Benin Fig 2: Brazil

Benin

Description: Inspired by the history of their kings, vibrant cotton animals in primary colours representing three of the twelve kings of Dahomey (Benin’s former name) come to life against the black background upon which they are appliquéd. Reflecting this traditional art form performed by only the men of Benin, this motif imaginatively teaches the history and stories of their leaders. Each king took a specific symbol, characterizing his reign and attributes. Clockwise from nine o’clock are the melodic drum and Gangnihessou bird, representing the powerful and influential first king of the same name. The diving shark that follows is a symbol of the intelligent and courageous 11th king, Behanzin. The mighty lion completing the display is attributed to the spirited 10th king, Glele. Cowrie shells, once used as currency, are hand-stitched in the centre.

Brazil

Description: The vibrant and colourful images of the Brazilian block bring to mind the luscious beauty of the tropics, and reflect the exuberant nature of Brazilians. Set against a pink satin backdrop, a blue macaw surrounded by foliage and blossoms is embroidered onto a linen background. Satin is an important fabric in Brazil, used in the making of elaborate costumes worn during the country’s many carnivals and celebrations. It is fitting that needlework is incorporated into this piece since it is a way many Brazilians earn their living. Macaws, so called because they feed on the fruit of the macaw palm, are the largest member of the parrot family and are commonly found in many parts of Brazil. The pink hibiscus, prevalent in courtyards and Brazilian gardens, symbolizes the country’s lush vegetation. A border of filet lace with crocheted edging completes the design. Filet lace work, a traditional art form characteristic of the Alagoas in north-eastern Brazil, reflects the simplicity of the warm and humble Brazilians, and is often used by women to create geometrical or floral designs in fishing nets.

The Invitation project in the EFL classroom: some impressions

The cowrie shells, for example, showed in Benin´s block (fig 1), usually lead the Brazilian students to think it is the Brazilian block when they first see it. In Brazil, these shells are popular for being used in a well known kind of fortune-telling practice, while in some parts of western Africa they were used as currency. At some levels of observation parts are taken as a whole, and vice-versa, until a degree of pertinence establishes what is eligible as a symbol of a culture. An immediate object (such as the shell)  is associated with a variety of dynamic objects (fortune-telling, currency), according to the personal history and culture of the observer. The lion and the shark are not pertinent as a Brazilian symbol, so this block is discarded as being the Brazilian block.

The Kitikmeot (Inuit) block features one of the aboriginal people from Canada. It depicts the igloo house and some tools used by hunters. I’ve heard more than once a student say: this block represents Canada, forgetting that in fact, Canada is represented by the whole quilt. This kind of assertion shows that one object, or element, can be taken as a whole, in the same way that one assumption can be accepted as the definition of a certain culture or people.

This exercise of perception develops one’s capacity to recognize the other as well as to recognize themselves. It is a way of understanding how others make sense of the world they live in and how the world makes sense to ourselves.

How does it all relate to the title of this article? What does the Invitation Project have to do with Samba do Crioulo Doido or the Carnaval? One of the definitions for this expression coined by the deceased Brazilian writer Stanislaw Ponte Preta, is “a mixture of channels and conceptions”, and that is what we will find in these two non-verbal texts.

The quilt is a non-verbal text organized under the ethnic formation theme of a nation, a reflection of who they are. The Samba Schools in Rio de Janeiro organize their presentations under a thematic proposal which is conveyed by a multi-sign text: the Carnaval show. It is divided into many different sections, which all together with the samba enredo (song theme), compose the macrotext that conveys subjects such as beliefs, myths, historical facts, environment issues, Brazilian ethnic formation, etc.

The Carnaval in Brazil, which is not a translation for the word carnival, is a compact feast, a four day “Carnaval time”, a period when the borderline of the social world is out of focus. Every kind of stratification in society, such as profession, neighborhood, social status and ethnic group, according to the proposal of Carnaval, will disappear in the name of the ideology of integration and social harmony, (DaMatta 1990). In their Carnaval costumes, the condemned and the hangman, the crook and the policeman, the oppressor and the oppressed, and the mythical and real figures of the past and present will all dance together. It is not by coincidence that in the Portuguese language the word fantasia has a double meaning: costume and illusion or idealization.

These two texts, though different in nature, in the world of metaphor show that there is a place for everyone, that each part with its unique beauty can harmoniously compose the whole.  The relation between the quilt and the Carnaval was based on the fact that the ethnic formation theme, which has been shown in the Carnaval more than in any other popular artistic expression, is also the theme of the quilt and they are both a collaborative art piece.

The ethnic formation theme has become a common thread in the Brazilian Carnaval and has gained sophistication over the years. This thread is present in the costumes and in the samba songs. At the beginning, the Carnaval of Rio de Janeiro was an entirely collaborative work. People from the lower-class areas worked on the costumes the whole year to wear them during Carnaval. Since the creation of the sambódromo1 in the 80’s, this practice has changed. Nowadays, art designers, carnavalescos2, seamstresses and other professionals design the costumes, but the spirit of collaborative work still remains, otherwise it wouldn’t be possible to make it happen.

The quilt can be used in many ways in the classroom. Each context of teaching will tell what to do with it. My inspiration to work the way I do comes from my interest in knowing how Canada and Brazil deal with cultural and ethnic eclectism and how it is reflected in art.

  1. Sambódromo: a determinate space in the avenue where the Carnival parade takes place.
  2. Carnavalesco: a professional specialist in Carnival matters.

References

DaMatta, Roberto (1990). Carnavais, malandros e heróis: uma sociologia do dilema brasileiro. Editora Guanabara, Rio de Janeiro.

Duranti, Alessandro (2000). Relativity. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology. Issue 9 (1-2): p.220-222.

Pierce, Charles Sanders. In: HARTSHORNE, CHARLES & WEISS, PAUL(eds). Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Pierce, USA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, vol I 1931,1959; vol. II, 1932,1960;vol. V 1934,1962; vol. VIII, 1958, trad. Editora Cultrix:  São Paulo, 1972

Royds, Meredith and Rafuse, Marsha.(winter – 2003).  The Canadian Quilter exemplified. The Canadian quilter. www. Invitationproject.ca

Santaella, Lucia (2004). A teoria geral dos signos: como as linguagens significam as coisas. São Paulo: Pioneira Thomson Learning.

Laura Liberia Fabbrini Santos graduated in Portuguese and English from Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais Brazil, and did her Masters in applied linguistics. She taught Portuguese for Foreigners from 1990 -1992 and has taught English as a Foreign Language since 1995. She is also Coordinator of the Tutorial Program for Extension courses in English, and Undergraduate Research Advisor in EFL, Assessment, Sign Language, and Language and Culture at Universidade do Estado de Minas Gerais.

laura (at) funedi.edu.br

laurafabbrini (at) hotmail.com

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