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Cultivating Cultural Sensitivity in Virtual Literature Exchanges

Have you ever chuckled at a Shakespearean insult only to realize your virtual class didn’t get the joke? Or made a remark that, in hindsight, could come off as culturally insensitive? How about negotiating the reading aloud of a hurtful or pejorative slur that appears in a literary work? It’s happened to all of us educators…welcome to the delightful challenge of discussing literature in a culturally diverse classroom! This tightrope walk never gets easier. As we begin to deepen our understanding and refine our language with regards to equity and inclusion, educational decorum continues to arc towards individualized nuances to differentiated learners and cross-cultural sensitivity. As I wrap up my reading of The Culture Map, by Erin Meyer, I can’t help but find that these issues become even more salient and tricky when we think that it’s our students who are primarily doing the interfacing with peers from what could be a completely different culture, replete with different values and judgements on what is considered healthy debate, positive expression, and a productive exchange of ideas. You certainly don’t want your pupils to inadvertently offend anyone! So, if you’re going to be running Level Up Village’s I am Malala or The Giver Global Conversations Courses this year, consider this post as your guide for navigating the nuanced world of virtual literature exchanges, ensuring every voice is heard and respected.

Understanding Different Discussion Styles

If you were to see my family in a typical discussion, and you don’t speak Italian, you’d think they were arguing over inheritance when they’re just articulating the best way to get to the corner store. This phenomenon is, as is explored in the aforementioned The Culture Map, where a culture’s Emotional Expressiveness meets its Confrontationality. Some cultures teach students at an early age to be critical thinkers, and thus quickly give voice to their inner devil’s advocate on a regular basis; meanwhile, there are other cultures that see dissension or disagreement as unharmonious and may not feel at ease providing a dissenting viewpoint to what a stranger has just said for fear of offending them. Just imagine how these variances in discussion styles might complicate an intellectual conversation about a work of literature!

Literature discussions are like fingerprints—unique and varied. Some students might dive into debates with the enthusiasm of a detective unraveling a mystery, while others ponder quietly, like a poet musing over the perfect metaphor. Teachers, it’s your job to be the maestro of this symphony, ensuring each style harmonizes beautifully. Encourage students to share their preferred discussion styles and create an environment where each style is valued—a place where the bold and the thoughtful coexist in harmony. When you’re further complicated by cultural approaches, framing the rules or the game and individual responses, remains the key to not only their participation, but their enjoyment of the activity.

Framing Opinions with Respect

Imagine debating whether pineapple belongs on pizza in a room full of pizza enthusiasts. That’s literature discussions on sensitive topics! Teach your students to frame their opinions in ways that respect differing viewpoints. Start sentences with “I feel,” “From my perspective,” or a personal favorite, for my most argumentative critical thinkers, “Just to play devil’s advocate for a moment…” to keep the tone personal and non-confrontational. Remember, it’s not about winning; it’s about understanding each other’s pizza toppings—I mean, literary interpretations.

In addition, prepare them for rebuttals with the understanding that without a thesis-antithesis combo, you’ll not really have much room for growth! As you well know, literature can foster many interpretations and schools of thought, and books like I Am Malala and The Giver offer no exception. Will your students be ok if they hear back from your international partners and hear a completely different exegesis than what you’ve prepared them with? What if they come to you asking if the students abroad are….wrong? Discrepancies like these can happen when discussing works of differing levels of significance across a spectrum of experiences. Don’t shy away from giving your students a chance to react first within your classroom so they can get their hot takes out in a safe place and then reply more formally with their own interpretations!

Self-advocacy in a debate is like being a knight in a friendly joust—it’s all about skill and respect. Role-play scenarios can be a fun way to practice this, and you could always approach this in a manner of levity: have students advocate for why their favorite character should be elected as the class mascot. Or what’s the most trivial and useless scene in the book. Or which character would get the most followers if they were an influencer on socials? These are a great way to practice defending a viewpoint with the kid gloves still on, and with the added bonus of laughter. Or get those literary muscles warmed up with engaging activities! How about a quick game of “Two Truths and a Lie” themed around the book’s setting? If you’re reading I am Malala, for example, students could come up with fun facts (or fiction) about Pakistani life. It’s a great way to dive into the setting while chuckling over some creative “lies,” and making sure that these are cordoned off as harmful stereotypes and potentially offensive biases to be avoided!

Enhancing the Video Messages

In the age of TikTok, everyone’s a budding videographer, and we’ve talked at length on this blog about harnessing that fluency and creativity in your students in order to really enhance the virtual exchange experience. Go beyond just encouraging your students to create short video messages to share their thoughts on the book. Challenge them to include something personal or culturally significant in each video, like a favorite item or a local saying. It personalizes the experience and adds a layer of cultural exchange. After the last page is turned, it’s reflection time. How about having students create a comic strip from a secondary character’s viewpoint? Or perhaps a haiku expressing the theme of the story? These activities not only foster empathy but also unleash students’ creativity in understanding diverse perspectives. I also find that the more they share their personal experiences, or creativity, the more they stand by their interpretations in a less aggressive way.

No longer does the debate feel like a combative conflict, but instead reframes the whole conversation as more of a science fair or art show, where everyone’s interests can simultaneously be valid and validated. And, in particular, I think Level Up Village’s platform, allowing your students to view and react to multiple videos, further suits this goal. Rather than a head-to-head debate, all the pupils can shop around and really experience the variety in thoughts and perspectives; they can make note of trends organically, and aptly survey their partners’ thoughts and opinions in order to see with whom they agree or disagree with a much less confrontational setup.


There you have it—some considerations for a successful and culturally sensitive virtual literature exchange. By understanding different discussion styles, framing opinions respectfully, advocating self-views effectively, and engaging in creative pre-and post-reading activities, your virtual exchange will be a bubbling pot of diverse, respectful, and engaging literary discussions. And best of luck with The Giver and I Am Malala—two extremely rewarding classics whose discussion and interpretation will only be enriched by a multitude of viewpoints. Remember, just like in a good book, every character (you know, your students in this metaphor) adds depth to the story!