Global Cultures and Issues in the ESL Classroom: Educating Digital Natives

It’s Monday morning and you’ve just gotten into your classroom. You’re tired from a long weekend but happy to see your students again. The door opens and it’s one of your favorite students (we all have one), Minji. She has come to class early because she wants to ask you a question. You gesture for her to sit down near you at one of the tables, that’s when you notice she has her phone out. She opens up her TikTok app to show you a TikTok she saw of an American talking about the Black Lives Matter movement. She wants to know what this is, and why it’s so popular on social media. You panic for a second because you are unsure how to approach the subject, and how to even begin accessing information to share with your student.

You might not have had this exact scenario happen in your classroom, but chances are something similar has happened. Whether it is students curious about social media movements or textbooks that represent global cultures students may not be familiar with, the English-language classroom is often the place students come to with their questions about global culture and issues. As an English-language teacher it can be daunting to try and find the right way to represent cultures and issues you may not have personal experience with or know where to even begin searching for information for. The following are three different aspects of teaching global culture and issues that I think make a strong basis for being a culturally-responsive and unbiased educator. There are many more facets to this topic, but I think that these three are a good start to better equip yourself and your classroom to help answer your students’ questions and guide them towards being global citizens.  

Clover, J. (2019). [Apple Launches ‘Media Literacy’ Initiative to Encourage Critical Thinking and Better Informed Evaluation of News]. Retrieved June 30, 2021, from

Critical Media Literacy

The first on the list is practicing Critical Media Literacy. Critical Media Literacy is the practice in which one looks at any form of media, be it books, video, images, or music, and seeks to critically evaluate it for issues of power, voice, representation, and equity. In other words, it’s when you question what you are watching, reading, or listening to. It is the effort of the consumer to make sure that they are not being swayed by a biased point of view, especially in relation to global issues, cultures, and events. Though this might seem like something that would be introduced only in higher-proficiency or late-secondary level classes, the truth is that media literacy comes into play even in third or fourth grade. As digital natives (people who grow up after the advent of the internet), students are inundated with media all of the time and, while their media might not be directly related to world news or global issues, as a teacher you can still encourage students to seek out authentic representation of different cultures within whichever form of media is present in the classroom.

Encouraging Critical Media Literacy in your classroom is as easy as asking questions. Ask students “Where did you get this information?” or “How do you know that?” and if they can’t think of a satisfactory answer, go on a journey together to try to find unbiased and authentic information.

Another way to encourage Critical Media Literacy in the classroom is to add a “sources” portion to assessment rubrics, or any requirements for projects your students may be completing in which they need to search for information online. By requiring students to share their sources and where they got their information, students are automatically more likely to think twice about the legitimacy of their information.

At the end of the day, Critical Media Literacy should be a consistent part of any curriculum. The internet is saturated with a sea of information from a variety of sources, but by modeling the practice for the students as a teacher and expecting the same practices from your students, you are helping your students to develop the skills needed to wade through that sea to find the most pertinent and unbiased information. This is a life skill that will follow students as they graduate to university, and beyond into the workforce.


Similar to Critical Media Literacy, authenticity refers to taking a critical look at the information being used in the classroom; however, authenticity goes a step beyond to look at whose voices are sharing this information.

Take this example: You look in your textbook and notice there is a section about Nigeria. The content of the paragraph is talking about the traditional foods of Nigeria. However, after taking a closer look at the images represented, you notice something a little bit “off”. Of course, there are beautiful shots of Nigerian soup and Jollof rice, but alongside it are pictures of old buildings, dirt roads, and smiling people wearing traditional clothes. None of these pictures are particularly negative, but you have to wonder how authentic they are. If these pictures are the only representation your students will have of Nigeria, what are the assumptions they might make?

A quick search on Google will show you that Nigeria boasts large cities, much like Seoul, people who wear clothes similar to the ones you are wearing right now and so much more than the images represented in that short section in your textbook.

This is a pretty common example, and one that I encountered while teaching high school in South Korea. I think too often we as educators focus on getting rid of any negative stereotypes about global cultures and issues, that we forget to focus on how authentic the materials are that we are presenting. To combat this, I have a few ways in which you can supplement your classroom materials to add authentic voices to your lessons.

  • YouTube videos, especially ones made by or interviewing people from the culture you’d like to represent. Even if the English is too difficult for students to follow along with, a short explanation in Korean can help students understand the basic idea and appreciate the imagery represented in the video.
  • Local Communities. There are so many cultures represented even within the borders of South Korea. Finding ways in which to bring in the local community can not only help students access authentic materials, but perhaps experience culture for themselves.
  • Finally, a quick google search is perhaps the easiest way to find authentic materials. Combine authenticity with Critical Media Literacy to really think about the images you are presenting in class, and where the information is coming from that you are sharing.

Social Justice and Social Media Movements

As educators, incorporating social media and social justice into the curriculum can be sensitive and often we come up against issues that are tricky to address. But with our students increasingly involved with the online social world, it is important to create a safe space in which students feel they can access information and ask questions about the global issues and cultures they may not understand.

I am not saying that social justice movements need to be a part of your lessons, but a good way to give students the tools to thrive as Global Citizens is to teach students critical advocacy tools. Critical advocacy is similar to Critical Media Literacy in that it is simply asking students to question the movements they want to support, to research what each movement is about, and know the purpose of the social media hashtag or Facebook group before joining in.

Incorporating famous social justice movements that are education-adjacent, such as Malala’s campaign or the #bringbackourgirls movement is a great way in which to bring up the topic and introduce the concept of social media activism. In this way, students can learn how to be critical advocates without having to broach sensitive topics in class.

As our world becomes increasingly interdependent, countries like South Korea are looking to encourage Global Citizenship in our new generations which means, as educators, it is our duty to make sure that our students venture into their new global landscape as well-equipped as we can make them to be critical about the information they are inundated with and the assumptions they may have about people, cultures and issues from around the world.

Leave a Reply