"Cross-Cultural Dialogue" Lesson

Students will strive to view situations from more than their own point of view.

Supporting resources

A cross-cultural story written about a teacher and her students in Guinea-Bissau

About Guinea-Bissau
"Cross-Cultural Dialogue" is set in Guinea-Bissau, a small country of 1.2 million inhabitants on the Atlantic Coast of West Africa. Guinea-Bissau is one of the poorest countries in the world, with approximately 88 percent of the population living on less than the equivalent of one U.S. dollar a day. Many people live in small villages in remote areas, often without paved roads. More than half of Guinea-Bissau's inhabitants over the age of 15 cannot read or write. It is here that the author of this story, Roz Wollmering, served as a Peace Corps Volunteer teaching English. The Peace Corps has long been active in Guinea-Bissau, teaching elementary and secondary students, joining with local health committees to identify priority health needs, educating groups and schools about preventive health care practices, including HIV/AIDS prevention, and increasing awareness about the importance of environmental preservation.

About This Lesson Plan
This lesson plan explores the meaning of the personal narrative "Cross-Cultural Dialogue" by former Peace Corps Volunteer Roz Wollmering, reprinted from the book To Touch the World, a collection of stories by Peace Corps Volunteers about their service abroad. Wollmering served in Guinea-Bissau, West Africa, from 1990 to 1992. In this essay, she writes about the problems she experienced as a beginning English teacher in a culture unfamiliar to her.

"Cross-Cultural Dialogue" is a story about individuals from two different cultures trying to understand one another and having a difficult time of it. Originally titled "My Side vs. Their Side," the story provides observations first from the author's point of view and then from what she imagines to be her students' point of view. Writing is the author's way of sorting out and making sense of a chaotic experience.

Remind students that when the story shifts from the author's point of view to her students' point of view, it is still the author writing the other side of the dialogue. As she writes about the experience from her students' point of view, she is trying to step into their shoes to see the world as they see it.


Day One
To introduce students to the story "Cross-Cultural Dialogue."
To help students understand how a writer can write from two different perspectives.
To teach students two reading comprehension strategies.

Day Two
To have students probe the deeper meanings of the story.
To have students experience what it is like to try to see the world from another perspective.

Day Three
To have students use the incidents in the author's story to explore the concept of crossing cultures.
To have students reflect on what it is like to feel like an outsider (in the way that the author did).

Day Four
To have students experience how the act of writing can help sort out complex experiences that involve different perspectives.
To have students apply to their own lives what they have learned from "Cross-Cultural Dialogue."


  • Innovative: New; original; inventive
  • Premonition: Hunch; feeling; suspicion
  • Mosque: Temple; a building used for public worship by Muslims
  • Catatonic: Appearing to be in a daze or
  • Mollify: Calm down; appease
  • Apathy: Indifference; lack of interest; boredom
  • Pristine: Perfect; like new
  • Woeful: Unhappy; sorrowful
  • Disparaging: Disapproving; reproachful
  • Vindictive: Nasty; unkind
  • Calabash: A round gourd, the hard shell of which is often used as a utensil
  • Impervious: Totally resistant; impenetrable
  • Fatalistic: A defeatist attitude assuming that nothing can be done to improve the status quo
  • Pedagogy: The art of teaching 


Day One

  1. Provide students with a brief overview of the Peace Corps and its work in Guinea-Bissau, using the information provided in the background section. Explain to students that they will be reading a personal narrative by a Peace Corps Volunteer, based on one of the author's experiences as she served as an English teacher in Guinea-Bissau.
  2. Show students a map of Africa and point out the location of Guinea-Bissau. Explain that it is one of the poorest countries in the world, where more than half of the adult population cannot read or write. Though a high value is placed on education, many factors interfere with children being able to attend school on a regular basis. Some of these factors, at the time this story was written, included children being needed at home to help grow and harvest food; children sometimes being needed to care for younger siblings while their parents worked in fields; a high degree of illness due to unsafe drinking water and lack of refrigeration for food; schools being badly in need of teachers and supplies, often making do with little.
  3. Explain that the author, who served as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1990 to 1992, was not prepared for the situation she encountered on her first day of school, despite extensive cross-cultural training. Her determination to understand the local culture and to bridge the cultural divide that separated her from her students is clearly evident in "Cross-Cultural Dialogue."
  4. Suggest to students that they imagine they are Peace Corps Volunteers assigned to teach English to preteens and teenagers in a remote and impoverished part of the world. They arrive at their destination and are excited to begin work. Ask what is going through their minds. What are their expectations of what the school and students will be like? What are they most looking forward to? Conduct a brief class discussion.
  5. Prior to asking students to read the story, explain that it is written in two parts and from two different perspectives. Explain to students that the story was originally titled "My Side vs. Their Side," because the author tells the story first from her point of view and then from what she believes was her students' point of view. In order to write from her students' point of view, Wollmering had to try to step into their shoes.
  6. Suggest to students that when they have finished reading the story, they should decide how successful the author was in capturing her students' perspective. If it is difficult to decide this, the students should think about what additional information they might need. How would the author ever be able really to know how her students experienced the situation?
  7. Refer students to the vocabulary list and ask them to read "Cross-Cultural Dialogue." Optional comprehension strategy: Suggest to students that—if they are reading a photocopied edition—they highlight or note in the margin where they think a particularly important point is being made, when they find something they particularly like, or when something raises a question. "Talking to the text" in this way can help them get at the meaning of a passage. Provide students the remainder of the class period for reading the story.
  8. Comprehension Strategy. There is significant research showing a positive correlation between the use of graphic organizers and student achievement. We suggest you use a "Story Frame" (Fowler, 1982) to help students sort out the multiple meanings in "Cross-Cultural Dialogue." Close to the end of the class period, provide students with copies of "Story Frame A" (Worksheet #3a) and "Story Frame B" (Worksheet #3b). Then, for homework, ask students to prepare for class discussion by reviewing the events of the story from each of the two perspectives: the author's and her students'. Using "Story Frame A," have them describe in writing the events from the author's perspective. Using "Story Frame B," have them describe in writing the events from her students' perspective.

Day Two

  1. Have students share their highlights, the lines or sentences they liked, and the parts of the story that were confusing or raised questions for them with a partner. Then conduct a class discussion on what students think is really important about the story "Cross-Cultural Dialogue."
  2. Divide the class into two groups—A and B. Students in group A will focus on Story Frame A. Ask group A to form groups of three. Have students in group B focus on Story Frame B and also form groups of three.
  3. Ask students in each of the small groups to compare their story frames, fill in details they may have missed, and help each other clarify points that may have been confusing.
  4. Ask students what they think of using a story frame as a reading comprehension strategy. Did it increase their understanding of the story? If so, in what ways? If not, why not? When else might they use this strategy?
  5. Role-playing. Tell the groups that you'd like them to participate in a role-playing activity. To prepare, have groups who focused on Story Frame A take 10 minutes to decide what they will say role-playing when paired with someone who has focused on Story Frame B. Students in group B will prepare the same way.
  6. Set up the role-playing activity this way: Ask each group of students focusing on Story Frame A to pair up with a group focusing on Story Frame B. Have the As and Bs seated facing each other.
  7. Everyone with Story Frame A will play the role of the author. Everyone with Story Frame B will play the role of her students. Ask students to imagine that the role-playing begins on the day when there are enough students in Wollmering's class for school actually to begin. Groups should rotate the role of the author among the three players. Encourage both the author and student groups to refer to the text for ideas if the role-playing begins to lag.
  8. Allow about 10 minutes for role-playing. Circulate among groups, taking brief notes on interesting comments.
  9. Debrief the students with the following questions:
    • How did it feel to step into the shoes of the author?
    • How did it feel to step into the shoes of the students?

10. Journal Entry. For homework, ask students to select one incident from the story—one that seems significant to them, and around which there was considerable misunderstanding. They should describe the incident in their Reading Journals. Then, have them try to step into Wollmering's shoes and interpret and write about the incident from her point of view. Next, they should step into her students' shoes and interpret and write about the incident from their point of view. Finally, they should explain in writing what they learned by going through this process.

Day Three

  1. Ask students to share their journal entries with a partner, and then in a class discussion. Ask why it may be difficult to step into another person's shoes.
  2. Then ask what the students would have done if they had been in Wollmering's situation. If the author's students were to have the opportunity to read her story, does your class think they would agree with the way the author has portrayed the situation? Why or why not?
  3. Make the point, if it hasn't already come up, that to imagine someone's point of view is not the same thing as actually knowing what that person's point of view really is. How could Wollmering have checked out whether her perceptions were correct? Does the class think every student in the author's class would have seen the situation in exactly the same way?
  4. Ask students how it is possible for two or more people to experience the same events and interpret them completely differently. Have they ever had the experience of going to a movie or watching a video with a friend, and each thinking that something completely different was important? Ask how that could be.
  5. Explain that it is rare that two people have the same experience and interpret it in exactly the same way. This situation becomes even more complex when the two people come from different cultures.
  6. Explain to students that when the author left the familiar culture of the United States and entered the unfamiliar culture of Guinea-Bissau, she experienced a phenomenon called crossing cultures.
  7. Ask students what "crossing cultures" might mean. Have they ever "crossed cultures"? What did it feel like?
  8. Clarify the concept of "crossing cultures" by explaining to students that when we talk about behaviors and beliefs that a group of people have in common, we are talking about culture. Culture consists of the daily living patterns and the most deeply held beliefs that a group of people hold in common. It is demonstrated in many ways: customs, traditions, values, worldview, styles of dress, attitudes toward education, beliefs about the importance of time, the responsibilities of children and teens, and the role of the family, as well as celebrations, music, art, and much more.
  9. When individuals cross from one culture into another, they often feel different, strange, or like an outsider—and they view people from the new culture as different or strange. They feel that they have stepped out of a familiar place where all the rules for behavior are known, into a place where they have to learn a whole new set of rules.
  10. Journal Entry. Ask students to respond in their Reading Journals to this prompt: Have you ever had the experience of not being sure what the rules were? (Explain that this could be the experience of moving to a new country, moving to a new state, city, town, or neighborhood, moving to a new school, or moving to a new group within a school.) Ask students to write about this experience and what it felt like.
  11. Ask students to share their responses with a partner. Then ask partners to share with another set of partners in groups of four. Students in your class who have come to the United States from another culture can be a great resource in this activity. Invite them to share their experiences.
  12. Ask students what experiences they heard about that made a strong impression on them. Elicit several different responses.
  13. Journal Entry. For homework, ask students to consider the following statement: "To avoid misunderstanding the behavior of individuals different from yourself, you have to try to see the world from their perspective, in addition to your own." Ask them to explain in their Reading Journals whether they agree with this statement or not—and their reasons. Then ask them to respond in their Reading Journals to this question: "What are some possible ways to go about seeing things from another person's—or another culture's—perspective?"

Day Four

  1. Ask students to share their journal responses from the night before in a class discussion.
  2. If students don't mention this, suggest that the act of writing was the author's attempt to try to see the world from another culture's perspective and to sort out the meaning of her experience.
  3. Ask students to think about a misunderstanding that has occurred in their lives. Suggest that writing about this experience could help them sort it out—or at least see it with new eyes. Tell the students that you will be having them write about the misunderstanding, first from their own point of view and then from the point of view of another person involved. To help students organize their thoughts and their writing, suggest that they talk to the person with whom they had the misunderstanding and—putting their own perspective aside for a moment—try to see the misunderstanding from the other person's perspective. If they are not comfortable talking to the person, they should try to imagine, as the author did, what the situation looked like from the other person's perspective.
  4. Have the students use the graphic organizer in Worksheet #4 and the questions to help them develop a set of written reflections on the misunderstanding. Before writing about the misunderstanding, they should brainstorm a set of preliminary notes in Worksheet #4.
  5. Once students have made their preliminary notes in the graphic organizer, have them write about the misunderstanding from both points of view.
  6. Have students begin this assignment in class and complete it for homework. Ask them to share their work in small groups during the next day's class. Ask for volunteers to share their writing and what they learned as they worked to see a situation from two points of view. In the course of the discussion ask:
    • What was the most difficult part of this writing assignment? Why?
    • What was the most important thing that you learned?

7. Journal Entry. Conclude the lesson on "Cross-Cultural Dialogue" by asking students to respond in their journals to the following prompt: How did reading and responding to "Cross-Cultural Dialogue" help you better understand the world, yourself, and others?

Frameworks & Standards

Enduring Understandings

  • To avoid misunderstanding others, you have to try to see the world from their perspective, in addition to your own.
  • Writing can help us sort out life experiences and better understand the world, ourselves, and others.
  • Two or more people can have the same experience but see it in entirely different ways, especially when crossing cultures.

Essential Questions

  • How can two people have the same experience and see it differently?
  • How do you learn to see things from another person's—or another culture's—perspective? Why bother?
  • How can writing help us make sense of life experiences and better understand the world, ourselves, and others?


National Council of Teachers of English/International Reading Association
Standard 1: Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world.
Standard 2: Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions of human experience.
Standard 3: Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts.
Standard 5: Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.

National Council for the Social Studies
Theme 1: Culture. Social studies programs should provide for the study of culture and cultural diversity so that the learner can explain how information and experiences may be interpreted by people from diverse cultural perspectives and frames of reference.

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