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December 2021 - Year 23 - Issue 6

ISSN 1755-9715

Developing Intercultural Awareness and Sensitivity in the Language Classroom: From Personal Stories to Global Understanding


Vera Savić, PhD, is an Assistant Professor and Head of Philological Department at the Faculty of Education in Jagodina, University of Kragujevac, Serbia, where she teaches methodology courses on teaching English to young learners (TEYL) at undergraduate and graduate levels. Her research interests include TEYL, foreign language (FL) reading skills, content-based instruction (CBI), and FL teacher education and professional development (PD). She is the co-author, with Joan Shin and Tomohisha Machida, of The 6 Principles for Exemplary Teaching of English Learners: Young Learners in a Multilingual World (2021), the co-editor, with Isaak Papadopoulos, of Teaching Young Language Learners in South Eastern Europe: A Multidimensional Research on Policy and Pedagogical Practices (2020), and the co-editor, with Olivera Cekić-Jovanović, of Professional Competences for Teaching in the 21st Century (2020). , Email:


Joan Kang Shin, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Education at George Mason University and Director of the Global Online Teacher Education Center (GOTEC). Dr. Shin specializes in teaching English as an additional language to young learners and teenagers and is an expert in online teacher education and professional development. She is an award-winning author and series editor for National Geographic Learning. Her titles include Teaching Young Learners English, Our World, and Impact. She is the co-author, with Vera Savić and Tomohisha Machida, of The 6 Principles for Exemplary Teaching of English Learners: Young Learners in a Multilingual World (2021). In 2016, Dr. Shin was named one of the 30 Up and Coming Leaders of TESOL by TESOL International Association. In 2021, she was named one of the top 30 English Language Specialists by the U.S. Department of State in recognition of her lasting impact on the Specialist Program and on the field of TESOL. She currently sits on the Board of Trustees for The International Research Foundation for English Language Education (TIRF)., Email:



The English language classroom is rapidly changing in today’s increasingly interconnected and interdependent world where international communication and collaboration are gaining importance in everyday life (Shin, 2021). Moreover, the widespread use of media and technology is contributing to intensifying human connections and contacts throughout the globe. English language learners at all levels are striving to improve their communication skills as there are more and more opportunities for authentic language use.

The ability to communicate in English as a foreign language is recognised as a significant 21st century skill both by experts in education (Binkley et al., 2012; Shin & Crandall, 2014) and by national language policies and curricula (MoESTDS, 2017; MoESTDS, 2019). At the beginning of the 21st century the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages stressed that the main aims of foreign language teaching should be the promotion of mutual understanding, tolerance, and respect for cultural diversity through more effective international communication and development of learners’ ability to communicate with each other across linguistic and cultural boundaries (Council of Europe, 2001). Today, the Serbian Law on Primary Education (MoESTDS, 2017) explicitly states that the development of intercultural awareness and respect for and preservation of national and world cultural heritage, is one of the objectives of primary education. This aim can most naturally be achieved in the language classroom.

Teachers of English as a foreign language are well aware that learning English is inseparable from learning about other cultures (Curtain & Dahlberg, 2016; Savić, 2013; Shin & Crandall, 2014). Development of intercultural communication competence, defined as “the ability of individuals to develop a positive attitude towards the foreign culture” (Fritz et al., 2002, p. 166), involves acquiring intercultural awareness and sensitivity, i.e., the ability to understand similarities and differences between one’s own culture and the others’ cultures, and a desire to respect and accept cultural differences (Griva & Papadopoulos, 2019). This is justified by recent studies (see Hjerm et al., 2020) which have found that only appreciation of difference can potentially reduce prejudice.

To be able to help learners develop a sense of global citizenship and demonstrate positive attitudes to cultural diversity, teachers need to develop a special set of pedagogical skills necessary for implementing classroom activities and tasks that will inspire learners’ interest in other cultures and enhance their nonjudgemental acceptance of diversity. What is more, teachers need to be able to select the appropriate cultural materials that can strengthen their learners’ tolerance to cultures different from their own, increase mutual understanding and respect for diversity, and help them become more sensitive to the needs and feeling of others. However, teachers need to be trained about the procedure for effective use of a foreign language for developing tolerance. Having positive attitudes to developing intercultural sensitivity in the classroom is not enough for successful classroom practice as the studies often show a gap between teachers’ positive attitudes and actual practice (Savić & Prošić-Santovac, 2020).

Teachers of English can develop the necessary pedagogy for raising intercultural awareness and sensitivity through a professional development (PD) programme. An approach appropriate for developing pedagogical skills for teaching culture is creating and sharing stories of tolerance. We will describe the process of experiential learning of English language teachers in Serbia in a PD programme titled Teaching Global Citizenship: Developing Tolerance through Graphic Novels (see The programme was attended by 16 EFL teachers from Serbian state primary and secondary schools, and involved ten synchronous webinars and reflection reports in the Google Classroom. The following section describes how the participants experienced the process of creating and sharing personal stories of tolerance, thus learning how to implement the same procedure in their teaching contexts.


Focus on culture in PD

Teaching Global Citizenship: Developing Tolerance through Graphic Novels PD project addressed the need for raising young learners’ and teenagers’ awareness of their role as agents of peace and stability in the region through building tolerance. Tolerance is understood “as an acceptance of difference […], respect for difference and appreciation of difference” (Hjerm et al., 2020, p. 904). Difference in this project was understood as cultural differences in cultural practices and cultural perspectives. The inservice training of EFL teachers was conducted online in the course of five months. The participants were introduced to graphic novels in which cultural differences led to misunderstandings, prejudices and identity denial. The goal of the PD project was to prepare English language teachers to use the graphic novels to enhance primary English learners’ language skills while deepening their understanding of universal values such as justice, respect, dignity and equality, and raising their tolerance to difference.

The graphic novels chosen for the project specifically focus on the diversity of people and experiences in the U.S. Some of these graphic novels include moments in U.S. history where the U.S. had to reassess the perception and treatment of people from different backgrounds in different aspects of the U.S. history, such as slavery, Japanese internment camps, or persecution of Native Americans. These stories provided opportunities for learning how we can deepen our humanity and understanding of each other by listening to diverse voices and learning from the mistakes we have made. Some graphic novels also gave a personal look into the construction of identity as a minority in the United States, such as American Born Chinese by Gene Yang, or Redbone: The true story of a Native American rock band by Christian Staebler, Sonia Paoloni, and Thibault Balahy. Upon discussing and reflecting on contents of the graphic novels, and collaborating in a number of practical interactive tasks, the participants engaged in creating their own stories about tolerance. The experiential approach was applied to help the teachers learn by doing both the challenges and benefits of the activities that related to developing personal stories of tolerance.


Framework for developing Stories of Tolerance

A framework adapted from Lambert (2007, p. 6) was applied in personal story development. A set of brainstorming tools was given to the participants to develop their stories. First, they were instructed to answer the questions that would help them to bring out the main ideas and themes for their story. There were four questions:

  1. Who will be the main character (the hero or protagonist) for your story? Decide if it is a personal story, or you have a different protagonist.
  2. What problem or conflict will this character face?
  3. Who or what will be the villain or antagonist (the person or thing opposed to the main character)?
  4. How will the problem or conflict be resolved?

Then, a tool with reflection questions was used (see Table 1) to guide the storyteller through the process. The participants were instructed to answer seven reflection/guiding questions even if the story was not their own personal story but based on their protagonist’s point of view. First, they introduced their story in the form of short notes (see Table 1)

 Table 1: Steps for story development (adapted from Lambert, 2007) and notes of a participant’s story.

The Story About an Event in My Life

Story Development - From Idea to Story


Reflection Questions




What was the event (time, place, incident, or series of incidents)?

1992, Civil War in Bosnia


What was your/the character’s relationship to the event?

I lived in Bosnia and had to move, becoming a refugee.


With whom did you/the character experience this event?

My mother, father and brother


Was there a defining moment in the event?

When I did not hear from my parents for a couple of days.


How did you/the character feel during this event (fear, exhilaration, sharpened awareness, joy...)?



What did the event teach you/the character?

To focus on important things in life


How did this event change your/the character’s life?

It made me stronger

After preparing notes in the above template, the participants were asked to write the story in a narrative form, instructed that there was no word or page limit. The only requirement was to have a clear beginning, middle, and end. The above questions required the participants to own their insight and their emotions as a true or imagined protagonist and to think what the story means, which emotions they would like to include in the story, and how they would like to reveal the emotions to their audience. They were expected to identify and describe in detail a single moment or a series of related moments that could illustrate their insight of experiencing a change. The description should contribute to creating the images of the events that could best convey the meaning and create the context for the moment of change. The participants were instructed to decide on the order of events and on relevant information they wanted to share in Story Circles, carefully considering the audience and the purpose of the story. Table 2 shows an example story created by a participant in the project.


Table 2: Story created by a participant in the project.


It was April 1992. I enjoyed my carefree teenage days, spring that had just started and

brought mischievous butterflies in my stomach and revived energy into a small Bosnian town - ‘’kasaba’’ as we called it. I was thinking of secondary school and the entrance exam. I was

impatient to leave primary school behind and become a grammar school student – at that time it seemed like an honoured title that introduced you to the world of adults.


One Monday came and I was getting ready for school. On my way out, I met my uncles

who told me to get back home immediately. Then I heard them talk to my parents – whispers

were soon replaced by louder and louder voices, and the heating discussion ended with my

uncle’s words, ‘’Are you aware that only your children are here? If you do not want to leave, I will take Tina and Darko with me.’’ The next moment we were driving towards the borders with Serbia. I was clutching a small rucksack, leaving my teenage days behind much earlier than I would ever even think about.


I started a new life, in a new town, school, with new friends. I missed everything I hd left

behind every single day. My new schoolmates were very helpful, caring and considerate, but I

felt awkward, in a different position from theirs, with the different accent and words I often used. Accepting the newly created situation was not easy and my mind was often wandering far away from what was happening around me. I missed my parents most because they could not come with us.


Everything seemed bearable until I realised that my home town was under siege and I

did not hear from my parents for a couple of days. No news, no phone calls, nothing. The whole

world stopped. I did not know who to point my finger to, who to be angry at – the invisible enemy is the worst one you can face.


It was Monday. I was getting ready for school. On my way out, I saw my parents getting

out of the car. My teenage days did not get back, but my life did. I went to school with my heart

open for new friends and experiences – our differences did not seem that big anymore,

questions I got now seemed expected and friendly, the invisible enemy was beaten by the gift of life.


Story Circle Activity

A story circle is a way to share stories together. Everyone in a story circle gets a chance to read their story to others. If the participants are sitting together in person, then they can sit in a circle, but if they are meeting through videoconferencing, then everyone should turn their cameras on to see each other while sharing in small groups.

The goal of the story circle activity organized in the project was to support each other in the process of improving everyone’s story. The project participants were instructed to listen to each other, explore ideas, and learn from each other. At the end of the story circle, everyone should have ideas to improve their stories, but should also learn about the other participants’ stories of tolerance, reflect on the other participants’ moments of change, show understanding of their feelings, and demonstrate empathy.


A useful tool that can be used in a story circle activity is a Story Map (see Picture 1). Story mapping was organised in breakout rooms of a synchronous online meeting. Story circle partners were provided with story map templates for each story to be heard. They filled out the story map while listening to a story read by one of the participants in the group and if there were any parts of the story map that were blank or needed more details, they helped the storyteller to add them to their story to make it even better.

Picture 1: Story Map template.

The discussion that followed the story circle activity focused on the participants’ feelings while listening to each other’s stories and on lessons of tolerance learned. It was an opportunity for sharing all insights, both as a storyteller and a listener. It also yielded personal feedback to the language used in stories and how it managed to convey the messages and insights. These parts of the training were truly rewarding for all the participants in the project.



Being a global 21st century citizen and using English as an international language can be a context for personal growth and true development of the 21st century skills, intercultural awareness and sensitivity being the crucial ones. The participation in the PD project activities presented in this paper was an opportunity for the EFL teachers in Serbia to learn through personal experience how to implement these activities in their English classrooms with the aim to foster their learners’ tolerance and enhance their intercultural awareness and sensitivity. We believe that the same procedure can be adapted to other EFL professional development and teaching contexts throughout the world to assist teachers in developing the right set of pedagogical skills needed for teaching tolerance in a language classroom.



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Fritz, W., Möllenberg, A., & Chen, G.M. (2002). Measuring intercultural sensitivity in different cultural contexts. Intercultural Communication Studies, 11(2), 165-176. 

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Savić, V. & Prošić-Santovac, D. (2020). Context-sensitive pedagogical knowledge and skill: Beliefs and pedagogical practices of English language teachers in Serbia. In I. Savić, V. (2020 Papadopoulos & V. Savić, Teaching young language learners in South Eastern Europe: A multidimensional research on policy and pedagogical practices (pp. 41-64). Disigma Publications. ISBN: 978-618-5242).

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    Joan Kang Shin, US;Vera Savic, Serbia

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