Building Cultural Understanding and Communication: A Model in Seven Situations

Greta K. Nagel

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Increasing numbers of educators are becoming familiar with the model of the ABCs of Cultural Understanding and Communication (Schmidt, 1998a, 1998b, 1999; Xu, 2001). Some of us began implementing the model after hearing about it at a reading conference five years ago; we have, therefore, witnessed its powerful effects for several years in a variety of contexts. For readers who may be hearing about it for the first time, the basic ABCs process is described briefly below (the components are explained further in a later section of this article).

An ABCs project consists of the following activities, done by each member of the participating group:

  • A -- Write autobiographies recalling key details about key life events.
  • B -- Conduct unstructured interviews with a partner from a different cultural background, and write a biography of him or her based on the information gathered.
  • C -- Develop a crosscultural analysis by comparing and contrasting life stories with the partner, analyzing areas of cultural difference, and designing ways to connect with cultures.
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Throughout the entire ABCs process, students are engaged in interaction through speaking and listening, writing and reading, drawing upon texts and vocabulary that come from their varied experiences. The ABCs offers each participant the opportunity to collaborate with others, engage in critical inquiry, and enhance communication skills while learning to respect the varied perspectives of others -- all important “new literacies” needed in the 21st century.

I would like to share several narratives that stem from my varied experiences with the ABCs as a means of reminding readers that their own situations are also likely to be just right for this technique. It can bring about enhanced interpersonal understandings, provide meaningful opportunities for authentic and integrated practice of all the language arts, and add to the process of building community within the larger group. The model is certainly appropriate for education-related groups at all levels. In addition, I would like to explore facets of the ABCs model through perspectives and key concepts from the literature on motivation, community, and resilience. I hope that, in providing careful analysis and connecting practices to the theoretical and research literature, I can assure fellow teachers that when we take a broad view of meaningful educational practice, the time devoted to incorporating this model into our activities is well spent. It will promote growth in both academic and social-emotional domains.

The Need | The Model | Seven Contexts | Why the Model Is Effective | The Model in Your Situation | References

The Need

Many of us are familiar with colleagues who castigate community building efforts as “touchy feely” and unnecessary. Certainly, if schooling were simply a matter of building academic competence, of getting students to acquire and remember facts and learn to perform on tests in certain kinds of ways, we might be tempted to ignore the affective domain. What we are coming to understand better than ever in the field of education, however, is the importance of social and emotional health in allowing everything else to take place effectively. For example, we now use Gardner’s (1983) work in the multiple intelligences to remind us of the effects of interpersonal intelligence in our lives. Goleman’s (e.g., 1995) writings about emotional intelligence remind us of the extreme importance of developing “EQ” for success in daily life in school, the workplace, and at home. Findings in neuroscience continue to substantiate earlier theoretical understandings about the importance of lowering affective filters to permit learning and enhance retention (Sylwester, 1995).

In addition, current standards for teacher educators include this indicator of achievement: “Promote practices that enhance both an understanding of diversity and instruction that meets the needs of society” (Guyton & Rainer, 2002, p. 35). In 101 Ways to Combat Prejudice (Anti-Defamation League, 2000), the very first suggestion is “Know your roots and share your pride in your heritage with others.” The influences of critical pedagogy remind us of the importance of learning to communicate with words about things we know and care about (Freire, 1993; Wink, 2000), and through critical literacy we think and communicate in order to make a difference in the world. We are living in a time when the need for interpersonal understanding and crosscultural competence has never been greater.

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The ABCs Model

Variations of the ABCs are many, including a permissible assortment of timelines -- from minutes to months -- within which groups actually engage in the process. Too, the ways in which the teacher or leader helps participants to pair off and how she or he frames the process are important, always building on notions of acceptance and respect. The activity must be seen not as a threat, but as a way to help everyone reach important shared goals.

The following is an overview of the ABCs process:

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The ABCs in Seven Contexts

I have selected the following seven situations to share in order to illustrate some of the different contexts in which the process has been very effective, as well as to demonstrate key qualities of the ABCs model in action. The seven attributes that serve as section subtitles are self-disclosure, building connections, enhancing working relations, overcoming divisiveness of status and hierarchies, developing understanding across racial or gender lines, extending relationship building to other contexts, and enhancing the support systems within a new group. The selected situations are as follows: a fifth-grade classroom, a university social studies methods course, a gathering of colleagues at a college faculty “brown bag” lunch, a workshop of professional colleagues at a national conference, a weekly session of tutors and tutees in a third-grade/first-grade cross-age tutoring program, encounters through student homework in a university literacy methods course, and a class session in the introductory course for a college credential program.


One situation in which the ABCs model was effectively implemented was with two fifth-grade classes (10- and 11-year-olds) at an elementary school in a neighborhood of a large city. The diverse school population consisted of students who walked to school from within the middle-class neighborhood as well as those who came by bus from neighborhoods of lower socioeconomic status several miles away. The “walkers” tended to be white; the “riders” were predominantly students of color. Teachers and the school principal were aware of daily social friction that arose between and among groups of students, particularly in the classes of the oldest students at the school, the fifth graders. In addition, the teachers found that it was difficult to meet with parents of troublesome students, and that their relationships with these students and their families were tense. The ABCs was one of several efforts employed at the school to help build positive relations and turn things around.

Fifth graders in one classroom participated in the ABCs during one hour each day of one week. Each time, explanatory lessons preceded the students’ work sessions. A framing technique (Figure 1) that was devised in collaboration with the classroom teacher helped in the autobiography and biography writing process.

Figure 1
Example of a Narrative Frame

A Story About                             

(memories of friends, family, school, fun, religion, good times, bad times,
from baby days to the present)

When          was very small,






One of the students wrote as follows:

My dad divorced my mom when I was about 7 and he moved away. It was hard living without him. When I was about 8 or 9 I went to Texas to see him. When I got to Texas I was thrilled to see him. He was a little older and a little bit small but he still looked like my dad. The month that I spent there felt like two weeks.

When it was time for me to come back to California I was sad. At the train station before I left he made me a promise that he will come and stay. Every day since that day I’ve always just imagined that he’s walking beside me or helping me with my homework. I hope he keeps that promise.

Before his teacher read this piece, she had not known about this student’s situation. She found the information helpful when she interacted with his mother at parent-teacher conferences and in choosing her words to include him and create relevant comparisons during class lessons. Knowing about students’ circumstances helps sensitive teachers build relevance into lessons that might otherwise be designed and delivered differently.

In a nearby fifth-grade class, two students who came and went from school in different ways (one walking, one as a rider) seldom interacted in the classroom and never spoke outside it. The kinds of interests and background details they revealed to one another allowed them to build a positive relationship that lasted the rest of the year.

Intersection of Anthony and Michael

* parents are divorced
* families like music
* both have pets
* dads live in apartments
* families go camping
* Mexican family
* Andrew and Miguel are not full Mexicans
* families like to go to Mexico
* both have brothers and sisters

Differences: Anthony...

* has six in family
* has one pet
* goes to church
* family full Mexican
* likes Deep House and Hard House music
* has gone to different schools
* has 3 siblings

Differences: Michael...

* has five in family
* has seven pets
* is half Mexican
* likes the hardest, heaviest, loudest metal rock
* has gone to one school
* has 2 siblings

Building Connections

Students in a university social studies methods course devoted a three-hour class session to participating in the ABCs. The classmates were part of a cohort that had taken all of their courses in the teaching credential program together. At the end of the evening during which the ABCs process was undertaken, one of the students exclaimed, “I’ve been sitting near [Martha] in classes for over a year, but I never really knew her until tonight.” Students were astonished, not just by the intriguing things they learned about one another, but by the many things they discovered they had in common. Beyond the student-to-student relationship building that happened, the writing and sharing in the process allowed the instructor to become far better acquainted with the students’ funds of knowledge.

Two students who did know about their similar working lives as novice teachers in inner-city schools did not know about surprising similarities in their personal backgrounds: They both came from families of nine children and were fifth in sibling order. Here are their autobiographies.


I was born in Inglewood, CA, on December 22, 1961. I’m the fifth of nine children, and all my memories include family. I was educated in the catholic school system; from 1st-12th grade, I was fortunate that my mom was home all day, and dad was some how able to support a family of 11. I know my parents made many sacrifices to provide for us. I can remember trips to JC Penny for new school shoes.

My fondest memories are of nightly family dinners. Even now I can count on dinner w/ mom and dad whenever I’m home by 5:30. Our family dinners were always very high energy affairs. With such a large family, I could always count on 2 or 3 different conversations taking place at the same time. I have different and varied relationships with each of my siblings and get along well with all of them.

I have 8 nieces and nephews, all of whom I consider included members of my immediate family. I love coming from a big family a feel sorry for people who don’t.


Family and religion are two very important aspects of my life, along with education. Because of coming from a large family (I am no. 5 of 9 children) my earliest memories include lots of people at all gatherings. My mother has always had an ability to recognize and bring out the best and unique qualities of each of her children. I can remember as far back as my first day of school, my mother asking questions of each child about their day, the standard questions included, “How was school today?, What did you learn?, Do you have any homework, What? Did you eat all your lunch?” We each got our time to converse one-on-one with mom. She is genuinely interested in our achievements and mishaps, applauding and comforting us always as situations require.

I got along very well with all members of my immediate family. We’ve had our minor family quarrels but rarely remember even the next day who was angry or why. I have a strong Catholic faith. I was educated in the Catholic School system and both religion and education have always been stressed in my house

From the time I was about 8, I can remember weekends at Seal Beach with my maternal grandparents, enjoying family, surf, and sand.

Two other students, classroom friends during the two-year program, were surprised and delighted to discover that the dear college roommate of one was the high school friend and neighbor of the other. They decided to go out to dinner with their mutual friend, deepening their school relationship in the process. Such friendship building is more than just a nice thing. Key research in student resilience and retention (e.g., Waxman, Gray, & Padron, 2002) tells us that students who stay in school and succeed have had caring, personal relationships within their school context. Schools -- regardless of the age of the population they serve -- build resilience in their students through such relationships.

Enhancing Working Relationships

Colleagues gathered at an informal college faculty “brown bag” lunch in order to understand more about the ABCs. They spent one hour engaged in ABCs activities, learning by participating in the process. The participants were from three departments within a college of education with more than 120 full-time faculty members. When individuals paired off, many found themselves communicating about topics that went far beyond their usual hallway greetings (Hello!) and pleasantries (Nice day!) for the first time. Past meetings and social events within the college had allowed for conversations with members of other departments who taught in different disciplines, but the sort of rich, personalized talk and insight that occurs in ABCs events seldom happens, even between friends.

Two women, sharing their experience at the end of the ABCs session, described how the image of a couch they sat on as children represented an interesting bond while, at the same, time, signifying many differences. As a young child, the woman who had grown up in Chicago frequently sat on an upholstered couch watching television and listening to records. The woman who had grown up in Indonesia described a wooden couch that always held a changing cast of several family members, crowded together, laughing and talking. There had been no television or phonograph in her life until her family came to the United States.

Overcoming the Divisiveness of Status and Hierarchies

After learning about the process of the ABCs model in a well-attended session at a conference, professional colleagues from around the world engaged in the ABCs for approximately 45 minutes. They paired off with individuals who were not well known to them, so a professor from Finland met a public school administrator from California, well-known experts from Arizona got to know students from New York, and a junior professor from Germany wrote a biography of more experienced, well-known, well-published colleague. It was the start of professional friendships for many, allowing the discourse to begin within the personal realm but to proceed to many other topics of common interest.

Two women who lived in Pennsylvania and California discussed their respective upbringings in the American Midwest. Their difference in age and in their work within the field of reading had limited their interactions, but their ABCs conversation and writings revealed that, as young girls, they had had many common experiences. They both had spent time learning to ride horses and finding great pleasure in the outdoors. Riding and reading had been major pastimes in their early adolescent years. Once conversation became easy for the two, they moved into discussion about their professional interests, and they now interact and support each other in their work with a special interest group.

The notion of “breaking the ice” is familiar in group meetings and parties. It is actually a critical aspect of dynamics for groups of all sizes and functions.

Developing Understandings Across Racial or Gender Groups

At a large, inner-city elementary school, students walk to school in a neighborhood that experiences tense racial relations as well as high levels of poverty and crime. Sessions of a year-long cross-age tutoring project took place each Friday for 90 minutes. The program involved third-grade tutors and their kindergarten tutees, who dictated writings to their “big buddies” each time they got together. The children were matched with partners who, in most cases, were from a different ethnic or racial group. The student pairs talked and wrote together and, after the first few weeks, became friends.

The sense of mystique that the children had about different racial or ethnic groups, built up through hearsay or comments heard at home, was exploded many times as the pairs discussed their situations. One brief passage from a tutor’s journal tells a story that might bring memories forward for many readers in the United States and Canada, regardless of their backgrounds:

I started going to kindergarten in a catholic school. I have a lot of memories of kindergarten, like the time that we ate green eggs and ham, the time I ate a rock in soup it was so fun we gave a priest the rock, and [I liked] the times that my teacher’s husband told our class stories about us going to space.

It was great for the observer to note the pleasure and excitement the girls had at finding their similarities as they filled in the intersections of a large Venn diagram. Happiness was expressed in smiles appearing across the classroom, and with comments such as “We both liked Green Eggs and Ham!!!”

In a different cross-age tutoring project in which fifth graders tutored first graders, several of the older students were partnered with young students who received services in special education. Although the older students thought they might have trouble communicating with their special buddies, everyone had a particularly good time discussing all the games that they had enjoyed playing when they were little. Together, the older and younger buddies chose their top three favorites to write about. Tutors and tutees enjoyed reminiscing and writing about the good times they had playing hopscotch, hide and seek, and tag.

Extending Relationship Building to Other Contexts

When ABCs became the focus of a student homework assignment in a university literacy methods course, the students left with hesitation, but returned to class extremely pleased. They understood the ABCs process from work in class and then followed the instructor’s suggestion to go through the process with someone in their own family. Discussions with neighbors, husbands, wives, and parents revealed events, thoughts, and ideas that had not been brought forward before. Students came to class with biographies that sometimes brought tears to their eyes when they shared them with classmates. The phrase “I never knew...” was heard frequently. Of particular interest were the stories of how new immigrants dealt with learning a new language and how puzzling it was to encounter the different ways people speak English.

Enhancing the Support System Within a New Group

Students in the introductory course for a college reading credential program were looking forward to being in class together for months to come. The ABCs added to their highly interactive class sessions aimed at deepening understandings of one another and at creating an empathetic support group for these novice teachers, who were working at full-time teaching jobs without having completed basic credential classes.

Students had already shared written pieces about their most memorable teachers and about their current classrooms or observation sites. The words that follow are those of Delia, a student who was changing careers and was about to enter teaching at a school in a low socioeconomic, urban environment:

My partner -- I’ll call her Harriet -- and I worked on the “Autobiography/Biography/Cross-Cultural Comparison” project as part of our introduction to education class. Harriet is a 22-year-old woman who currently teaches 1st grade in Compton, California. I am a 38-year-old woman, a full time student who works part-time as a classroom tutor. I just finished my B.A. in Liberal Studies and have been accepted into the credential program.

The first part of the project was to do a free write of first memories from our childhood. Following is a copy of what I wrote, unedited or improved upon by hindsight.

I remember that my parents always had the idea/motto that work is to be able to play. To be able to play -- river, water ski, desert motorbike -- was most important. Prior to my school years we traveled as much as my parents could afford to. The travel was within in the California, Nevada, Washington, Oregon, Arizona boundaries but we saw every part of those 6 states. After I started school my parents kept this up. They believed that seeing the countryside was far more important than sitting in class. I still had to do the work, I just did it travelling down Interstate 5 or sitting in the middle of the Mojave Desert. From this my memories all merge and become more related to a place than an age. I also know now that they did not have an abundance of money but knew how to get the dollar to stretch. My father always told me that it was not important how much you made -- but how much time you have to play.

The second part of the project was to tell your story to a partner and to listen to their story, making necessary notes. As we began to tell each other our stories/memories one thing became very evident. I had stored my memories in a big picture manner and she had done so in a minute manner. We talked about this for quite a while. It is an interesting aspect of each of our personalities. I could only tell her about how old I was when something particular happened in my life and but I could tell her exactly where I was and what was happening in the world around me. She remembered being 3 years old in daycare and visiting a sick mother in the hospital. She remembered returning to the U.S. and living in Alabama. Alabama might not seem memorable to some people in the ways that Harriet remembered. She remembered being surprised by things that happened in her new home. Not only did it snow, but she also had a synagogue to visit in her new city.

One part of common ground that we found was our sibling relationships. We both traveled a great deal as children -- she through the world, I through the Western U.S.; domestic. From this travel we realized that our relationship with our siblings was stronger. She has a younger sister; I have a younger brother. From travelling as a family unit so much we had to not only be siblings, but playmates, confidantes and co-conspirators. Another common ground we found was in feeling like we had a safe childhood. My protection was found in the suburbs, however, hers was from a wall that was erected realized years before she was born and for reasons that had little to do with childhood comfort. It was interesting to put these two issues together. Because of the Berlin Wall she and her sister could freely roam the city of Berlin. Her and her sister used the transit system and walked all over the city. I lived in a post-WWII suburb and could do the same. With such seemingly different backgrounds we came across more similarities than differences.

One of the interesting and vivid commonalties we discovered was microwave food. My parents had remodeled our kitchen in the 1970s and installed one of the first commercially available microwave ovens. My family thought that the microwave was the coolest thing this side of the Colorado River in June. There was little that we did not attempt to make in that microwave -- some successful, but some complete failures. The people who know me very well would not be surprised to find out that I found some common ground with someone over food. My love of food is as well known as my ability to connect events in my life with what was being served for dinner.

In doing this project we found common ground that we never would have unearthed as classmates. The ABC project allowed us to get to know each other a little more deeply. This examination granted us a little more understanding of where each other had come from. It also gave us permission to tell each other our stories. Not just the “be my friend” stories, but the memories and stories that make up who we are. They will help bind us as we continue to learn to be teachers together.

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Why the ABCs Model Is Effective

As fellow educators contemplate the possibilities of using the ABCs model in their own classrooms, many questions may arise. The model will not result in instant communication and motivation on its own. Rather, it is important that teachers analyze the dynamics of their own teaching and learning contexts. Any teacher’s behaviors and instructional activities, along with the general classroom climate, can serve separately or together to enhance or preclude reaching goals for positive interrelationships. Two sociopsychological principles are activated in the process. The first, the power of disclosure of thoughts and feelings, can be noted in day-to-day friendly relations among students in upper elementary grades and above (Grenot-Scheyer, Staub, Peck, & Schwartz, 1998). We share secrets with friends and we tell more about ourselves to others in settings where we feel safe. Second, because we seek out friendship with individuals who are like us in some way, the process of looking for similarities is part of confirming that two people can get along because they share certain key attributes, across differences in cultural background. In the literature on relationships, this impulse is known as communal sharing; people follow the impulse to be warm to people who are of their “own kind” (Fiske & Haslam, 1998).

Beyond these two principles, I find that it is useful to relate a sociopsychological model for motivation that can explain why individuals persist in any group relationship (Nagel, 2001). The interacting components are knowledge, power, and affection, which are evident in the ABCs model. Its activities acknowledge participants at their individualized levels of knowledge. Each person knows his or her life well, and although early remembrances may always be strong, other recollections can always come forth. A study of self is always quite engaging. Participants in the ABCs process also have individualized power to decide whether to share (or not) the details of their lives and to frame the formats by which they will be shared. The third component, affection, is promoted by the process because the ways in which participants listen to one another signify caring. The ways in which partners involve themselves with each other registers as something beyond mere tolerance.

Finally, because the model encourages dialogue, collaboration, inquiry, perspective building, and higher order analytical critique, teachers who use it are helping their students to acquire and practice skills with applications in the new literacies.

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Visualizing What the ABCs Model Can Do in Your Situation

If you are hesitant to adopt the ABCs as a new practice in your classroom, think about starting small. As you reflect on the positive effects that are bound to occur, you will be encouraged to expand the amount of time devoted to using the model in months to come. You may also find that beginning the ABCs will be easier if you visualize the activities being accomplished well and mentally rehearse the words you will use. Just as champion ski jumpers or world-class golfers find great value in closing their eyes to envision their successful jump or swing, successful teachers can portray their futures. Have the students join you in creating visions and setting goals. Also, have a colleague join you in trying out the ABCs model. Your discussions will be gratifying, for they will help you in formulating your impressions, knowing what to modify and what to compliment. In addition, do not hesitate to contact me with questions, comments, and ideas. I will enjoy interacting with you through e-mail.

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Fiske, A.P., & Haslam, N. (1998). Prerequisites for satisfactory relationships. In L.H. Meyer, H.-S. Park, M. Grenot-Scheyer, I.S. Schwartz, & B. Harry (Eds.), Making friends. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brooks.

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Waxman, H.C., Gray, J.P., & Padron, Y.N. (2002). Resiliency among students at risk of academic failure. In S. Stringfield & D. Land (Eds.), Educating at-risk students: 101st yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Eeducation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Xu, S.H. (2001). The ABCs of cultural understanding and communication: Teacher assistants learn to respect, appreciate, and apply differences in literacy instruction. In P.R. Schmidt & A.Watts Pailliotet (Eds.), Exploring values through literature, multimedia, and literacy events: Making connections. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

About the Author

Greta Nagel (e-mail is an associate professor in the Department of Teacher Education at California State University, Long Beach, USA, where she coordinates intern programs and teaches courses related to literacy and the historical, philosophical, and social foundations of education. She has been a classroom teacher, reading specialist, and school administrator. She obtained her Ph.D. from the Claremont Graduate University, jointly with San Diego State University, and her research interests are related to social contexts for literacy development, as well as to museums as learning centers. She is the author of The Tao of Teaching, The Tao of Parenting (both published by Penguin/Plume), and Effective Grouping for Literacy Instruction (Allyn & Bacon), and has published numerous articles in the field of education. During her career she has received a variety of awards, including the IRA Celebrate Literacy award, a Claremont dissertation grant for Good Groups: The Search for Social Equity and Instructional Excellence Through First-Grade Literacy Groupings, and the Outstanding Alumna, California State University Reading Program.

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All names used in this article are pseudonyms. Students and teachers words and work are reproduced by permission.

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Citation: Nagel, G.K. (2002, November). Building cultural understanding and communication: A model in seven situations. Reading Online, 6(4). Available:

Reading Online,
Posted November 2002
© 2002 International Reading Association, Inc.   ISSN 1096-1232