Integrating Student Cultures into Our Curriculum

By Leanna Doran, a teacher at Hillcrest School in Indonesia

Each country in our world is unique historically and culturally. Yet, it’s not unusual for teachers in international schools to be asked to simultaneously teach children whose parents came from many diverse countries. Teaching in an international school creates some unique challenges for teachers. Often our curriculum materials are focused on North America. Even most ESL texts are designed to help us integrate children from diverse backgrounds into one particular culture. However, our students come from and will live in many parts of the world. How can we prepare them to live wherever the Lord may lead them? Let’s begin a conversation about ways to integrate the cultures of our students into our classrooms to provide a diverse and more culturally fitting environment.

Even though I’ve been teaching cross-culturally for more than ten years, I am still learning new ways to integrate my students’ cultures into my curriculum. Here are a few ideas, based on some things I’ve done in my primary classes in schools with North American curriculum materials. Please consider sharing the things you have done so that all of us can learn from each other.

1. Social Studies

This is probably the most challenging subject in a multicultural classroom. Consider drawing in material from the cultures represented in your classroom when studying topics covered in the curriculum.  


  • Use cooperative groups to research how different countries represented in the class meet their basic needs (food, clothing, shelter). While one student in the group may be from the country being studied, consider making the groups culturally mixed. Have each group share their findings with the class. This method can also work well when studying holidays or national symbols.
  • Ask parents or others in your expat community for ideas regarding heroes that the citizens of their home countries revere. If parents are willing and able, ask them to come and share about these heroes.
  • Look at the common structures in governments represented in your class. There are actually a number of similarities among many modern governments. Older students can begin to compare and contrast the government systems of their passport countries.

2. Math (or Maths)

While mathematical concepts can seem culturally neutral, some areas can be challenging in a multicultural classroom. Below are a few ideas. What do you do?


  • When teaching about money, emphasize counting concepts. Spend time on practicing how to count by five, ten, twenty, twenty-five, and so on. How do you switch from counting tens to counting fives?
  • Teach students to count the local currency.
  • Teach children to count the currency of their passport countries. Here are links to two helpful resources for printable money and money-counting worksheets for a variety of currencies: and
  • Consider rewriting word problems using more familiar terms. Write the questions to deal with objects from school, students’ home cultures, or your host culture. For instance, a question about hot dogs may need to become a question about bowls of rice. Questions about baseball may need to be reworded to be a question about soccer/football.
  • Find out about different ways of telling time. As appropriate for your students, introduce these ideas. You may want to help children learn to tell time based on the way it is spoken in their language.

3. Literature

If your language arts curriculum is American, it probably includes material from many North American authors, a few Latin American authors, and maybe one or two stories related to Asia. Can you integrate literature from students’ passport countries?


  • Ask parents for the names of children’s authors from their countries.
  • Look for stories about or from students’ passport countries in your school library that you can read to your class. If there aren’t many books from other cultures in your library, can you request that the librarian purchase more?
  • Encourage older students to read books from their home country for book reports.
  • Compare and contrast similar folktales from various cultures, especially from your students’ passport countries.

4. Spelling

Before you mark that Australian student’s paper wrong for writing mum instead of mom or before correcting a student from the UK for writing learnt instead of learned, please find out if his or her spelling is correct according to the passport country’s spelling system. You can change your computer’s language for spell checking or do an internet search to find out if the spelling is actually correct in the child’s passport country.

5. Calendar and Dates

Have you ever noticed that the calendar toppers and numbers purchased from teacher supply stores are very illustrative of the culture of the country where they were produced?


  • Consider looking for or creating calendar supplies that are more multi-cultural. What are the holidays celebrated in your students’ cultures and/or your host culture that can be portrayed in your calendar illustrations? What are some subjects you will be studying? Which nearly universal holidays and events can be recognized?
  • Teach different date formats. When learning about the calendar, primary teachers often teach how to write the date. Much of the world uses a different format for writing the date than people from the United States use. Here is a link to a map and article about how dates are written in various countries around the world  I use the widely-used day-month-year format and only teach the month-day-year format when my American grammar curriculum teaches about the use of commas.

Including the cultures of your students in your classroom can be challenging but rewarding. With a little bit of extra work and creativity, it is possible to make your classroom more multicultural. Not only will your students benefit, but you’ll learn a lot, too.

What things are you doing in your classroom? Which other topics need to be addressed? Let’s make our international schools hospitable to students from around the world. 

Ideas Shared by Others

Spelling: At Ukarumpa International School, we allowed parents to make the decision as to which English spelling system they wanted to use, and then the student was graded according to that system. 

Mathematics: Many European countries use different symbols for multiplication and division. For example instead of and : instead of . Also, many European countries teach long division using different algorithms. I once had my students show me the different division methods they knew and we had 5 different methods on the board. 

Korean students have an interesting method for finding the Greatest Common Factor and Least Common Multiple. Ask a middle school-aged student to show the Korean method for this and they usually can. They may not be able to explain it in English, but it can lead to a good discussion on number patterns and relationships. 

It is also very important to teach vocabulary in mathematics. Terms are used differently in different cultures and students need to learn the language of mathematics. During my first year of teaching at Black Forest Academy, I had several students in my Algebra 1 class who were coming from European national schooling systems. They had no problem solving the equations and they had very good conversational English, but they did not know the math terms in English.