As a language teacher I believe in bringing real content to the classroom, and getting students talking about things that matter to them, whether they be perennial ’issues’ or ones related to current events. As a coursebook writer (Speakout, Pearson) I’ve had to work within certain constraints normally imposed by publishers to ensure that no content ends up in a coursebook that might offend someone, somewhere in the world. There’s even an acronym for this (’PARSNIP’—don’t ask me what each letter means but as you might guess sex, narcotics and pork are among them), either to give authors a handy reference or to make the notion of taboo topics easy to refer to. The avoidance of potentially sensitive topics is one of the main criticisms made of major coursebooks, and I can see the point, but I also understand why publishers feel they need to play it safe.
When I was a fulltime English teacher, coursebooks never prevented me from including real, potentially risky content in my lessons where I felt it was appropriate. I made mistakes at times, for example using an article on sexual harassment in the workplace with a group where 1-2 students (the youngest and oldest in the group) felt uncomfortable with the topic, and told me so. For the most part, however, I found both perennial and current issues, when approached with care, to be a great source of motivation for students, since they are developing their ability to discuss things that matter to them, in English, and have well-formed views already. In Hungary, where so many topics have incendiary potential, I’ve been impressed with the openness that students have displayed even in starkest of disagreements.
And now the history we’re living through presents us with a topic of extraordinary depth and complexity, and one which nearly everyone has a strong opinion about. It’s not only the refugee/migrant crisis, but the many related elements: politics (oops, that’s the first P in PARSNIP), war, colonisation, the role of social media, the sanctity of national borders, what it means to be human, religion (there goes the R!), tolerance, freedom of speech, and so on. In casual discussions with teachers, it’s struck me that there’s a clear split about how willing they are to let ’the topic’ and these relevant themes in the door; some see an opportunity to address something real, while others opt to avoid the potential unpleasantness that might result from a strong difference of opinion.
Among those I spoke with, a recently qualified teacher asked me what I think about the appropriacy of initiating or facilitating discussion/exploration of the refugee/migrant crisis. I felt unsure of how to answer, and said something about making a personal judgement based on the group, or asking students openly what they think about discussing the topic in class. To be honest, I deeply doubted my ability to give a competent answer to this teacher’s question, as I on one hand feel that lessons should have ’aboutness’ to them, i.e. content that really matters to the individuals in the group; but on the other hand I wondered about the risks of creating a negative dynamic which the group and the teacher are unable to move beyond, so that they can get back to the business of learning English in a low-stress atmosphere.
So now I’m asking you: Have you included content related to the current refugee/migrant situation in your lessons? How do you do so? What problems have you had? Do you think it’s the teacher’s role to include real, current topics of a potentially incendiary nature, or not? You can write your thoughts in the comments box below, or, alternatively, you can gmail me directly (steveoakes99 is my ’prefix’). In the next posting, I’d like to compile and share any comments I get, none by name of course (you’ll need to trust me on this). And in the weeks between now and then, imagine how much more history we will have lived through.