Asylum seekers, refugees & migrants: Discuss

I teach, and have always taught, mostly adult-student-customers in private language schools. If you’re like me, you teach grammar and lexis, help students developing writing and listening skills, and focus on communication of meaning. Meaning, but not content. Not ideas. Or beliefs. Or values. Or knowledge or ignorance. Because, like me, you’re just an English teacher.

But my wise Delta tutor once made a useful distinction being just a teacher and being an educator, reminding us that we shouldn’t forget about being the latter. What she meant, I think, is obvious to anyone who sticks their head out of ELT for a moment, and pushes aside, if just for a moment, all the talk about exam performance and teacher accountability, and thinks back to the idea of a school teacher that predated our corporate model of an efficient, corporate school measuring its success in spreadsheet-ready KPIs.

Educators are more than just teachers. They’re part of a community, and perform a public service, helping their students think about and grow in ethical, moral and intellectual dimensions.

It’s the sort of description that normally makes me blush, because it feels so embarassingly far from any conception I’ve ever had of myself as a teacher. But last week, with those same adult-student-customers I’ve always taught, I got a glimpse of what it’s like to be both a teacher and an educator, helping facilitate a real eduucational experience and a community service.

Because we spent two class periods investigating and discussing the Refugee crisis here in Italy.

But just to be clear, I’m not the hero of this story. Her name’s Valentina. My only claim is that I got up the courage to do something that seemed daunting to me at first and went beyond my remit as “just a language teacher”.

First I’ll outline what we did over the two, 2-hour sessions, then I’ll relate some of the feedback I got from the students (which, frankly, got me choked up and was the inspiration for the whole preamble above).

Any given Tuesday

Throughout this year my classes have usually taken one of two patterns:

  • At-home narrow reading + viewing/listing (i.e. a number of articles on the same topic)
  • In-class pair/small group + T-guided discussion

Or:

  • At-home intensive reading using Reading Circles roles
  • In-class student-led small group discussion

Usually the second pattern followed the first, with a Reading Circles text based in some way relevant to the narrow reading that preceded it.

In other words, students come to class with at least of minimum of familiarity with and language relevant to the discussion (see my lesson on the French elections for another example).

This time, as in the French elections topic, I gave them more guidance than usual by providing them with a list of questions to consider. I also tried to vary the offered readings a bit more as I received one (valid I think) criticism that the Guardian articles I recommended were so obviously pro-Macron.

I’ve included the pre-reading selection as well as the questions I gave them as a PDF here: Refugee crisis articles

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Art project by students at the European School, Varese. It recreates La Porta di Lampedusa.

DAY 1

In class, before discussion, we spent the first hour examining a Cambridge Exam-style REPORT writing task (using the sample texts on the pp. 25 & 35 of the Cambridge Proficiency Handbook for Teachers and pp. 33 & 49 of the Cambridge Advanced Handbook for Teachers. We hadn’t done one yet, and I thought it would be a good opportunity since, unlike with other topics, a number of the readings were so obviously reports.

After that, we had small group discussion, where students shared what they read and their opinions about it. The groups were slightly larger this time, with 5 people each, and I realized at once why I never do that.

There were too many silences, or too few people participating in the discussion. I’ve found that large groups need a lot more structure to work well, which is why I love the highly structured Reading Circles. If you’re not doing that, you need to nominate roles ― leader, note-taker, etc. So the discussion ended up a bit less energetic and engaged than I was hoping for.

The homework task was to both more reading and listening and write a report. I asked students to:

Write a report on facilities for asylum seekers/refugees in the area (the Province of Varese, if not Varese itself). You’ll have to do a bit of research. If you know of any informative articles/reports that explain the facts (in Italian, most likely) please share with me.

I encouraged students to read the local papers, and a number of students posted links to relevant articles (that in many ways revealed their feelings about it). I have both aspiring C1 and C2 students in my group, and so I gave them each a slightly differentiated task:

Advanced:

You have been asked by a visiting commission from the European Union to write a report about facilities and accommodations for refugees in the local area.

Your report should explain what facilities and accommodations exist, describe any problems with the structures/situations, and suggest any improvements that should be made.

Proficiency:

Same as above, but:
Your report should explain what facilities and accommodations exist, describe any problems with the structures/situations, and evaluate whether this system is adequate to dealing with the influx of asylum seekers as a whole.

Just to demonstrate it is possible to produce high quality Cambridge-exam-style writing with a very non-Cambridge style topic (which demanded some research, as well), I’ll share two very good examples (without my comments), one of each.

In a fit of Victorian coyness I’ve removed the names of the cities because in fact I didn’t verify if the numbers are exact (though perhaps, considering the point of this was to get to the facts, I really should have!)

SAMPLE 1

Report about facilities and accommodations for refugees in the local area

Introduction
This report aims to provide an overview of the current situation in hosting refugees in the province of V. It is based on the information published online by local press and institutions.

General findings
The Prefettura, which depends on the “Ministero dell’Interno”, is in charge of the reception of refugees on the territory and has the power to sign agreements with local operators that provide facilities and housing. At the moment it seems that approximately 1500 people are accommodated in this way. Additional accommodations are provided directly by the “Ministero dell’Interno”: 25 in V., 26 in M. and 35 in C.

Issues
The number of places available in these facilities is not enough with respect to the increase of refugees in Italy. Furthermore it is worth considering that people accommodated in these structures are those who have requested asylum, which are a small part of the refugees coming to Italy, and not all of them will get it. People who do not get the status of political refugee join the economic migrants that are not entitled to receive help from the institutions and are assisted by charitable organizations. I wasn’t able to find any news about the number of economic migrants in the V. province and where and how they are assisted.

Conclusions
Firstly institutions should plan in advance how to increase facilities to host the refugees even if it is difficult to forecast the needs. An increase for the next three years at least should be considered, because it appears unlikely that the immigration trend might change. Then it is recommended an improvement in the way of managing economic migrants with the aim of improving security and control of the territory.

SAMPLE 2

Facilities and accommodations for refugees

A growing number of refugees: Italian facilities in the spotlight
In the last five years the growing influx of refugees and asylum seekers landing mainly in the Southern coasts of Italy has put a strain on the whole nation.

The Italian government, already weakened from the political and economical uncertainties, is trying to come up with a solution to the big issue of finding an accommodation to the asylum seekers that have landed in Italy.

The problem is due to the large number of immigrants reaching the Country and the consequent need to find decent facilities to host them with dignity.

Case study: V. and its province
To illustrate how the problem has involved towns and villages all over the Nation from North to South, our team has monitored the reception of immigrants in this city and in its surroundings. For example in the town itself one of the biggest facilities is an old hotel which hosts 80 migrants and that it is managed by a local charity foundation, while in the province of V. the reception centre located in B. hosts about 180 people and it is headed by a private cooperative. Almost all the accommodations inspected resulted in old derelict buildings that previously were used as hotels. During the inspections refugees complained of being forced to live in rooms for 6-7 persons each and to have only one bathroom every 25-30 people. The quantity of food provided was also questioned, together with the lack of activities to keep them busy during the day.

Unfortunately this is only the tip of the iceberg because the real problem is that these facilities should be a short-term solution but the red tape and the bureaucracy make refugees’ stay longer and harder.

Conclusions

It is clear the complexity of the situation and that the influx of migrants is not going to slow down in the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, this problem has to be faced as soon as possible to give refugees a ready answer to their needs while respecting their dignity. This answer should come from the EU which should provide faster procedures for the initial screening and referral of the migrants as well as the allocation of specific funds.

Day 1 conclusions:

Everyone seemed to agree that this was a big, nay, overwhelming topic. And it was difficult to get to the actual facts about the local situation, let alone the national situation. The local press is full of very opinionated reports and attention-grabbing headlines, which often didn’t make it easier to follow the story.

However, a number of students were able to produce excellent reports. In the future I’d like to actually spend more time fact checking, or at least checking sources. I don’t teach EAP; I teach CAE, and everybody knows that on Cambridge Exams there is no obligation to the truth. What matters is your ability to argue. It wouldn’t be such a step for me, in this case, to simply ask that students provide a list of references and insist that they be as accurate as possible (even when inventing an inspection-report style as in the second writing sample provided above).

DAY 2

Pre-class reading:

In addition to the articles from the local papers (in preparation for writing the report), I had students do a guided listening on The Palace of Shame from BBC Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent . (If you want to have a listen, the report is from 1’30” to 7’20” in the recording. Here’s my activity as PDF with my own transcript 90PalaceofShame)

It’s a report from 2012 that I’d only used once before (more on that below), on the plight of asylum seekers coming to Italy, many of whom, once they got refugee status, had little choice other than to find lodging (illegally) in a massive squat in Rome. I asked students to consider what had changed, and what hadn’t, in the intervening years (based on their reading of EU/Italian policy, institutions and accommodations, laws, etc.)

In class I planned to discuss the listening, but most of the class would be devoted to interviewing our special guest.

I was extremely lucky to be able to call on the help of a friend (and former student) named Valentina who has a master’s in immigrant and refugee law and currently works in a local reception center.

An aside: on special guests

Scott Thornbury had mentioned it in various Dogme-style contexts, but having a “special guest”, an authority on some topic, always struck me as something you did for elementary schools, or if you lived in an L1-English country (where special guests are a dime a dozen). But two things changed my mind:

  1. IATEFL 2017 scholarship winner Katy Muench mentioning it again in her IATELF presentation on challenging stereotypes in Turkey. You don’t have to lecture to your students, she was saying ― just bring someone else in to do it ― or to testify to the reality your students barely know. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard it, but it suddenly seemed like something I just had to do.
  2. Look carefully at my self-justification above (...if you lived in an L1-English country where special guests are a dime a dozen) and you’ll see reason number 2 quite clearly: I thought a special guest had to be a native speaker of English. But thanks to this year’s pushback against native-speaker hegemony (by Marek Kiczkowiak, TEFL Equity Advocates, and the many, many people on Twitter who sympathise with and advocate for the cause) I finally woke up to the fact that so-called “native-like proficiency” didn’t have to be a prerequisite for a special guest with authority and topic knowledge.

I’ve known Valentina for five years (and she’s been personally and professionally passionate about refugee issues for all that time). And I’ve been wanting to really dig deep into this topic with my students for the last two years. But until IATEFL 2017 I’d never put the two together.

Finally, with the scales fallen from my eyes, I asked Valentina (who, in her defense, is a highly proficient speaker of English and, what’s more important, clearly an authority on this topic) to come and speak to the class.

CASses, SPRARs, and other official acronyms

After some preliminary discussion of the Palace of Shame listening (in which Valentina joined one of the groups), Valentina stood up to introduce herself and answer questions about the situation for refugees and migrants in Italy.

Throughout the discussion, I functioned as a kind of secretary boarded the points from her explanations.

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Students had questions answered about different legal statuses and treaties that migrants could be granted, the various types of structures refugees are housed in, the regulations that established them, why some towns have some and others do not, the process (or lack of one) guiding integration, and much, much more.

What amazed me was how little many of them actually knew about the local reality behind the screaming headlines (and where I live and teach, there are a lot of screaming headlines ― we’re sort of the spiritual homeland for the anti-refugee, anti-open borders movement). It’s not that all ― or even most ― of the students had negative feelings about immigration, it’s just that they had so little definite information about it which with to try and form an informed opinion.

Student Feedback

With ten minutes to go before the end of class I asked them to write down their answers to the following questions:

  1. What did you learn?
  2. How will this help you?
  3. How useful is it to talk about “serious topics” like this in class.

There were 10 students in class ranging from upper high school aged (18/19) to about 50, with each decade in between well-represented. I’m going to quote them at length because I found so many of the answers thoughtful, eloquent and moving. My conclusions follow.

What did you learn?

  • Many of the information provided in the classes were completely unknown to me. I have learned what journalists mean when they say that Italian bureaucracy is not helping to solve the immigrant issue.
  • This topic helped me to become more informed about a problem that our society is facing. I listened to views but I didn’t know very much about immigration. I’ve learned much more about the difficulties to cope with the situation and I am more of aware of what has been done and what hasn’t.
  • Today I’ve learned that in this world there are many people struggling for the rights and the facilities I’ve always had. Here, in Europe, we are very lucky, but sometimes we forget how lucky we are!
  • I did not learn new things, but surely I have a deeper vision of them. That will help me because it is very important to think and behave considering the opinions of the people you get in touch with. (NB: In this student’s defense, they were rated as “already extremely informed” about the facts of the situation by other students; I interpret “did not learn new things” as I was already very informed about this issue.)
  • This lesson I learned a bit more about the law process of the asylum seekers and I understood how it is difficult to explain it to people who aren’t dealing with it in everyday life.

How will this help you?

  • Based on the information I have acquired, I will definitely read or watch the news with more awareness about the issue, even though we only scraped the surface of this topic.
  • I often read articles about this kind of topics but it’s easy to look for news which supports your own opinion. Talking with different people lets you see the problems from different points of views which is very useful, both for discovering new aspects and for finding good arguments to support your opinion.
  • This lesson helped me to organize better my idea about the issue and has been very useful to learn the specific language.
  • This issue will help me in order to approach this people in a different way. It will help me to clarify my opinion about immigrants and refugees. To talk and discuss this topic in this way helps me also in not having common ideas of mistrust and distrust.
  • This experience has been very useful for me because my knowledge of this topic was very bad, especially about technical aspects of reception centers, process related to asylum, timetable and people status. I’ve never gone in depth of this problem maybe because the news explains always the problems and I wasn’t interested to understand the topic, but the testimony of a person who works everyday in contact with this situation has given me good input to analyse the problem.
  • What I’ve read about immigrants and refugees, what I’ve heard this evening from Valentina… will surely help me in the future to appreciate the social welfare I can enjoy here in Italy. It will also help me recognizing the need of the others, wherever they come from.

How useful is it to talk about “serious topics” like this in class?

  • It’s difficult to talk about serious topics in a foreign language because you don’t know the vocabulary and you do not feel at ease to express your opinion in a polite way.
  • In my opinion it is very useful to talk about serious issues like this also during a language lesson because it can help you understanding…
  • For me it is absolutely necessary to talk about real issues in order to learn English because only if I’m involved and determined to know or to express my opinion, I’ll be able to improve the language. That has always been my experience.
  • I think talking about “serious issues” like immigration is fundamental to create an elaborate and not ignorant opinion, especially because these topics happen to be controversial and therefore a great source for debates to spread new ideas and improve or develop the ones we already have.
  • Talking about serious issues like immigration, politics, etc. it is really important in my opinion firstly because it is necessary to be aware of “what’s going on” in the world and secondly because opinion exchange helps with opening our minds and learning new things. For example, thanks to Valentina, this evening I’ve learnt and thought about issues that I barely knew before…. It was all relevant information that as a citizen I should have known before.
  • Discussing serious issues is better than discussing lighter topics because you are forced to express your opinion and it is more likely to find someone who disagrees with you.
  • Before this class, I thought that this issue would have been too difficult for me, because it’s really complicated and hard, but now I can say that I really learned something thanks to my classmates and our special guest.
  • I think that it is useful talk about real problems during class, especially as I’m not a good reader. This is a way to forme me to inform and even if it takes energy it’s interesting. This is useful and I like this way to learn new vocabulary and expressions.

Inspirational conclusion

Sometimes in English teaching it’s easy to forget that education is anything more than teaching grammar and vocabulary. But consider a comment like this, from above:

…thanks to Valentina, this evening I’ve learnt and thought about issues that I barely knew before…. It was all relevant information that as a citizen I should have known before.

Reading this after class, and re-reading this again as I write, I get a lump in my throat . That’s English class the student is talking about.

And for me it’s the difference between “just teaching English” and playing a small but real part in a person’s education.

Because education is about more than verb tense. It’s about more than phrasal verbs. It’s about what all those students said, and did. About investigating. About inquiring. About learning new modes of expression and new ways of seeing. About acquiring the ability to assess and interpret new information and opinions. About opening your mind to new possibilities and new realms of knowledge. And about being able to use all these things in your confrontation and collaboration with other people and the society around you.

And the students in my class did all that while learning and practicing new vocabulary and Cambridge ESOL-approved written discourse (see those reports for examples of both).

Like I said, I’m not a hero. But to me, Valentina is. And my students are. As are all those educators like Katy Muench and Steve Brown and Linda Ruas and Judy Boyle who insprired me at IATELF to get off my ass and try to make it happen.

Did these two sessions change anybody’s world? I don’t know for sure. But the student feedback is eloquent testimony to how the same-old English class may be the perfect vehicle for just that.

Next steps:

I’d definitely like to work on improving some of this for next year (call me crazy but I don’t think this refugee crisis is going away any time soon). Of course, what made this so magical was Valentina’s participation ― and I don’t know that I can guarantee that for the future. What else can I do?

  • It would be interesting to actually begin the unit with a survey of beliefs and understanding about the topic in order to see to what extent these things change. Clearly, the feedback was all positive in this regard, but it would have been interesting to get a statement from the beginning.
  • Or, perhaps, better: rather than providing students with a list of questions I’d like to have the students create their own list before we started. We’ve done that with other topics: we spend 20 minutes at the end of class generating questions to guide their research on a topic. (It also helps me select pre-class reading texts). By starting with questions rather than opinions (as in the proposed survey) students aren’t forced/encouraged to take a position. Of course, it takes some knowledge to ask good questions, but it’s still a start.
  • Find/refine the source list. Especially lighten the load a bit. It would also be interesting to compare and examine claims in competing articles. That was surely a byproduct of the day 1 discussion, but I’d like to critically examine some of the claims as a class. (Although I definitely avoided populist dailies or alt-right news sources, which obviously would have created a different dynamic in terms of critical reading).
  • Modify the report task in a more EAP direction to get students to cite sources and compare them (even using Italian-original sources).
  • Provide new opportunities for writing and feedback. Only half the class actually did the report task; I’d like to include other non-exam style options for the others.
  • Roleplay: I’ve had this idea for some time of a role play based on the very real issue of settling refugees in the local community (a mayor of a nearby town was just in the papers saying he would refuse refugees by “chaining himself to the gates” of the disused school that was intended to house them). A recent blog post by Anthony Teacher got me thinking about preferring that to a debate-style task for actually helping the students examine different sides of the issue. I jettisoned an early idea when Valentina made me realize how little I understood of the situation. I hope to develop it ― with her help ― into something both realistic and useful.

And that’s it! Well, almost…

P.S. When I was looking for an authentic listening task for the students I remembered I had done something with the Palace of Shame text from the BBC ― when it was first broadcast a few years back ― but I didn’t remember I’d actually used it with a class. In fact, I had, with a group of post FCE high school students.

I found their post-listening writing. The task was simply to write a letter to the BBC expressing their opinion about the broadcast. Here’s one particularly eloquent final draft:

To the attention of the BBC reporter Alan Johnston,

Recently I listened to your report about migration across the Mediterranean Sea, entitled “Palace of Shame”, and I would like to express my appreciation of its humanity and of its timeliness.

As an Italian resident, I hear news about boats sinking, countless arrivals and the growth of illegal immigration in Italy almost every day and I think that telling and informing people about the existence of this reality is of great importance if we hope to improve the situation. In fact, this is not only an Italian problem; all people able to do so should contribute in order to solve this situation in a way that is favourable for everyone.

In recent years, more social, political and religious problems led to the outbreak of wars in many of North African countries and, as a consequence, to the increase of migration of people that hope to find peace outside their country. In addition, on account of the disproportionate distribution of food and prosperity, Africans are the most inclined to leave their continent for better prospects.

Your article, denouncing the difficult situation of these people, also through personal experiences, induces us to reflect on its gravity and to ask ourselves what is our contribution to its solution( if one does exist) and if it is fair to mention the word ‘equality’ nowadays.

Kind regards,
Beatrice

Which goes to show what Judy Boyle, with her NO Project, and many others (except, perhaps, coursebook publishers) already know: that high school kids may be sufficiently capable, mature and ready to thoughtfully deal with “serious issues” like this too.

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3. Global Issues, Social Justice & PARSNIPs

 

Ok, ok, so you’re all on to new conferences with (hopefully) new issues and angles and presentations, but before the dust settles entirely on IATEFL 2017 I’d like to take one last look at the Big Issues that emerged for me from the conference.

For this third and last installment I’m going to throw together talks by Steve Brown, Elaine Hodgson & Viviane Kirmeliene, JJ Wilson, Judy Boyle, and Katy Muench (winner of the IATEFL Gill Sturtridge First Time Speaker scholarship), all of which centered on the extent to which we as teachers have the right and responsibility to discuss, debate and educate students about global issues and issues of social justice, many of which overlap considerably with topics that are considered taboo in the English classroom (the so-called PARSNIPs issues of Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, –isms and Pork).

And like all the presenters, I’m going to throw in a little disclaimer:

You know your teaching context better than me, and it’s naive and silly to assume that what’s possible for me is possible ― or even desirable ― for you. If talking about topic X puts your job, legal status or life in danger then I’m by no means insisting that you should.

But one of the best things about IATEFL for me ― thanks in no small part to the speakers I’m going to discuss ― was that it made me stop to consider the different rights, duties and privileges that you may have as an English teacher in different contexts, whether your students are children or adults, in state schools, universities or private language institutions, where you’re a native, a linguistically-integrated foreigner, or newly arrived expat, teaching where students are customers, where you’re seen as an educator, a professional, or “just a language teacher”, where students have choice, where students all speak the same language, are foreign guests or on their home turf, where there is political violence or the threat of it or where you have no job security or official legal status.

These factors and others may stymie any attempt to bring the real, challenging and often ugly world into your classroom; but equally they might make it not just a choice, but an imperative.

3 ways teachers approach controversial topics in the ELT classroom

First I want to look at 3 ways that emerged from the talks of how we try (or are forced) to deal with controversy in the classroom. They’re not mutually exclusive, but overlapping.

Then I’m going to look at some reasons why we don’t (and it’s not just “because coursebooks” ― but if you want a taste of that argument in the form of a coursebook beatdown see Scott Thornbury, Geoff Jordan, Paul Walsh and many others). Finally, I’ll report on and make some suggestions for how we can approach controversial topics in the ELT classroom.

1. It’s not in the lesson plan!

The first is the in-the-moment response to a student saying something controversial or potentially offensive in class. It’s what Steve Brown called the Can of Worms: you’ve got a split second to decide whether you open it or not. (Note, the issue never seemed to be one student turning on another and directly insulting him or her; rather it’s one student saying something offensive to a certain group)

Brown had a list of “stuff you hope your students don’t say in class,” and in Katy Muench’s presentation she asked us to discuss how we’d respond to a student saying, “Nelson Mandela was a [n-word]. Ha, ha.”

What would you do?

I was chatting with Tyson Seburn, who told me he’d just shut it down. Don’t ignore it, but make it clear that the word is not acceptable. You can’t let one student hijack the class with a remark made in ignorance or out of provocation. Russ Mayne seemed to sympathize:

But Steve would argue that it’s a teachable moment. We should use the comment as a springboard asking why the student would say that, what was meant. We have an obligation, as teachers, to not only help the student inquire into the meaning of his or her own statements, word choices and beliefs ― and interrupt whatever lesson we’re supposed to be teaching to do it.

2. It’s Tuesday, so that must mean we’re doing Human Trafficking!

The next way of looking at controversial topics is planning to deal with them as a lesson. Put that wriggling can of worms right on the syllabus. But this approach has real dangers to it that JJ Wilson revealed so perfectly ― and unintentionally.

In a talk that meant to inspire and even equip teachers with activities they could use to get students thinking about social justice issues and give them a voice, in a throwaway line he unintentionally revealed the all-too-familiar approach to serious and controversial topics.

I had an argument with my editor. We wanted to do a lesson about social justice issues….

In other words, a lesson in a unit in one of Wilson’s many authored coursebooks.

I know that unit, or at least many like it. If it’s not a sweat-soaked Chris Martin of Coldplay guiding an ox-drawn plow in a save-the-rainforest photo-op while a bunch of grinning natives gratefully look on (although to be fair, Wilson was arguing with his publisher ― unsuccessfully, I think ― against white savior representations like Martin, Bono and Sting), then it’s that four-page social justice grab-bag that name-checks Women’s Rights, Animal Rights and Equal Rights (but not Gay Rights), shoehorned between the World of Work and the Trouble with Technology.

Anybody who’s ever mocked the arbitrariness of the grammar syllabus (“It’s Tuesday, so that must mean we’re doing the Present Perfect!”) should equally recognize the absurdity of dealing with social justice issues in the same way (“It’s Tuesday, so that must mean we’re doing Human Trafficking!”).

Let’s be honest: school has an amazing ability to suck the life out of the most fascinating topics. At its worst, school ― and by school here I include both the global-market coursebook or the best-intentioned home-made lesson plan ― can turn anything golden it touches, anything fascinating and interesting and shocking and challenging, into the dullest lead.

So any teacher hoping to slot Something Controversial or a Serious Global Issue on the syllabus runs the risk of turning out one hell of a dud.

Just ask the Brazilians.

Survey says…

According to Elaine Hodgson and Viviane Kirmeliene in their presentation on writing coursebooks for the Brazilian market, publishers in Brazil have a fairly free hand when it comes to creating coursebooks. There is no officially-mandated nation-wide curriculum. The one obligatory topic for inclusion is a unit on African and Indigenous people; the other “global issue” commonly included is Global Warming.

When putting together a new coursebook for the Brazilian market they decided to do market research on the actual end-user. Not on the typically-surveyed teachers, but students. The results?

In a politically turbulent time, the kids wanted more politics ― in the coursebook. Global Warming was fine as a topic but, they said, boring and repetitive in coursebook practice. And the one topic they were truly fed up with? “Social Issues”, i.e. the one mandated by the government: African and Indigenous issues.

Given their interest in politics, the students surveyed clearly weren’t put off by serious topics. But they seemed to make clear what every student knows to be true and every teacher can so quickly forget. The most earnest high diving socially-minded lesson plan can produce the biggest flop.

But it doesn’t have to be so bad.

“We want this in our coursebooks”

Katy Muench (who ominously reported that she had toned her own presentation down significantly in light of a fellow teacher’s recent dismissal and deportation) talked of some wonderful attempts she made to challenge her students stereotypes about blacks in Turkey using YouTube videos produced by Ayo and Ebun. The videos feature a presenter of African origin who lives in Istanbul and the purpose is to raise awareness about stereotypes or ignorance or racism about Africa and Africans (by Turks and others). They videos are Buzzfeed-style videos, sometimes serious but more often silly and playful. According to Katy they manage to charm rather than lecture and gently poke fun and provoke thought about serious issues.

The prepared-lesson approach can also take some fascinating guises, as when Steve Brown described using dialogues and roleplays to present and practice language that empowers the immigrants he teaches, as in the example of how to complain to your MP about bad service from the NHS. And it’s one thing to learn some facts about the host government, another to learn how to negotiate its bureaucracies, and still another to question and debate whether those bureaucracies are actually living up to the promises they make ― or whether another system would be better, and how to fight for it.

Judy Boyle’s presentation on her No Project at the Global Issues day was an absolute showstopper: she runs seminars teaching students about the over 45 million people worldwide living in slavery, victims that that are working to produce the chocolate, clothes, gold and other products we covet and consume. Students produce art, dance and write letters (in English) to large local manufacturers that don’t certify their products Fair Trade.

And like those Brazilian kids who recognized that in a time of political turmoil there was a world erupting just outside their classrooms, the Greek and Italian and Bulgarian kids whose eyes were opened to the horror of human slavery told Judy Boyle: “We want this in our coursebooks”.

3. “It isn’t a body of knowledge, it’s an approach”

The third way of looking at controversial topics is, well, an approach ― an approach to your students, to your class, and to yourself as a teacher. “You can’t teach social justice,” JJ Wilson said. “It isn’t a body of knowledge. It’s an approach.” I’m not sure he was quoting Paulo Freire, but it was his best line, and I think, the whole thesis of his talk. And it was equally what Steve Brown was arguing for.

The ability to deal with controversial topics of any kind is not just a matter of reacting to one student’s uncomfortable outburst or slotting a unit into the syllabus, it’s about creating a culture in class that gives students voice and allows for discussion and debate on challenging, discomforting topics.

It’s what JJ Wilson was talking about when he mentioned Augusto Boal’s letting the spectators burst onto the stage. And, although they were never mentioned explicitly, it’s what Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner were talking about when they said (in Teaching as a Subversive Activity) that in school, the medium is the message: you can talk about democracy in class but if your classroom management is a model of totalitarianism it’s only the latter form of government that’s going to make a meaningful impression.

While I sincerely hope that nobody teaching at IATEFL would be guilty of that charge, the idea of a class with students who were empowered to voice their opinions, their concerns, their anger, their feelings with utter frankness may for some seem a long way off.

But trying to achieve that doesn’t mean we abandon our role as teacher. On the contrary, it enhances it. Students come to us — and not just an online conversation bot — because they trust in the idea of having a teacher. And we can use that leverage not just to weigh in on grammatical accuracy but on matters of fact and belief while he help them grapple with difficult topics and come to know their own voice.

What’s stopping us?

It’s time for me to repeat that disclaimer! Assuming that 1) your job, legal status or life is not at risk, and 2) you’re not chained to a single coursebook or curriculum you’ve got to adhere unit by unit, page by page, until the end, what’s stopping you from raising your voice and talking about the big issues so often omitted or pushed aside?

First I’m going to mention what wasn’t talked about, and then I’ll describe Steve Brown’s very compelling argument for why we don’t serve up PARSNIPs in the classroom.

Lack of knowledge

There seems to be an assumption from teachers like Steve Brown, and Judy Boyle that if it weren’t for external constraints (those mentioned above), we’d all be running challenging discussion classes on important issues. (Linda Ruas even asked me, in utter sincerity and without a hint a sarcasm, what would compel anybody to sign up for the Testing and Assessment SIG (as I had, even though I attended the Teacher Development SIG pre-conference event) or any other SIG when there were Global Issues to worry about.)

But even though I might like, share and post articles about the big issues and discuss them with friends I might be seized by massive self-doubt if I tried to bring them up in the classroom. Do I really know what the hell I’m talking about? Particularly if it relates to the country I’m residing in.

And I think many students might be in a similar position. Global issues may be the stuff they read about and watch and talk about with their friends but they fear being exposed as ignorant if they try to talk about it in public.

Lack of time

As everybody who’s ever tried the big lesson on say Terrorism knows, it takes time to prepare. You want to make sure students have equal access to resources to discuss and to have an informed discussion. Otherwise the ones who follow these issues regularly will have more to say and can dominate the discussion. And you want comprehension questions and language work and all the rest of it so you can feel like you’re having a “real lesson”.

And if you’re suffering from the anxiety of getting found out as a know-nothing on the topic, clearly you’re going to need time to read and research before you can confidently pose questions about it.

And of course, there’s always the fear that global issues have a shelf life. As they often say in the world of corporate blogging, your best time and money investment is in “evergreen” content ― stuff that you can publish over and over again. It’s obviously the global coursebook industry’s bread and butter. If you want to plan ripped-from-the-headlines lessons, you’re talking about a lot of investment for a single lesson plan.

Lack of training

But Steve Brown argued that more than anything it was the lack of training that kept PARSNIPs off our classroom plate. 

Steve surely relishes his daily Can of Worms, but why don’t I (and probably many of you)?

Because I’ve done a TEFL Certificate and the first two modules of the Cambridge Delta, and no other formal training in between or after. I was trained to diagram the Present Perfect and say Great! to whatever mumbled half-utterance my students produced. I was trained in the PPP. I was trained to create a mind-numbingly detailed lesson plan and give instructions and create gap fill exercises. I was trained to guide students to discover grammatical rules, but only when I’ve cherry-picked the examples. I’ve been trained in and assessed on what Steve Brown aptly called “low-level skills”.

What I wasn’t trained to do, however, is to actually respond to what goes on in the class. How to assess which avenues, in terms of language or argument, are worth pursuing, regardless of what’s on the plan. I wasn’t trained how to question a student’s beliefs ― not to show off my superior position, or make them reveal their ignorance, but out of personal curiosity and a desire to help them dig deeper into their own preconceptions or system of values. I wasn’t trained how to manage spontaneous debate, or full-class discussion, or moderate heated arguments.

I wasn’t trained for any of that, and outside of Hollywood films I’ve never seen what that looks like in action. Because no one in an observed lesson for any standard teaching diploma scheme is going to risk that kind of thing in the classroom.

So if those are (some of) the problems how can we better, as Linda Ruas put it, let the world into our classroom?

Letting the world into the classroom

Training:

Teacher training should involve more instruction, observation and feedback on how to actually work with the language, and arguments, that come up in class. Do training videos like that exist? I would love to see videos of say Steve Brown teaching some of the classes he describes.

We teach students functional language for debate and disagreement, but do teachers learn the language for moderating one? We’ve got to have more in our arsenal than “Ok, let’s move on”, and we can’t just assume it will come naturally to everybody.

Maybe we should spend time in training courses watching moderated political debates (from Sunday morning news shows or the like) or chaired panel discussions or how-to-negotiate seminars and see apply those principles to the classroom. I’m not being facetious. There are methods and professionals for that kind of thing; it can be taught.

Lessons:

The news is out there. Your students are probably watching and listening to it. So just jump in next time something comes up. I remember one particularly “successful” moment with this approach when news broke of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. In class that very afternoon we compiled information about what we knew and then turned the debate to the wider (and even by then, longstanding) issue of freedom of speech and its (possible) limits in relation to the infamous Dutch cartoons. For homework and in the following week we continued to discuss and debate the issue while using BBC Radio news clips and reading for more language (and content) input.

Fresher news, however terrible, might work well in a group because no one person is much more informed than the others. And the old authentic materials dictum to “grade the task, not the text” is never more apt ― to save time, grab hold of one useful audio or video clip and see how much mileage you can get out of it in multiple classes.

Of course, the shelf-life issue may be less true than we think. The Syrian civil war is still going on. Refugees and migrants are still fighting to get out of their countries and into Europe and the US (among other places). The economic crisis, the rise of reactionary politics and the possible dissolution of Europe have been front page news for at least as long as I’ve been in Italy (since 2008).

The details of any particular news cycle may change, but the issues, problems and values that are to be debated have not. Investing the time into building a particular lesson around any one of these issues may be time very well spent in that you can go back to it with multiple groups and multiple terms.

And if you’re not sure where to start in terms of some perennial controversial issues, some clever and generous ELT teachers have put together a series of free ebooks with PARSNIP-focused lessons that might be worth checking out.

Processes:

Student selected topics

But I think the most important way to bring the real world in is empowering students to do it themselves. Because as with the Brazilian high school students I mentioned above, social justice issues we serve up to our students in tidy packages are most likely to be the ones they resent the most or find the most tedious.

So I think we need to get the topics to come from our students. That might simply mean asking students to find an article of their individual choice on a controversial topic. Give them some language-oriented follow-up tasks ― and see what they come up with.

But if you’re asking them to vote as a class on a topic, you might need to get them to dig deeper. It’s not enough to turn the tables on the students and say, “What do you want to talk about for the rest of the year?” Believe me, I’ve tried.

About 5 years back, fresh from having read the description in Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury’s Teaching Unplugged of a teacher in Ukraine whose formerly “inert” students produced their own “Alternate Textbooks” with topics like Human Rights, AIDS and Drug Abuse and the Post WWII World, I asked my own students to come up with a list of topics for the year.

Their answers? Hobbies. Sports. Travel. Work. Fashion. In other words, the table of contents of any coursebook ever published. Where was the crisis? Where was the challenge? Where was the newsworthiness?

In reality, this is another training issue: I had no idea how to coach my students toward whatever real and stimulating topics I had imagined.

These students were interested in and read about world events. The problem was when the question was dumped on their laps they responded in the blandest, and least interesting way possible.

You might have to overcome the unspoken classroom bias against controversial topics in class. As Steve Brown talked about, the silent omission of such topics from any syllabus or classroom they’ve ever encountered might have long ago convinced them it just wasn’t appropriate. Finding out what was on the news last night, or what news stories they read or heard about on social networks, might be a jumping off point.

Overcoming the burden of expertise

Which leads to the last point. By making them part of the process of choosing and selecting topics, you’re encouraging your students to use their voices. But best of all, you’re taking the burden of expertise off yourself.

If “Today we’re doing Global Warming” then you’re expected to have one ace, student-proof lesson plan to back it up. But when your students select the topic for you, you can confess your ignorance, and ask them to teach you everything they know. Be what Paulo Freire called “co-learners” in the classroom.

You can still be the language authority, of course, but you can relinquish your role as subject authority.

Routines and mechanisms

And lastly I think we need to have routines, activities and mechanisms that allow this to perpetuate itself. That means being practiced at setting up impromptu debates. Pop-up debates. Just-a-minute style talks. These are all formats that, like a professional panel discussion or political talk show, in theory encourage a level playing field to speak and be challenged.

But there’s more: in his recent blog post on challenging confirmation bias, AnthonyTeacher reports that in terms of actually challenging student beliefs, “debates and other side-taking activities may be counterproductive”, suggesting instead consensus-seeking “cooperative critical discussion of evidence to reach a mutual conclusion.” (Although I’m still thinking about what this would mean as a practical activity.)

By far one of the best mechanisms I’ve found for level-playing-field discussion is Tyson Seburn’s Academic Reading Circles, which I’ve adopted for the general English classroom (more on that in a coming-soon blog post). It essentially gives individual roles to students that, all together, mimic and train students in the reading processes employed by fluent readers. But what’s great is that it also creates the context for hour-long student-led discussions (as well as intensive language work).

Reading Circles is a great opportunity for reading about challenging, even controversial, topics and giving students a mechanism for discussing them. It levels the playing field (in that students are all working from the same text and have had time to think about how to articulate their opinions). And it relieves the teacher of the burden of subject authority.

Conclusion

If we can talk about controversial topics in the classroom, should we? We might thinking we should avoid politics, but as Steve Brown argued, silence ― omitting those topics from the class, the lesson plan or the syllabus ― is itself a political act.

A classroom is a safe space where students can try out their language and make mistakes without fear of ridicule; it should also be a safe space in which to air views, debate, to challenge and be challenged on the beliefs and issues that outside the classroom may be our most dear ― or dangerous.

Of course, as every presenter intelligently reiterated, you are the best judge of what’s possible in your teaching context.

But just as intelligently, what each presenter was clearly suggesting is that maybe each of us, in our own situation, can do more than we think is possible.

2. Research and practice: the great divide

Of the 200 or so soundbites I tweeted from IATEFL 2017, the one that produced the longest discussion thread was Scott Thornbury’s declaration that “it’s a well-known fact that teachers don’t read research.” And Thornbury wasn’t the only one to mention it.

The idea that research is research, practice is practice and never the twain shall meet (to paraphrase Kipling) was cited, lamented, and baked into sales pitches by a number of speakers and commentators throughout the week.

Why don’t teachers read research? Lack of time, lack of money for that time, lack of perceived relevance and the simple “inconclusiveness” of research findings themselves. Which came as a shock to many.

But I teach in private language school. I could play a Liszt rhapsody with the fingers I’d have left over after counting up the number of teachers I personally work with who read primary research.

And I’ll be honest: I don’t read research either.

Opening the door

At least, I didn’t, until I started doing Delta Module 1. Like every great learning experience I’d ever had, the best thing I can say about my otherwise excellent tutor was that she opened a door for me and helped me step through.

I started reading the research. At first it was what Thornbury referred to as mediators, that is, those who help us interpret the science: methodology books like The A-Z of ELT, Jack Richards, Pearson’s How to… series.

Then, in Delta Module 2, I took a different approach. I wanted to know where these “mediators” were getting their stuff from. So I really started digging into actual research.

You know, like the stuff you find on the internet.

And that, of course, is the problem.

I’ve got a university degree, and years of experience as a teacher, but when it comes to actually interpreting and making use of what Thornbury termed the “inconclusiveness” of research findings, I was sailing without a rudder.

My choices were skewed by a number of factors:

  1. I only accessed papers freely available from Google search
  2. I had limited time
  3. Lack of knowledge meant I had little way of evaluating the truth of any claim or measuring it against other research

And I drew my own conclusions. In the end, consciously or unconsciously, I’m sure I was guilty of cherry picking. Or of using research inconclusiveness in the name of my more opinionated or decisive conclusions.

Research in practice

When I’m not teaching, my other job (ah, that cringe-worthy phrase!) is in the world of marketing, where everybody shouts about the need for data, data-driven insights, etc. But the fact is that most marketing writers and bloggers (myself included) are guilty of the same exact things – cherry-picking statistics, circulating unquestioned facts and leaping to conclusions.

In drawing this comparison I’m not saying that the world of education and marketing are the same. In both fields there are serious people working to try to understand and explain how their respective domains work and using scientific methods and experiments to back things up. But there are many others, sometimes with the best of intentions, sometimes without, who draw less than scientific conclusions about the data that they find. In many cases because they have no training in reading, interpreting and making sense of research.

Think of some of the big ideas in (ELT) education, all of which, explicitly or implicitly, came up at IATEFL 2017: grit, growth mindset, resilience, learner autonomy, plurilingualism, English-mediated instruction, materials-light teaching, etc.

And those ideas have superseded (which is not to say disproved, but rather pushed, at least for the moment, off the attention-shelf) those of previous years: grammar-translation, audiolingualism, the lexical approach, the direct method, Universal Grammar, etc.

These are the ideas that inform the methodology books, past and present, that we read. What should I, as a teacher, make of them? And the fact that many of them thrive for one decade, only to be overturned in the next?

One of my Delta tutor’s favorite expressions was “throw out the baby with the bathwater” because (and I’m certainly not the first to say this) it so perfectly describes what many publishing and practicing in ELT seem so good at doing.

All of this is just to say it’s understandable that teachers, if they give it thought at all, are intimidated by, or skeptical of, what they can get from reading research.

A basis for skepticism

It’s a skepticism that was interestingly echoed by the very methodology writers that Thornbury interviewed in his informal survey. “JS” commented:

I’ve never found much formal “research” very helpful to my own classroom work. I am not “anti-research” but I do carry a suspicion of many statistical studies in teaching.

 

And he wasn’t alone:

In other words, despite all their years of writing about teaching, these ELT mediators can sound very much like the practitioners on the other side of the research-practice divide they’re meant to bridge!

A problem in search of a metaphor

But there’s a danger in suggesting, as I did in the title, that there’s a great divide between research and practice, because it suggests that they’re opposites. Research lacking in application vs. practice without any grounding in research findings. Evidence-based abstractions vs. unscientific gut feelings.

Maybe a more honest take is that we’re all on a continuum between the two extremes, and that we need to all try to pull each other toward the middle.

How can we do that? A few proposals:

  • Take off paywalls for access to research papers produced by public/state universities. If you’re supported by government funds, you’re supported by taxpayer funds, so let us see and think about what you’re doing.
  • Make mediated research available (in the form of methodology books) in every school and language center. As Scott Thornbury said elsewhere, many schools might do better to just dump the year’s coursebook budget into the Cambridge Teaching Library guides (and yes, as series editor, he admitted his choice of texts was biased). It would be a better investment for all concerned and a good start. Because even if the attitude some methodology writers offered toward research is, as Geoff Jordan wrote, “disquieting”, they still represent a jumping-off point for learning more about ― and beginning to question ―  theory.
  • More support ― and funding for? ― research mediation efforts like ELT Research Bites, a voluntary effort at research mediation, with follow-up from teachers about what research they made use of in their own classroom, in other words, how the research fit into their practice.

  • Give teacher-learners a reason to research. Mine was the expensive and time-consuming Delta, but independent, smaller-scale projects would work as well, including individual attempts at action research.
  • More time devoted in training and on teacher certification courses (Delta, etc.) to how we can assess and make use of research. There should be a strong push away from the Harmer and Scrivener basic teaching books that got you through the Celta ― or even time devoted to a critical reappraisal of them.
  • Accept and indulge some inconclusiveness. On the one hand, universities and researchers should push back against commerical attempts to make a fast buck on the latest edu-fad before it gets disseminated into methodology and teacher training. On the other, as Thornbury (somewhat controversially) suggested, I think we should be sensitive when seeking to debunk other people’s cherished or time-strengthened beliefs, drawing a line between what is in fact harmful or detrimental to learning and what’s simply been disproven but may have some sort of non-negative placebo effect (and I’m saying this someone whose knee-jerk response to any positive discussion of learning styles is, “You heard of the Foer Effect?”)

Some of these ideas might draw research and practice closer together.

None of them, however, would solve the problem of time. And pay or return on investment for that time.

But that’s a topic for another post.