Sensitive issues and ELT

It all started with a notelt from Mike Harrison where he was asking if we thought it appropriate to bring up hot or controversial topics in class. I thought my answer would be “no”. I remember my CELTA tutors telling us how “what’s the best way to avoid stress” is a good topic for ELT, but how more sensitive areas such as religion, sexuality, racism and so on should be avoided for the sake of classroom management.

Then, just a few days later, on the wake of the Orlando attacks, I found myself discussing with James about if and how to approach the topic of LGBT and sexual diversity in the English classroom. I felt the events screamed to be brought and discussed in class. After all we live within a society and so it felt really weird to completely ignore what was happening and discuss about holidays, top tips for a job interview or how to survive a year abroad.

Then came Brexit, which left me stunned and unable to react for a couple of days. Again, I immediately felt I had to discuss the issue with my adult students, as ignoring it would make me uncomfortable (and by the way, I dove into this great lesson plan for ideas and the outcome was very positive both in terms of language and of the discussion that arose from the video).

Now I’m getting a bit confused…As usual I don’t have a definitive answer, but what the recent events and the lessons that followed taught me can be summarised as follows:

  1. Before thinking about introducing sensitive topics (or Global Issues as they are nowadays called), I think the teacher needs to know her class and students very well. Even so, you could have some bad surprises, so be prepared to handle that and to tone down or close the discussion if necessary.
  2. The learners also need to know each other quite well in order to be confident enough to discuss certain issues in front of the other students. So I would definitely not recommend to approach such topics during the first lessons or in a short-term course.
  3. Of course, you need to be well-documented and informed about the issue yourself. If possible, read from both sides of the argument in order to be as impartial as possible — I think the aim of raising such issues is to get students thinking and discussing, not imposing your ideas!
  4. Planning your lesson in great detail, including which questions to ask and how to introduce the topic, can make a big difference on how your students react to it.

Yes, it is true, we all have a lot to worry about as teachers, a lot to plan and take into consideration, so why bother to add another layer of complexity to our job?

After a lot of thinking and reading, my answer is simple: even though I mainly teach adults, I still feel a moral and education obligation to helping their lifelong learning and self-development. Some of my students might never get a chance to discuss certain issues outside of my classroom, so I feel my job is not only to teach them English, but also to help them grow as people (I know it’s a bit ambitious, but this is why I love this job after all!).

In addition to that, these issues are great to sparkle debate and practice agreeing, disagreeing, giving opinions and so on. I found that even the most introvert, quiet students did not need to be pushed to have their say and defend their opinion during these lessons.

As usual, I’d love to hear what you have to say about… well, the issue of global issues. Please leave a comment below to share your ideas or experience on this matter, thanks!

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5 thoughts on “Sensitive issues and ELT”

  1. Good post. Imagining myself as a student, I’d much rather talk about Brexit than the best way to avoid stress. Many of our learners feel the same I’m sure. However, politics is probably the easiest of the Parsnip topics to include in class. I’d happily ask students if they thought Brexit would affect them. Students from different parts of the world may have more limited exposure to other topics, such as LGBT issues, which make their inclusion more challenging. A degree of sensitivity and awareness of attitudes/reactions is essential.

    1. I totally agree David, that’s why I wrote that in my opinion you need to know your class very well. Some topics might make students uncomfortable or even be taboo in some cultures. That’s why it’s up to the teacher’s sensitivity to understand what can be an interesting — albeit controversial — issue and what can just end up being unpleasant for both students and teacher.

  2. It’s also quite possible to talk about topics at arms length to gauge reactions before basing a whole lesson on the topic. Great post, Giulia. Thanks.

      1. As and when I need to. I don’t have many new students at the moment so haven’t needed to for quite some time.

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