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December 1997 - Issue No. #29 (p. 12 - 13)
Dealing with global issues in class is a valid activity in itself, and, in my view, is a crucial aspect of any teacher's job. Teachers cannot simply be "technicians", specialists in teaching vocabulary, grammar rules and pronunciation rules. The natural mission of any educator is - by the nature of the profession - to educate.
It is also sound language pedagogy to stimulate the learners' intellect, their inner life, to stir the very core of their personality: their sense of values. If language learning is to be meaningful, it has to be part of, and to contribute to, the learners' intellectual, cognitive and even moral development.
Once this has been said, how do we go about it? In most cultures, it is no longer considered acceptable to call everyone for assembly to make a soul stirring speech about moral values. Even where this is still culturally possible, the effectiveness of such an approach can be called into doubt, except, perhaps, with very young learners.
Besides, we may question whether we are behaving peacefully when we talk down to learners. Are we not implying: "I know that you are not good people. You need to be improved and I - the teacher, the master - will turn you into proper human beings."
I expect that for adults such an approach is ineffective, while adolescents - as a rule - tend to question and react with derision to "uplifting" speeches. Even if we manage to reach them, it might be argued that what they arrive at by themselves is more likely to last, since it becomes part of their personality, their very identity as they develop into adults. (Rogers, 1967; Rogers & Freiberg, 1994)
That is why I would like to propose a simple experiential activity to approach stereotypes, the bedrock of many evils such as racism and wars, .... and often a barrier to studying foreign languages (cf. Laroy 1995, Introduction.). In this activity, passive reception is replaced by more active linguistic, intellectual and personal involvement. I have called it "If I lived in Hachinohe", because my students here in Belgium first did this activity when a teacher from that part of rural Japan kindly sent us some brochures. None of us knew anything about Hachinohe before that.
Get hold of some tourist brochures from a precise place in a distant country which is not known to your students. Check if there are books in the school or local library where they can find more information, or ask them to write letters to the embassy or tourist office.
Contact your school's geography teacher and find out which countries will be taught when in geography class. Then, tell your students you've heard they're going to study the geography of country X, and that you plan to do some English work about that country in conjunction with the geography teacher.
Get in touch with an English teacher in a far-off country through professional associations such as IATEFL, TESOL or through EFL publications such as English Teaching forum. Ask the teacher to send you brochures about his/her city and suggest an exchange of letters and documents between your classes. Once you've organized this, learners in both countries can write letters to introduce themselves, ask for information about the other city, and exchange compositions. It may be an eye-opener for learners in both countries to read about how others imagine they live!
I hope this activity demonstrates one way to foster better understanding of other people, cultures and civilizations without talking down to people. Students are led to discover others by themselves and, while doing so, they practise and use the foreign language for thinking and communicating. The excerpts below give you a sample of the variety of reactions my students in Belgium had.
Rogers, C. (1961). On Becoming a Person. (16th printing, 1992.) London: Constable.
Rogers, C. and Freiberg, H. (1994). Freedom to Learn. New York: Merrill.
Laroy, C. (1995). Pronunciation. Oxford: OUP.
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