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December 1998 - Issue No. #33 (p.11)
If you pick up a potato which is too hot to hold, you are likely to hurt yourself. On the other hand, if you wait until it has cooled, it may have lost its taste and tang.
The English as a Foreign Language (EFL) classroom is an ideal place to deal with "hot potatoes" - burning, controversial issues. Other than the homeroom hour for discussion, the modern EFL classroom is the most appropriate setting and hot potatoes the EFL teacher's dream come true. One can imagine the communicative teacher lifting his/her eyes heavenward in an EFL prayer: "Dear Lord, send me a burning issue which will set the eyes of the sleepiest pupils ablaze with interest and stir the most non-verbal learner to eloquence."
The peace process, a subject which continues to touch the lives of everyone in Israel, is one such hot potato. It will define the shape of things in this country for years to come; it is also an issue which has provoked much controversy, and in which opinionated people (and who in Israel is not opinionated?) are certain of two things: that they alone understand the problem, and that the listener/opponent is dead wrong.
It is this very area of controversy, basic to all hot potatoes, which makes many EFL teachers shy away from the subject. The fact that raising the peace process may lead to heated debate causes the EFL expert to think twice. First, there is fear of losing control, of confrontation with a noisy, argumentative class. Then, there is fear of rejection by students whose personal opinions are at odds with those of the teacher.
Loss of control can be avoided by careful planning. Pupils can be asked to research specific themes for discussion. This eliminates or at least minimizes hearsay and emotional stereotyping (e.g. "all settlers are fascists"; "left-wingers are communists").
A structured well-organized approach enables the teacher to defuse things to some extent. The emotional impact of the topic can be further directed into fruitful EFL channels by organizing debates and giving pupils specific roles to prepare.
The importance of dealing with burning issues in the EFL class is that they force the pupil to confront pluralism. A major difficulty for adolescents (and adults, too) is to grasp that "Truth" is not an absolute, nor the monopoly of any sector of the population; and that elements of both truth and justice reside in many guises. It is often extremely difficult to tolerate different opinions, or to realize they contain truth or logic. But, the ability to listen and understand often unpalatable opinions is the cornerstone of a democratic society.
Carefully planned discussion of the peace process should deal with issues such as negotiations, compromise and personal values. The communicative EFL teacher can rub his/her hands in glee and dream of wonderful exercises in simulation, role play and values clarification.
It is of vital importance to face controversial issues head on and bring them into the open. The teacher who is willing to face differing opinions presents a powerful role model to his/her students. The teacher who retains belief in his/her pupils despite differences of opinion and conflict transmits an even more powerful message: one can disagree, express reservations, yet still remain whole. One may enter the debate, reject the opinion of others, yet emerge enriched, enlightened and excited from the interaction.
While confronting issues directly, there is no need for the teacher to proclaim his/her personal beliefs or political allegiance. The role of the teacher-educator is to direct learners to examine the elements of the problem. Declaration of a point of view blocks the educational flow, and only serves to challenge the learner to "follow me . . . or else." Such an approach merely encourages an accept/reject continuum. In matters of controversy, the role of the EFL teacher should be above and beyond discussion. It is the educator's task to cast light on dark corners and aid learners to navigate treacherous waters. This is true facilitation.
The EFL teacher must move beyond the bounds of curriculum and textbook, and face difficult, sensitive areas. Ultimately, his/ her role is not only to promote discussion, interaction and opinion; it is to educate.
The peace process is a hot potato, an area of major educational importance demanding careful, sensitive and intelligent handling. Stretch out your hand carefully and grasp it firmly. Don't let it slip. Your pupilsare eagerly waiting.
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