How to make your students cry (Part 2)

IMG_1821Don’t mention the war?

In the first edition of Headway Advanced (OUP, 1989) there was a chapter called “War and Peace” (mostly war). In the teacher’s book, the authors say:

We have tried to adopt a liberal, objective attitude to the subject, and although it can fascinate, it can also repel, so you need to exercise a large amount of caution in the way you approach this unit.

Take a minute to think about that.

I’m not here to slag off Headway – I actually love that book, which is why I still cart it round from country to country with me. But while it may not have been immediately obvious in the Eurocentric teen-heyday of EFL, it’s obvious now that a coursebook can’t dictate the objectiveness of anyone’s experience, and that such material may be, for some people, pretty damn subjective indeed. To say: “although it can fascinate, it can also repel”, is to assume that the teachers and students using the book are outside the reality of war, that the worst that can happen is that their sensibilities may be offended. Of course this is not the worst that can happen. Of course some people in a class of adults will have experienced the violence and loss of war directly or indirectly. Of course none of us are “liberal, objective” observers, no matter how distant we may feel – we are all part of countries and cultures that have had a role to play somewhere along the line and, as individuals, we continue to make our choice – do or do not* – every day. None of us is getting away with this.

That’s not to say that I didn’t use the chapter – it really is fascinating and has some great content – but I was very selective and VERY cautious (and it didn’t surprise me to see that it had disappeared from future editions). Maybe I could have used the opportunity to be a subversive teacher, to combine politics and pedagogy to critically examine perspectives on war in our current climate . . . but if that thought had even occurred to me back then I dismissed it outright because I couldn’t take the risk of upsetting any more students with my bad material choices. Maybe I just really wanted to avoid that and just teach English and not have to deal with any terribly un-British crying.

However, whether you use a Headway-style “objective” approach (Here are a number of words connected with defence . . . put them into chronological order) or adopt a blanket “don’t mention the war”** policy, the elephant is still in the room. Perhaps avoiding it prevents both teachers and students from learning from each other. Uncomfortable segue to . . .

In 2008, I was teaching on a TESOL course in Australia which almost entirely consisted of young South Korean females. The exception was a single much older Japanese lady, who unlike the others, had been a teacher for many years already. It would have been easy for her to feel alienated by the age of her classmates, by their inevitable use of Korean both in and out of class, by their lack of teaching experience – but no. She threw herself in 200%. She’d planned and saved for the course herself and she really wanted to make the most of it.

During the course, something of great significance happened in Australia: the Prime Minister made an official apology to the Stolen Generations of Indigeneous Australians. All classes were allowed to gather in the school’s reception area to watch this live. When we got back to class, my “So what did you think?” was met with an emphatic silence. It didn’t surprise me; they didn’t really know what it was about, and I could see some were itching to get back to their lesson plan, concerned about upcoming observations. But suddenly Akiko stood up and announced she wanted to say something.

I couldn’t really understand her at first. I could see she was upset, and my first thought was that something had happened between her and the other students that had upset her. In a way it had. In stumbling English, she said she wanted to do what she felt her government had not done properly, and apologise to the Koreans for their sufferings at the hands of the Japanese during World War II. She was crying.

I’m ashamed to say that up till that point, despite many years with Korean and Japanese students, I had never really considered their shared history or taken the trouble to learn about it. I don’t pretend to know much more today, but I have at least had my Eurocentric eyes opened – I’ve learned some things that I almost wish I hadn’t and I realise that even today the question of Korean-Japanese relations remains problematic. But at the time, even though I didn’t really understand how meaningful this was, I knew I was seeing something very personal, very vulnerable, very important. There have been tears in my classroom that I’m not proud of. But these ones, I was.


* Yes, that is a Yoda reference.

** A famous Fawlty Towers reference. If you watch the original clip, you may find the cringe-worthy offensiveness outweighs the comedy – I know I do. The series is a classic though and can, in its less offensive moments, be very funny. In any case, it’s been influential enough for phrases like this to pass into common usage.

3 responses

  1. Hi Sophia,

    What an amazing series of posts. I teach in a mono-cultural classroom setting, but that doesn’t mean students don’t have wildly varying opinions. And for the first few years of teaching, I always tried to get the students to mix it up. I would bring in ‘issue’ focused materials about things like same-sex marriage or corporal punishment in schools. The same students who would happily express their opinions to me after class, always gently agreed with each other once the lessons began. It wasn’t until a whole bunch of years later that I finally realised, the materials have almost nothing to do with the amount of personal information and risk a student is willing to take. Students expose themselves emotionally when they feel safe. And that feeling of safety is, like you mentioned in your earlier post, all about the, “The classroom dynamic, the rapport between teachers and students, and students and students.” I love stories like this one, where students strive to communicate because they truly believe they have something important to say, and in saying it they are hoping to reach out to the other students in class.

    Thanks for a terrific read.


    • Hi Kevin! Happy to see you here. I think your comment “the materials have almost nothing to do with the amount of personal information and risk a student is willing to take” hits the nail on the head, really. I think it can be dangerous and confronting for teachers to try and push students beyond their comfort zone in this respect (though I’m all for pushing learners in terms of language development!) The classroom is largely an artificial environment, not a natural place to share your deepest beliefs, regrets and fears…But this means a lot of ‘conversation’ in class, while meaningful in terms of language practice, is not meaningful in terms of *really MEANING something* to anyone. Those little windows into really meaningful communication are the ones that stick in the mind…Thanks for commenting.

  2. Pingback: All I want for Christmas is… | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections

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