ELTbites: What you can and can’t say in class

by , under Richard Gresswell

By Richard Gresswell

This blog post is kind of a follow on from the previous one inspired by the film ‘Blackboards’. Watching it again brought back memories of the many Kurdish students I’ve had the pleasure of teaching during my time as an ESOL tutor. I want to tell you a story about one of those students.

I was teaching a ‘typical’ ESOL class, a group of people bringing with them their rich cultures, languages and life experiences to the classroom but at the same time a feeling of the weight of the world’s problems resting there, and often on the shoulders of the teacher, or at least it felt that way at times. As always I was attempting to conduct a fine balancing act between allowing students to say what they wanted to, while guarding against causing offence to others.

I found it hard at times, and there were always cracks appearing all over the place with arguments breaking out here and there but nothing too worrying. I recall once saying to the class ‘we shouldn’t speak about politics’ – quite a ridiculous thing to say really, but I was at a loss with how to deal with the on-going political discussions that seemed to cause such division among the learners.

One day in class, the students were having to carry out some exam preparation with a rather banal task of ‘describe a past event in 150 words’ (yawn). No idea where these rubric writers get their ideas from – How about ‘tell me a story’ – the students had plenty of those, and were good at telling them too. Anyway the students started their writing in class and then finished it off for homework. One Kurdish student who we shall call Hamed (not real name of course) handed me his essay by hand at the beginning of the next class. I put the carefully written and presented piece of writing on the desk next to me and started class. But I was intrigued by it, the way Hamed had personally given it to me at the beginning of the lesson. So I waited impatiently for the break so I could read it.

Now this is how the story went (in my words from memory)

I will describe my past event – I remember one day. It was a terrible day. I was ten years old. We were running away. It was terrible, people were crying and dying. We were in the mountains, it was cold, very cold. We were frightened of soldiers all the time. Sometimes we stopped to have a rest. We didn’t have any food or water. Sometimes we stopped to bury people because they were dead and we buried them there. I was very sad but my life is better now. I know I shouldn’t talk about politics, I’m sorry Mr Richard.

Read original blog entry here.

This piece was reprinted by Migrant Tales with permission.

  1. JusticeDemon

    This brings to mind a story from many years ago about teaching EFL in Istanbul using the old Cambridge English Course Book 1 that was designed for complete beginners. Unit 2B of the course began with a listening exercise in which the student had to listen to a recording and complete a table matching people with their nationalities and jobs. A few correct answers had been completed in advance, including the answer that Annie is a photographer.

    One teacher reported that his students in Istanbul had checked the word “photographer” in a dictionary and replaced it with “prostitute”, because the speaker on the recording had explained that her name was Annie and she was Greek. The students had simply supplied the tacit major premiss in the enthymeme.