I guess maybe I waited too long to write this up but I also think I wasn’t really ready to write it just after it happened. Recent blogposts from and conversations with others gave me just the nudge I needed.
Discussion focused class for graduate students majoring in international studies.
Mixed group of nationalities (3 Korean students and 3 international students).
Levels ranging from low intermediate to high intermediate.
Of the 6 students there are 2 students in particular that play a key role in this story:
- One female student, who is very high level, is from Europe and is extremely worldly and open minded.
- One male student, who is at the lower end of the low intermediate scale, is also extremely religious (Christian) and would not likely be considered open minded or worldly.
I had selected “Gay Rights” as the topic for the three hour class. I usually choose about half the topics and have the students pick the other half. This was my 3rd time teaching the course and I had chosen some of the same topics as previous semesters. Gay rights was one such topic. The reasoning behind choosing it is because I think it is very much a global issue. In Korea, gay rights is not really something that is talked about very often. Foreign teachers often joke about Korean people saying and perhaps believing that, “There are no gays in Korea.” I have personally heard this a lot. This is to say that it is a bit taboo to talk about such things. I realized that but I also felt that it was something that Korean students might need/want experience discussing in an international setting. After all, this is something that is frequently discussed in the states and is surely a hot topic.
I didn’t want to just jump into the topic and say, “Gay rights. Discuss.” I wanted to sort of ease into the topic and give lots of speaking practice whilst doing so. I had a list of different words that collocate with rights. Things like gay, minority, human, workers’, women’s, children’s, animal, and prisoner. I asked students to think and talk to their partner about the meaning of these different types of rights.
(This page from Breakingnewsenglish was helpful in constructing the list)
Some of the concepts were a bit unfamiliar so the students helped each other and shared their guesses and thoughts about the meaning of these types of rights. It seemed that there were some new concepts and that it was a nice push for the students to explain things to each other. I was pleased. After I clarified a few points and answered a few questions it was time for the next task. This time, with a new partner, students were asked to rank the types of rights from most important to least important. I thought this would be a nice chance for me to hear that they followed the different types of rights as well as a nice lead-in to the larger discussion about gay rights.
I assigned new partners and set them on their task. As luck and foreshadowing would have it, the two students profiled above were partners. Things seemed be going swimmingly with a some of negotiation, clarification requests as well as expressing opinions.
And then he said it.
“I hate gays.”
I was pretty shocked. My temperature rose. Here it was. Hate speech in my class. What was I going to do?
My first feeling was something between shock and rage I suppose. “How dare he say such a thing?”
“How dare he say such a thing in my class?” was the next question that followed.
I managed to calm down a bit as I realized it was not really about me.
(Apparently there are many things in the world that are not about me–which is nice to realize).
Realizing that arguing or showing anger is not generally a good strategy I took a deep breath. I tried to think about where he was coming from.
I remembered that he is deeply religious and often goes to church in the morning before class. I remembered that he is Korean and that such issues are not really talked about. I remembered that I was, in fact, the person that chose this topic.
I thought to myself that if I really wanted students to be comfortable and express their opinions then I would have deal with such opinions as they came and not just pick and choose and expect everyone to agree with me and to be a shiny happy family with no disagreements.
While these thoughts were racing through my head things got a bit heated with the aforementioned partners. She was asking him what he would say if she said that she hated Christians. She was digging in and trying to see how he could justify his opinion. While I found myself agreeing with her reaction I didn’t really want an explosion to occur in class.
I decided that it might be a nice time for a teacher intervention (mostly just to calm things down a bit) and instead of sharing my opinion or agreeing or disagreeing I just said something like, “Maybe hate is a strong word.” I said “I think maybe you mean something like ‘you don’t understand’ or ‘don’t feel comfortable around gay people.'” He nodded in agreement and perhaps the tension was reduced a bit. I decided to step away and, happily, a calm and informative discussion occurred after I backed away. She calmly stated that she wanted to understand where he was coming from and that she might not agree with him but that she wanted to try to understand his position without judging him so she asked him a series of questions to sort of get to the bottom of it. I was thrilled and impressed as well as relieved.
During and after this incident I wondered if my reasons for choosing the topic were solid. Did I choose it for the students? Did I choose it for these particular students? Did I take this group’s personal characteristics and opinions into consideration when choosing it? Did I just choose something that worked well in the past without thinking how it would work with this particular group? Did I choose the topic because it is something that I am interested in? Did I choose the topic because I wanted to help students open their minds a bit? “Maybe” was the answer that came to mind for many of these questions.
Well, this semester, I have the same topic coming up! I will be sure to consider the specific people in the room when planning the lesson but I remain convinced of the importance and usefulness of the topic.
When shocked by statements from students I will resist the temptation to “correct their wrong thinking” and will try not to give my opinion unless I am asked.
When I find myself flustered and shocked I will step back and take a breath and think about what really bothers me about what has been said. I will try to see where the person is coming from.
I will keep in mind the potential risks involved in tackling such topics and remember that the topics were chosen for a reason.
I guess the other obvious thing is to keep working hard to create a comfortable and save environment where students feel free to express their opinions no matter what they are.
- Am I right in thinking that my job is to “just” teach English?
- How far (if at all) is it appropriate for teachers to share their own views and positions?
- How far (if at all) is it appropriate for teachers to try to persuade students to think differently?