“What kind of world are we trying to represent?”

I was at the regional NATECLA YH day conference this week, and the final plenary was from Heather Buchanan of Leeds Beckett University talking about the uses and abuses of global coursebooks.

It was an interesting and indeed controversial topic, particularly to a group of people who probably rarely follow a single coursebooks, preferring out of necessity or expectation, to pick and choose published work, or develop our own materials. I’m not going to weigh in on the coursebook/no coursebook argument, although I do challenge those ESOL managers who think we should have a full year scheme of work at the start of the academic year to tell me why we shouldn’t just follow a fixed coursebook which we adapt to the class.

No, the thing which really resonated from Heather’s talk was the comment at the title of this post: “What kind of world are we trying to represent?”

I make a lot of my own materials, and devise my own activities, and I started to think: what kind of messages do I send to my learners based on my selection of texts to read, approaches to take? Do I, as an ESOL teacher, have an agenda?

Well, yes, I do. If pushed I would argue something along the lines of slightly leftwing woolly liberal, focussed on the needs and lives of the learners. Or something (woolly, remember) but I wonder how much of this comes out in the choices of themes, topics and texts which I bring into the classroom. For one, that sentence says a lot: “texts that I bring into the classroom”. They are often texts that appeal to me, as well as hopefully appealing to the learners. Certainly in theme these are often a lighter touch than perhaps my higher ideals would prefer: articles about lorries getting stuck under bridges, web quests about local events. But then I do sometimes select texts on more complex issues: for example I have a reading and speaking activity based on the Tony Martin case where a man was sentenced to jail for shooting a burglar, or controversial variations on the balloon debate, like the Amnesty task from OneStopEnglish. Interestingly, however, on more controversial topics, I realise, on reflection, that I tend to situate these outside the learners’ own experiences. I have avoided too much explicit discussion of the activities of right wing activists in the UK, especially when this applies to local issues. I have helped learners engage with local issues, for example helping them to write letters to their local MP to protest against the proposed closure of A&E services at the local hospital, and supported learners on an individual basis on their personal plans and progression, jobs and so on.

Where I have felt less comfortable perhaps has been the direct nanny-state teaching of social and moral standpoints. The main problem I had with PSD last year was based on this. Who am I to comments on an individual’s approach to personal health without them initiating that discussion? Yet I would support a learner if they came to me with a personal problem. But not for me the eatwell plate. I approach many of the citizenship materials with a critical, cautious eye: could I define a good citizen? Probably not. Do I think that the NIACE materials helped to define this? Not really, but then they were never meant to. The most recent life in the uk test guidance is excruciating in its literal whitewash of history, and the raising in importance of this history.

I am not a sports fan, and tend to avoid sport related texts and sport based resources. This is silly, as many learners do like sport, and this would be a great source for some really interesting language. I am a music fan, but again, I tend not to use this as a source for my learners’ learning, although this time it is perhaps the nature of the music which makes me reluctant to share with learners. I am also a book and film fan, and sometimes this does make its way into the classroom, perhaps because they are much more clearly and obviously usable.

In short, then, the world I tend to represent to learners is bound up with the identity of who I am and what I feel and believe about the world. Is this true of all teachers? I assume it probably is, and equally that it is hard to step outside of that world when preparing texts, no matter how much you would argue for learner-centredness. For myself, I know I could do more to get learners involved by, for example, bringing in a text each to analyse, or a question to answer. I attempted to do this for a while in my low level community based class, by getting them to talk about the people they know in the form of people “maps” but this has had to fall to the wayside as the class is slowly shedding learners.

This,I guess, is the challenge for all materials writers, and that the world we need to try to represent is the one which learners can engage with and/or relate to. It helps, of course, if we can engage with that world: easier for those of us who share cultural links and heritage with the learners, perhaps. Sometimes my own lifestyle feels like it exists in some sort of parallel universe to the lives of the learners I teach, and the challenge there is to bridge that gap, to link the lives and challenges of our learners to our own lives and challenges, and share in the way that we deal with our different challenges.

I don’t mean to force my agenda, or my ideals onto learners, (although I would challenge learners on any issues of equality), but I think that this comes through nonetheless. Perhaps this is a bad thing, but then again, perhaps not. More importantly, perhaps, is the question of whether we can avoid letting our own personal, social, cultural and political agendas come through in our teaching. I rather doubt we can.

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