Letting in the Monster

On September 11th, 2001, I was coming out of a job interview when I saw the various members of staff clustered around the single office computer with a broadband connection, watching creaky early Internet footage of trails of smoke pouring from the World Trade Center in New York. I ran home and switched on the TV and spent a significant chunk of the rest of the day watching the horror unfold. It wasn’t the first such atrocity, and it certainly wasn’t the last: London, Madrid, not to mention countless others in countries and cities less appealing to the Western media.

Then,  last Friday, I was on my way to bed, and idly checking through Twitter when something about Paris caught my eye. Bombs?  Paris? What?

I’m not going to comment on the whys and the hows and the what the… because there are greater minds than mine on that task. There was shock, a sense of disquiet and unease as I walked through a packed city centre railway station on Monday, followed by the awful reflection that if I lived in Syria, or any number of other countries, this unease, or worse, is how people feel every single day. When I arrived at work, however, I was confronted with the  nagging awareness that my planned reading lesson for my Level 2 ESOL class suddenly felt very trite. This was going to be the first time that group would meet after the attacks, and by the students would not have had much chance to talk about it with many people beyond their immediate families.

So what do you do with this? Do you ignore it, and move on with your lesson? Do you insist on tackling it, perhaps with a reading or a videotape based around the events? I didn’t like either option terribly much: both seemed to ignore the students feelings: the first through callous disregard, and the second through forcing an agenda onto the lesson. I had my planned lesson, so I decided to go in and see how things rolled.

There was a silence in the class. They’re a friendly but not naturally chatty group, but this time things felt distinctly like there was a great thing hanging unsaid in the classroom: not so much an elephant in the room as a glowering shadowy monster hulking in the corner. It was practically tangible. So where do you go with that? I thought. I bumbled and fluffed for a bit, realised that the thing was still there, and said, quite simply and openly to the class: “OK, let’s talk about it. Talk to the people near you about how you feel about the events in Paris.”

Let me set some context: level 2 is a level at which students are generally capable of most non-specialised interactions in English. They are not reliant on family or friends to translate or interpret news, or first language websites. In our discussions on this, the students and I were all equal, having read the same reports, watched the same TV news. This presence, after all, was bigger than the confines of a classroom and the triviality of maintaining student-teacher roles. The students are also, with two exceptions, Muslim, and clearly a lot of the upset was not only the shock at what had happened but also the shock, even anger, at the idea this could have been done in the name of their religion. I may not believe in any variation of god myself, but I could understand the outrage at how one’s beliefs, to your mind based in care, love and respect, could be used to justify such an action. Islam, they reminded me, means peace. Islam means peace.

No sooner had I opened up the classroom, then almost immediately came the sense of relief. All the students shared and discussed, and my role was merely participant and occasional language guide to enable expression. I’m glad I encouraged them to talk in small groups, because it meant everyone got to say something, and no one person could dominate the group. I held back from language analysis and error correction: there is a time and a place, and this wasn’t it. This was just a time to talk.

I let the conversations go on, until the energy faded, and group by group they sighed to a standstill. Normally I wouldn’t let it peter out, choosing a moment when, usually, most people have managed to participate fully in the discussions: the learning outcome for this type of thing is usually  “contribute to a discussion” or “acknowledge others in turn taking” and so on. But we did move on the reading task, which now no longer seemed so trite or meaningless, but which we could all tackle as students and as a teacher without the feeling that we had something we needed to say. We had cleared the air. The monster was there, still: I would hardly expect it to go; but the monster was owned and shared between us.

Maybe this is all a bit dramatic, a bit OTT for an English class. But there is another lesson here – it is tempting to forget that students have lives and concerns, fears and hope and all of those things and say “come to class, learn English” but there is a world of pain and love outside the classroom window and we would be not insensitive but downright stupid to try to ignore it. Let the monster in, as it were, and you can let in all the doves as well.

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