I broached the ESOL for Muslim women debate yesterday in class. I had planned it as a post exam discussion, with a bit of a listening task. Here’s the plan:1: look at still of David Cameron and discuss “who is he? What does he do? Etc.” Deal briefly with anything that comes up.
2: listen to the interview once. Discuss in groups what the general gist is.
3: read questions, try to answer from memory, then listen again.
4: check the meaning of key vocabulary and discuss why certain expressions were used. Feedback.
5: general discussion of the whole thing and reactions to it.
I had planned an hour for this, as we had some other bits and pieces to deal with, but the first task already started some interesting and challenging discussions. “My English friend told me he doesn’t think the Queen is necessary.” I put on my proper dutiful government servant hat, and we elicited different types of government, the way laws are made in the UK, had comparative discussions about government in different countries, that sort of thing, and established, as per the Life in the UK Test, that the UK is an awesome hotbed of democracy because of the Magna Carta.
Anyway, we got back on track, and we had a listen. At certain key points, like when Cameron is reminded that his government cut the funding to ESOL, several students raised their eyebrows at me, and you could feel the irritation of the students rising already. The recording finished and before I could open my mouth…
“Why only women?”
“Why only Muslims?”
“What happens after two years?”
“What about the people who are already here?”
“He’s wrong about Islam.”
I had to knock it on the head to begin with. I wanted to be sure the students had the appropriate listening practice, and could explore the meaning and gain a full understanding of the text (although I thought it would be churlish and cheap to point out the PM’s own garbled syntax “women who don’t speak hardly any English at all”).
We pressed on with the listening, and listened again for detail. In feedback, we did n’t get any further than the apparent numbers of Muslim women not speaking English, at which point I had to abandon my facilitator role, and revert to something closer to a classroom Oprah: helping to make space for every student to contribute as opinions became more heated and passionate.
I love this class. I really really love this class. I’ve had maybe just two or three groups of students, over the years who I have enjoyed teaching this much, and they are a blast. They can do focussed and dedicated, and they can do relaxed and chatty, and swing between the two states quite easily. They are hugely diverse, representing at least 10 countries spread over 3 continents, with strong opinions and the language with which to express them.
And express them they did. My word, did the express them. You may be surprised to learn that there was an absence of universal pleasure at the Prime Minister’s announcement. The word “discrimination” was almost the first thing said: discrimination against Muslims, against women, against men, against non-Muslims. In fact, the arguments that broke out were about precisely who was being discriminated against, with some students feeling that her religion was being attacked and singled out unfairly.
There is a temptation here to wonder if this division wasn’t part of the intention, and I wouldn’t like to say. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine what would have happened had Mr Cameron been passing. Therefore, I would like to invite him to my class: a standing invitation, should he be interested. I invite him to do more than a token visit to a low level community centre class not far from the main London train line, and come and talk about his ideas to some students with the language to talk back.