ESL etc.

Global Issues and Activism in English Language Teaching

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Brown, H. D. (2004) Some practical thoughts about student-sensitive critical pedagogy. The Language Teacher, 28(7), 23-27.

August 20th, 2007 by Dave · No Comments

We language teachers and teacher educators are reminded that we are all driven by convictions about what this world should look like, how its people should behave, how its governments should control that behavior, and how its inhabitants should be partners in the stewardship of the planet.

Is this call for subversive teaching a challenge that English language teachers can and should take up in the present day? Do those of us who teach languages have a special responsibility to “subvert” attitudes and beliefs and assumptions?

  • to subvert the assumption that language teaching is neutral, sterile, and inorganic?
  • to subvert the assumption that language teaching has nothing to do with politics and power?
  • to subvert the assumption that we teachers should avoid “hot topics” or touchy issues in the classroom, touchy issues like global planetary stewardship, war, violence, touchy issues like hate, prejudice, and discrimination?

I think all of us, if we haven’t done so already, need to take heed lest we become the inadvertent perpetuators of a widening of the gap between haves and have-nots. Language is power, and the unequal distribution of language programs across the world surely could contribute to the ultimate unequal distribution of power.

Can English language teachers facilitate the formation of classroom communities of learners who critically examine moral, ethical, and political issues surrounding them, and do so sensitively, without pushing a personal subversive agenda? I would like to suggest here three guidelines, along with some examples, of engaging in critical pedagogy while respecting the values and beliefs of our students.

1. Teachers are responsible for giving students opportunities to learn about important social/moral/ethical issues and to analyze all sides of an issue.

A language class is an ideal locus for offering information on topics of significance to students. The objectives of a curriculum are not limited to linguistic factors alone, but also include developing the art of critical thinking.

2. Teachers are responsible for creating an atmosphere of respect for each other’s opinions, beliefs, and ethnic/cultural diversity.

The classroom becomes a model of the world as a context for tolerance and for the appreciation of diversity. Discourse structures such as “I see your point, but … ” are explicitly taught and used in classroom discussions and debates. Students learn how to disagree without imposing one’s own belief or opinions on others. In all this, it is important that the teacher’s personal opinions or beliefs remain sensitively covert, lest a student feel coerced into thinking something because the teacher thinks that way.

3. Teachers are responsible for maintaining a threshold of morality and ethics in the classroom climate.

Occasionally a teacher needs to exercise some discipline when students show disrespect or hatred based on, say, race, religion, ethnicity, or gender. Teachers should ascertain that “universal” moral principles (love, equality, tolerance, freedom) are manifested in the classroom. This guideline is, in effect, a paradox because it presupposes certain values to be beyond reproach. Such a presupposition violates the very principle of respect captured in the guideline (#2) above. Nevertheless, this is where one’s pedagogy becomes “critical” in that the teacher’s vision of “a better and more humane life” is usually predicated on such basic values.

Guided by a clear vision of your own mission as a teacher, promote critical thinking on complex issues, remain as neutral as possible in the process, but be fully aware that you are promoting a set of values in your classroom, even if somewhat covertly.

Can you engage in sensitive critical pedagogy in your classrooms? Can you take a bold step forward and at the same time respect the beliefs and attitudes of your students? What are some activities you can do that would respect students’ points of view yet stir them to a higher consciousness of their own role as agents of change? How would you respond to statements from students that reflect hate or intolerance?

* Brown also includes examples from classrooms around the world. It also lists 6 moral imperatives for being a socially responsible teacher.

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