ESL etc.

Global Issues and Activism in English Language Teaching

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Small, J. (2003) The potential of language education: A global issues perspective. The Language Teacher, 27(3), 9-13.

August 20th, 2007 by Dave · No Comments

The global educator seeks to articulate alternatives to the views that the purpose of learning English is success in the business world (as measured by moneymaking and consuming), being a tourist, and having fun.

As educators who may sometimes have been frustrated by our students’ reluctance to offer opinions, we might consider Japan’s Buddhist heritage. It is said in Buddhism that before one speaks, the message should pass through three gates: Does this need to be said? Will it bring harmony and wisdom? Are my words true? At some point, talking about hobbies or Titanic will fail this test.

Some educators are uncomfortable with a global issues focus because it has an agenda, or takes positions that are supposedly political. The danger of a global educator indoctrinating students to reject war in an uncritical fashion, or to feel guilty about shopping, exists, but (1) any sort of coercion, censoring of a student’s viewpoint, or judgmental preaching is an aberration of global education, and (2) any classroom content constitutes a presentation of a world view–a slice of reality–which can (not always fairly) be labeled indoctrination.

An educator presenting topics about environmental degradation, volunteer opportunities, or social injustice is simply providing a different slice of reality with the hope that the knowledge and empathy gained will inspire the student and give them the tools to help create a better world.

Being a global issues educator does not begin in the classroom but with a worldview that refuses to accept the status quo.

This helps explain how individuals can so easily accept a world of gross injustices: villagers handicapped by landmines, street children forced to scavenge for food, arms proliferation and warmongering of aggressive governments, and indeed the homeless in Osaka or Tokyo–none seem to be part of our world, nor of our students’ worlds. To many teachers, these injustices are more or less invisible and/or irrelevant to their lives and to language teaching, and are thus ignored in favor of “safe” topics like shopping, homestays in America, and movies.

However, if teaching materials implicitly send the message that: material wealth equals happiness; working in the business world is the key to success in life; the main purpose for learning English (and indeed life) is sightseeing and entertainment; and we live in a just, peaceful world, is teaching neutral? Is it fulfilling its greatest potential?

Teaching global issues involves risk taking. Even if an educator finds the rationale for global issues appealing, doubts as to whether students will respond positively and whether the material will be presented at an appropriate level, still remain.

A willingness to take risks, passion for a topic, and a healthy attitude towards mistakes will all be communicated to the student in the best possible way, by example.

Given the lack of global issues textbooks, one route an educator could take would be eschewing a textbook altogether. A classroom textbook, for all its obvious benefits, is a huge constraint on the teacher’s freedom to implement a global issues curriculum.

Video can also be used for a wide range of levels. While application with higher level students is obvious, lower level students present more of a challenge. Short, understandable scenes from thought-provoking movies such as Patch Adams (human well-being) or The Saint of Fort Washington (homelessness) can be shown more than once. A transcript can then be provided to students and explained in detail. Students can then memorize a few lines and play-act the scene.

Dictogloss, or grammar dictation, is another way to achieve global issues aims. With dictogloss, a short narrative is prepared by the teacher and read to students who take notes on the spoken narrative, confer with partners to recreate the meaning, then check with the actual spoken sentence as a whole class activity.

If an educator would rather (or is forced to) have the structure of a text, they can apply some global issues criteria, asking themselves:

  • Does the text tend towards sensationalism, presenting popular movies, advertisements, and pop stars? Or does the text present the student with the opportunity to gain meaningful knowledge about the world?
  • Are students treated as children who only respond to a culture of cute? Or are students treated as adults who can think critically about meaningful topics?
  • Are all the world’s citizens represented, black and white, rich and poor? Or does the text ignore the vast majority of the earth’s population who can’t drive a car, fly to exotic destinations, nor in many cases even sustain themselves and their family with adequate food?

The global issues perspective considers language learning an opportunity to not only raise students’ awareness about issues of peace and justice, but also point the way towards solutions.

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