Dealing With Controversial Topics In The Classroom
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If you spend a lot of time with the same EFL class, you may find yourself recycling the same topics over and over again. Family, occupations, free time, sports, technology, the environment…sound familiar? Talking about the same topics with the same students can get a bit boring, not only for you but for your students as well. To add a little spice to your lessons you may decide to add some more interesting topics. After all, there are so many things to discuss and debate that aren’t included in coursebooks.
However, the reason these topics are chosen for coursebooks are because they are safe and inoffensive. Bringing in other topics opens you up to the possibility of causing unnecessary stress and tension in the classroom. So before you throw out your coursebook and design a whole new curriculum, you need to make sure your students are fully prepared to step out of their comfort zone in the classroom.
First of all, be careful about your choice of topic.
There are loads of really interesting topics which are suitable for classrooms, but there are many which aren’t. You need to be particularly careful about this if you are teaching younger learners or in a conservative environment.
Discussing the laws on smoking or drinking could be perfectly suitable for one class but not for another class that is too young or who would not feel comfortable speaking on the topic. Speaking about a local celebrity could be really interesting for one class but not at all for another. It all depends on your students. For some classes it may even be possible to push the envelope even further and speak about prostitution, abortion or other really controversial topics.
Then, make sure you are comfortable with the topic yourself.
There is no way you can lead a discussion or an activity based on a topic which you makes you squirm or blush. Or, for that matter, a topic which you do not know much about. Your students won’t take the lesson seriously or won’t have the courage to speak their minds if the teacher is unable to contribute in any way.
A very popular book to use if you want to deal with controversial topics in the classroom is Taboos and Issues by Richard MacAndrew and Ron Martinez (2001). It includes topics like nudity, depression, racism and addictions, among others. Clearly, you would need to choose topics which would be suitable for both you and your learners but it provides a great resource for tackling hot topics.
Finally, don’t let it get heated.
Though understandably the point of introducing such topics is to get a reaction from your students and to encourage critical thinking, because these topics can be sensitive and can lead to students voicing very different opinions you need to be careful how the lesson develops.
It’s important to keep the discussion or activities under control so that the lesson isn’t reduced to an emotional battlefield. Don’t let individual students dominate the conversation and make sure the atmosphere is comfortable enough for everyone to voice their opinions, even if different.
If you are interested in trying out a few more controversial topics in your classroom but are a bit hesitant, read one teacher’s story on how he did it and the response he got here.
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