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Controversial Issues in the Classroom

by Jane Godwin Coury, Sao Carlos, Brazil, August 2001

Inspired by a plenary at the 4th Southern Cone TESOL Convention


Having listened to Professor H. Douglas Brown’s fascinating plenary entitled Teachers for Social Responsibility: Guidelines for your Classroom at the recent 4th Southern Cone TESOL Convention held in Curitiba, Brazil from July 12 to 15, I felt inspired to write this article.  The aim of this article is to summarize the Professor’s main points and guidelines, as well as to share some practical ideas for the classroom based on our reality in Brazil. 

What was the plenary about?

A well known professional in the field of TESOL, H. Douglas Brown is a Professor of English and also the Director of the American Language Institute at San Francisco State University.  In his plenary, Professor Brown told the audience about a group of TESOL members who are actively engaged in integrating language teaching with social responsibility, world citizenship and an awareness of global issues such as peace, human rights and the environment.  This group of people aims to promote social responsibility within the TESOL profession and to investigate content, methods, and materials which promote tolerance, international understanding, and action for a better world. 

Examples of Social Responsibility and Global Issues

Professor Brown gave some practical examples of the kind of work regarding this subject being carried out at San Francisco State University.  English language learners were taken to a local beach and were given a dustbin liner each.  They were asked to pick up litter on the beach and sort it out into plastic, paper, etc for recycling.  The aim was for the participants, who were from many different countries, to discuss what they were doing in the target language, as well as to become socially aware of an environmental problem.  Another example was a newspaper article that was about the burning down of an abortion clinic.  English language learners were asked to discuss the issues involved and have a debate on the subject.  The objective of carrying out this exercise was to promote a culture of open-mindedness and acceptance of diverse points of view. 

Teachers’ Reactions and Beliefs

Some research was carried out at San Francisco State University concerning the kind of reactions a teacher may have if a student says something controversial in the classroom, e.g. I would never live next door to a black person or Terrorism is the only way to solve some problems. Teachers’ reactions ranged from being deeply shocked to mildly taking the comment in stride.  The interesting finding was that when a teacher’s own belief system was contradicted (e.g. the terrorism statement above) there was clearly more likelihood that the teacher would follow up with a statement or class discussion to examine the “other side” of the issue.  When teachers felt that a statement agreed with their own philosophy (e.g. Lesbians adopting children is a great idea) they were much less likely to follow up with an examination of the issue.  The message that this study delivered, as related by Professor Brown, was not only that teachers should be open and accepting of different opinions, but also should recognise that that their own beliefs might be controversial in the eyes of others and therefore should give “equal time” to a treatment of those issues as well.  In fact, one of the guidelines for dealing with controversial issues in the classroom that Professor Brown mentioned was that as teachers, we are responsible for creating an atmosphere of respect for each other’s opinions, beliefs and cultural diversity and all ideas are welcome. 

Practical Ideas for the Classroom in a Brazilian Context

While I was listening to Professor Brown’s plenary, I started thinking how I could integrate language teaching with social responsibility and global issues in a Brazilian context.  Various ideas related to recent experiences I had had came to my mind.  These ideas are explained below: 

The Environment

While I was in Curitiba I went to the Bosque Alemão, which is a park where the story of Hansel and Gretel is told along a trail.  In the middle of the story you come across the Gingerbread House, which is actually a library-cum-story telling place for children.  I had an idea inspired by the children’s story which was being told on that day.  The narrator had about 5 different drawings of a story which was about how planet Earth was sick.  She elicited from the children why planet Earth was in danger showing pictures of the planet looking ill with a thermometer in her mouth, littered beaches and rivers, the cutting down of trees and how planet earth could be a healthy place if the inhabitants looked after her properly.  This is an easy activity to prepare for children learning English as you just need some drawings, which can be prepared by yourself or the children, and you need to think about  the vocabulary and grammatical structures you are going to use in the story beforehand.   

Social issues

There are many talk shows on Brazilian television nowadays and most of them deal with controversial issues.  I had recently watched Superpop, a Brazilian programme where gay people were talking about their lives as parents.  An idea based on a programme such as this one could be to ask if any students had watched the programme and elicit the content of that particular issue from the students as well as to provide them with some vocabulary.  Afterwards write a statement on the board such as It is fine for gay parents to bring up children. Students can then discuss the pros and cons in small groups.    You can also equip them with statements such as I strongly agree or In my point of view.  Another idea based on the same task is to discuss an issue related to a soap opera such as It is ok for black people to be portrayed as maids and not as middle/upper class citizens.  Also concerning social issues, I have tried a thought-provoking activity which is actually from the Proficiency Masterclass coursebook (1) but can be used for Intermediate upwards.  A situation is described in the box below and students must discuss it in small groups.  The teacher can act as facilitator helping with vocabulary.  After the discussions, you could get two groups to talk to each other to compare their ideas.      

A baby has been found abandoned on the steps of a church, and the mother has disappeared.  You have been asked to form a committee to decide who should adopt the child.  Discuss the following criteria and mark the ideas as to how important they are, on a scale of 1-5 (5 = vitally important, 1 = relevant). 

The adoptive parents should:

q       both be under 35 years old

q       be a couple, i.e. the child should not go to a single parent family

q       have some professional experience of dealing with children, i.e. as teachers or nurses

q       have other children in the family

q       both be in full time employment

q       be of the same racial group as the child

q       be either in the middle-income bracket or rich

q       be married

q       not adhere to any minority religious group or cult  

Doing our Part for the World

There is no doubt about it, our planet is in danger as it is plagued by environmental problems, hatred among social groups causing wars, poverty and many other controversial issues.   As teachers, we can make a difference not just in improving our students’ English, but also in helping them to become socially aware.   There are many examples in our every day lives that can be used in the classroom, the energy crisis that Brazil is currently going through for one.  There is also a time and a way to discuss such issues in our lessons.  It is no good going in on a Monday and saying Today we are going to talk about litter.  We need to warm up to the subject, equip our students with vocabulary and structures, and try to fit the issue into our schedule (e.g. a unit in the coursebook on the environment).  If we all do our part and pull together, maybe we can promote social responsibility within the TESOL profession and outside it and make a significant difference. 

(1)      Gude, Kathy & Duckworth, Michael (1998) Proficiency Masterclass, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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