Should we be talking about war with our students?
Unsurprisingly, as we watch events unfold in Ukraine, this is a question being discussed in several forums over the past few days and, again unsurprisingly, people are sharing a wide range of opinions. It got me to thinking about the matter specifically from a materials writer’s perspective and to writing this blog post. It’s based on my observations and the conclusions I’ve drawn from them, but it probably holds true for how I feel about any provocative or uncomfortable topic and its place in the classroom.
One such discussion took place in a global institution’s Teacher Community in a Facebook group. A teacher asked for advice about dealing with questions from students about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Things got heated as opinions were so divided and after about six hours the moderators decided to close down the comments. I’m not saying this was right or wrong but it illustrates the sensitivity of the topic.
Here are five comments I’ve seen on social media in response to the question in my title. I’ve had permission to use them but I’ve chosen not to attribute them.
- Politics has no place in the English classroom. We should be teaching language.
- I think it could be useful but I’m worried my students will get upset.
- My students are talking about nothing else. How can I not teach it?
- We should make lessons around news reports but we shouldn’t share our own opinions. That isn’t necessary.
- We should leave this topic for the students to read about themselves.
- We are teachers. We can change the world. Yes, of course we must talk about this war.
It comes as no surprise that opinions are divided. Thinking back to the last staff room I used to frequent, I can easily imagine different friends and colleagues saying each of the comments above.
So what do I think?
Ultimately, as always, everything depends on context. A one-to-one Business English lesson with someone keen to talk politics isn’t the same as a class of eight-year-old primary children. And then there is every imaginable class-type in between. Most teachers know their students and they will decide for themselves whether to ‘go there’ or not.
A few things are clear to me
- Some teachers and some students want to talk about this.
- Some teachers are actively looking for appropriate materials they can use.
- Some teachers are finding these materials but some aren’t.
- Some of those teachers who aren’t finding what they need are creating their own materials.
If you are one of those teachers, here are a few suggestions.
Remember to care!
Caring should be at the heart of everything as you write your materials. Think about how your learners will respond, as a group and as individuals. Can you be sure that no-one will be triggered by something they read or a photo they might be forced to examine? If you can’t be sure, then maybe you shouldn’t proceed.
Have clear objectives
This should be at the heart of all materials of course. But sometimes when we feel an urgent need to write something quickly, objectives get forgotten. Ask yourself things like
Do I want to provide my students with language so that they are equipped to take part in discussions?
Do I want to help my students understand news reports?
Do I want my students to develop their debating skills?
Answers to these and similar questions should inform the direction of your materials and help you choose the kind of tasks you need to design and the support you need to offer.
Consider your sources for the content of your materials
Use a reputable source. This isn’t always easy in a world where fake news is so widespread. One approach could be to tap into this and encourage critical thinking by actively using articles or photos that have been fact-checked and found to be false, like these here from the BBC, and providing a few discussion questions such as:
Who benefits from this fake news?
What are the consequences of sharing fake news?
Another idea could be to find news reports from different countries and ask students to analyse them and make comparisons.
Keep the language in mind
That person who posted on Facebook was right – we are language teachers first and foremost. If you are using a text, spend some time analyzing it carefully first. Can you extract a useful lexical set? Are there examples of register you could draw attention to? What language do you want your learners to produce?
Don’t forget about levels
It’s easy to get carried away when you come across a great video or article that seems to be perfect for your materials. But don’t forget the level. Run the text through a language profiler such as Vocabkitchen [here] to get an analysis based on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages [CEFR] or the Academic Word List [AWL]. Then, if necessary, you can adjust the text, pre-teach some vocabulary or provide a glossary.
A second pair of eyes
Always get a second pair of eyes to look over your materials. They can check for appropriateness, as well as things like typos or other common errors. If possible, for something like this, which could be controversial, ask someone who might not share your views too closely. As psychologist and educationalist Kenneth Kaye said, ‘Two heads are better than one only if they contain different opinions’.
A note about copyright
Don’t forget to uphold and respect the rules of copyright. Lots of teachers mistakenly believe they can use any article or image they find on the internet if it’s for educational purposes. This isn’t true. Copyright infringement is a kind of theft and as teachers we should model ethical behaviour for our students, so we can’t ignore these rules . Make sure you do the following:
- Check which Creative Commons license the article or image has to see whether you can use it [read more about licenses here].
- Always attribute your sources.
- If you aren’t sure whether you have permission to use something, don’t use it!
- Don’t be afraid of writing to the author to ask for permission to use a piece of work. In my experience they’ll be happy to say yes.
Tip! One way to avoid potential copyright issues is to include a link to the content so that your learners can access it at its original location, instead of cutting and pasting it into your materials.
… let’s all hope and pray that this bloody war in Ukraine is short-lived.