Katherine Bilsborough

Creating ELT materials

Helping teachers make excellent classroom resources

Please don’t assume you know what I mean by ‘diversity’.

Next month I’m giving a plenary at the 45th TESOL Spain Convention [Register here]. When I was invited to speak, I decided to combine my area of expertise (creating ELT materials) with the theme of the convention ‘Innovating changes: a world of Diversity’. So I came up with the title:

Creating ELT Materials to promote Diversity: Why? How? (and How not?)

and the blurb:

Creating our own materials is a great way to bring diversity into our lessons. But it can feel like a challenge. How can we be sure that the materials we produce are appropriate, use acceptable terminology and help to cultivate harmony and respect in the classroom? In this plenary I’ll share some advice about what to do, and what not to do.

How to frame things

Over the past few weeks I’ve been planning the presentation, thinking about how I’ll frame the information I want to share and how to make it as useful as possible for participants.

The audience

A plenary is always a bit trickier than a regular session because the audience covers a broader spectrum. Instead of speaking to, for example, all primary teachers, I could be speaking to Business English teachers, infant school teachers, IELTS preparation teachers, university students, language school owners, all levels of management, and everything in between. So I need to make things relevant in every possible context.

This isn’t difficult because many of the principles of writing materials are universal. Those that aren’t can be modified to suit different scenarios. The same is true of diversity. In fact, the whole point about diversity is that it is relevant to absolutely everyone, because each and every one of us is unique and everyone we encounter in our professional capacity is unique too. So we are all interested in learning more about this diversity, right?

Wrong!

No place in the classroom

Recent discussions and observations on social media have highlighted the fact that some people firmly believe that diversity, equality and inclusion have no place in an English classroom.  When TESOL Spain shared a link to advertise my talk, I was surprised by the number of people who made (wrong) assumptions about what it was going to be about. Some posted comments. One sent me some messages. Ironically these people had in their head that I was going to talk about a single theme. Gay rights, gender politics and race were suggested. I pointed out that a plenary talk about diversity which only focused on one group of under-represented people wouldn’t be very diverse. The man who sent me the messages asked me if I was a ‘closet lipstick lesbian’. All I could think of were his poor students. Other comments I had were:

We are language teachers, not social workers.

Just focus on the language and forget pushing your agenda. It isn’t difficult.

Who do you think you are, trying to brainwash kids?

There have been other comments too. Some very disrespectful as conversations have got heated. But there’s no need to reproduce them here. You get the picture.

So while I’ve been planning my plenary, thinking about the usual things like how to start, how to end, what to include, what to leave out, which images might be good on which slide and how best to present certain ideas, I’ve been forced to rethink a lot of my own preconceived assumptions. I’ve had to step outside my bubble and listen to colleagues who have diametrically opposed views to my own. It hasn’t been easy because some of these people have views that upset or offend me. But the good thing is that most people who are reluctant to think about diversity in the context of the classroom are simply afraid of ‘going there’ and say things like:

I’m afraid of getting it wrong.

I don’t know enough about [insert any unrepresented group].

What if I try and make it worse by triggering someone?

These are the people I want to reach. Because these are the people who care enough about their learners to pause before jumping right in and possibly [probably?] getting it wrong, of doing things in a ‘willy nilly’ way – a term that Brian Tomlinson has often made in relation to materials writing, and one which I regularly borrow.

I’m learning heaps as I plan my presentation. It’s time-consuming because like the teachers I’ve mentioned, I want to feel confident that I’m getting it right. In my experience as a teacher and as a materials writer there have, of course, been occasions when I’ve got it wrong. I’m only human, after all. I’m hoping I’ll have the courage to share those examples with my audience. And perhaps after the event I’ll come back and write a follow-up here too.

Three thoughts

In the meantime, I’m thinking about how we embrace diversity, inclusion and equality in the materials we create and how we can work together to make sure we do a good job. For now, I’ll leave you with three thoughts on the topic of more diversity as we create ELT materials.

1. Nobody is expected to know about everything. So we need to ask for help and get advice about things we aren’t sure of.

2. We need to develop our own empathy and this means listening more. Only by putting ourselves in the shoes of those who will use our materials (teachers and learners) can we be sure that we’re on the right track. 

3. Just because we focus on diversity, it doesn’t mean we can forget about other principles of materials writing. We are language teachers, so language and must underpin everything we do.

Thank you for reading.

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