Katherine Bilsborough

Creating ELT materials

Helping teachers make excellent classroom resources

Should we be talking about war with our students?

Uncomfortable topics

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.

Clashing opinions

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.

Finally …

… let’s all hope and pray that this bloody war in Ukraine is short-lived.

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12 thoughts on “Should we be talking about war with our students?”

  1. Teach the syllabus. Once again, we don’t need to consider ourselves as anything but teachers of a code of communication. Anyway, it’s a can of worms: The pathetic EU arguing about whether Gucci loafers and top branded luxury goods (Italian) should be included in sanctions. Belgium not wanting to lose its diamond trade. An old pathetic weak man in Pennsylvania Avenue, while Putin threatens Sweden and Finland with military action.
    Let’s stick to teaching and discussing topics which are part of what we had planned to teach, discussions which arise from core course material.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Simon. I appreciate it. But the point here is that some teachers want to teach this as part of their course material. Hence my blog post. Hence my concern that it should be done in a sensitive way or not done at all. I’ve already been asked to give feedback on some materials that have been written in response to the requests of students. One set of materials were really well thought out, one set wasn’t. I’ve yet to look at the third set. I get your point re ‘can of worms’ but equipping students with the linguistic skills they need to be able to understand news reports and share their opinions is part of our job as English teachers. And my job, as a materials writer and teacher trainer is to help teachers who do decide ot make materials, to do so appropriately.

  2. I’m retired now, but in my last year of teaching had an 11-year-old Ukrainian in one class. My thinking here is that it may be a hard topic to avoid, especially for anyone with Ukrainian students. It’s plastered all over the news and it is probably best to at least be prepared. Think it through. How are you as a teacher going to react if a student brings it up? And as you say, be caring/sensitive. Listen. Do students want to talk about it or not?
    The following is unrelated to Ukraine but sort of illustrates how sometimes a lesson plan and the materials can be irrelevant anyway. Our students are people first and foremost and I kind of think it’s up to us as teachers to help (or ‘facilitate’ or whatever the trendy term is now) them say what they actually want to say.
    OK, it was A2 adults. Suited businessman in his early 40’s arrives a couple of minutes late but quickly settles in a group. About halfway through the lesson he just broke down in tears. He’d been late because of a doctor’s appointment. Cancer survivor, he’d just been told that the cancer had come back and he had 6 months to live. “I will never see my children grow up”. I swear I have never seen so much genuine communication in a classroom. And so much humanity as his classmates listened in total, respectful silence and then reacted with hugs and words of support.

    1. Thank you for sharing this story, Julie. It illustrates the importance of being human and connecting with our students. We need to be sensitive but we need to follow our instincts ultimately, I think, when it comes to addressing issues in class.

  3. A very timely and carefully argues post, Catherine. Huge thanks for taking the time to offer this to colleagues. I am sure a lot of us will find your recommendations extremely useful. Kindest,

  4. Pingback: Teaching Resources on Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine | Global Issues SIG

  5. Margit Szesztay

    Very useful, Katherine. Just the kind of brief, clear and informative text I was looking for. I will use it tomorrow in class with my teacher trainees. They all have a lot of questions about bringing sensitive but significant issues into their classrooms. …. I myself am thinking / rethinking the very questions raised by your post. My response has been to devote five minutes of every class to the war. By listening to a poem, watching a short video clip, giving students a chance to say how they feel about what’s going on. Getting on with life /teaching as usual just seems wrong. But like you said, it’s all about context, and I work in higher education with future teachers.

    1. Hi Margit,
      Thank you so much for commenting. I think your approach is just perfect, really inspiring in fact. Your context is ideal for the approach you are taking. Good luck and please stay in touch.

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