Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Parsnips in the Classroom - Part One: Politics

Skim through most ELT course books and you’ll find a dearth of parsnips. No, I’m not talking about the carrot’s anaemic big cousin. Rather, I am referring to the acronym used to describe the topics which course books avoid in order to avoid alienating large sections of their client base. PARSNIPS refers to politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, -isms and pork.*

The fact that course books are parsnip free is, on reflection, perfectly understandable. As Thornbury points out: “publishers have to tread a narrow line between the need to provide interesting, topical texts, on the one hand, and to avoid controversy on the other”  (Thornbury, 2005: 149). However, with the appropriate group of learners, parsnips can be so engaging! The fundamental importance of parsnips in  our lives encourages a level of debate and discussion, which, let’s face it, no amount of Mr Joe Blancmange modelling the present perfect tense  texts are ever going to do.

As a part time course book user, I have come to the conclusion that I owe it to my learners to provide a balanced diet of classroom activity, which includes parsnips. Over the next weeks, I will be exploring ways in which I might approach the these topics. (I am particularly looking forward to pork.)

Let’s take it from the top and start with politics. Young adult learners are, to my mind, a curiously apolitical bunch. “Politics is so boring!” and “I don’t know anything about politics” are common refrains I hear when I mention the p- word.  Why is this? Some associate politics with shiny suits, spin and meaningless rhetoric: a world in which they have no voice. This is all the more true of migrant worker  learners: the majority of whom show no interest in voting. Sadly, they feel they lack the time, energy, status and linguistic skills to have an opinion, let alone get involved, in any political debate. Scratch the surface, however, and it is soon clear that learners do have a voice and they do have opinions.  And for ESOL teachers, helping learners find this voice is of paramount importance. How else can we hope to counteract the series of discriminatory blows being dealt them by our coalition government?

It is perhaps best to introduce the topic of politics in a straightforward, playful way. Take time to provide learners with the language they need to talk about the big issues. Allow them to express ideas and opinions through the safety net of a pre-ordained view point (i.e. a role play activity). Let them engage in debate about things that concern them. 

 My learners (the same ones who professed to be completely disinterested in politics) quickly became engaged in a heated debate about Shetland Council’s careless money management and the folly of our new (and much delayed) state of the art cinema. 

If you want to try this out for yourself check out my lesson on:

Let me know how you get on!

* Thornbury, Scott: Beyond the Sentence: Introducing Discourse Analysis (Macmillan, 2005)