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Think Tank

This Month's Think Tank Panel

February 2005

Topic: Should "real world" tragedy be brought into the classroom?

Marc Helgesen

The Tsunami. 155,000 dead and counting. More than died in Hiroshima. Does it affect my students? One group of 40 was in India at the time. Thank God they are all OK. At this time last year, I had over 20 in Thailand. Does it affect my students? Of course. They're human. It affects us all.

How will I deal with it in class? I don't know. I'm not sure yet. I'm not sure I really understand what 155,000 lives means. How should I deal with it in class?

After 9/11, some students came to my office and said, "We have to do something." They organized a prayer service and an offering that raised money for victims in both the USA and Afghanistan.

“There is a tendency to avoid negative topics in language class. We tend to stick to the bland.”

My students are involved in other action projects like charity for Niigata victims and Fair Trade project education. I'm sure we'll do something.

How will I deal with it in class? I don't know. I'm not sure yet.

How do we deal with negative, painful topics? When the Think Tank panelists were discussing how to bring up the issue of bad news, Chuck wrote: "It's a central issue here: we do often do our best to promote communication and then avoid communicating, really."

There is a tendency to avoid negative topics in language class. We tend to stick to the bland. What kind of music do you like? Who is your favorite movie star? Bland. Kind of like asking "What is your favorite type of white bread?"

I had lunch with some students today. Two told me about books they had read over the holiday. One was a love story. "But," the student complained, "three characters died. Suicide. What kind of love story is that?" Then she added, "Well, it did have a happy ending." The other told about a powerful story of a victim of war who later became a soldier. My student found it upsetting.

Think about it. Real, live emotions when reacting to a story in English. Powerful.

Real feelings because the students were relating stories. They were reacting to stories. Life is about stories. And both life and stories contain negatives. I am a strong believer in personalizing the classroom. I don't think it is usually OK to say, "Tell about a time you cried." That should be the learner's choice. But "Tell about a time you were very happy OR very sad" is much stronger than "Tell about a time you were happy." If the students are OK with bringing up sad, or confusing, or painful stories, they often make great topics. Because stories engage us. We're human. We care about other people.

But I am still no closer to knowing what I'll do with the Tsunami and its aftermath in class. Like you, I have spent some time the past couple weeks emailing friends to see if they were all right. And thinking about ­ worrying about ­ students. I teach at university, and university students often take vacations in places like Thailand and Indonesia. In many cases, I had no way of knowing who was traveling and where.

I'm reminded of a poem by Jules Lester I learned years ago. It contained the lines:

"Take the time to tell people you care about that you love them.
You never know when you won't have that chance again."

I don't know what I will do, but I do know what I did during my first class this morning: I told the students that was so happy to see them ­ because I really care about them.

PS: I wrote the above article on the first day of classes. A few days later, the departmental student organization decided to set up a fund-raising drive to help tsunami victims. They did this on their own.

I am really blessed to work with these kinds of people.

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Peter Viney

The recent tsunami disaster brings up the question of how we deal with such events in the classroom. I’m certainly not talking about a ‘teaching opportunity’ which I think is a totally inappropriate response.

The day it happens
If you’re teaching as a major tragedy unfolds, there isn’t a lot of choice except to gather round a TV set, tune into the news and watch, trying to help explain the events as they unfold in simpler English. For many, this is the 9/11 scenario. They were in class as it happened. With something as great and as sudden as the tsunami or 9/11, it’s highly likely that the lesson situation becomes so irrelevant that you will all prefer to watch the news in the mother tongue.

“Events of this magnitude generally cause people to open up to strangers. But you can neither expect nor demand a particular response.”

After the immediate impact
Here we’re looking at the time span just after the immediate news. It could be that your students have spent all day watching it on TV, and have come to class. Maybe they want an air of normalcy, maybe they want to discuss it there and then. This is not a situation where you’d ever use it as “teaching material” but one where you gently help them express their feelings. The one concession to a language class would be to switch to CNN, Sky News or BBC World News. You might go as far as to record the news, not as teaching material, but because the classroom has a video but not access to cable or satellite. The role is still explanation. As ever, when recording the news, it only works that day or the next.

Degree of intimacy
Marc mentions expressing genuine feelings in English rather than discussing the normal bland topics. There is a question here though. What degree of intimacy do you have with your students? What degree of intimacy do they have with one another? If you’re seeing your students and they’re seeing each other once, or a couple of times a week for 90 minutes, some of them may well not want to open up their feelings. Discussion is related to degree of intimacy. Some people have the knack for escalating conversation to a deeper degree of intimacy. Others don't. Having said that, events of this magnitude generally cause people to open up to strangers. But you can neither expect nor demand a particular response.

Personal involvement
Are your students personally involved in the tragedy? Do they have friends or loved ones impacted by it? Do you as the teacher know this? I’ve taught classes during wars where I had students from both sides in the same room. This was in my early teaching days during the Arab / Israeli conflict of 1973. I’ve told this story before, but I arrived to find two Arab students outside the classroom. They asked me to wait while their Israeli classmate, worried about his family, finished listening to the 2 o’clock news. Because the concept of supporting travelling companions is so deeply embedded in Arab culture, their Israeli classmate’s status as a “travelling companion” outweighed the war situation and he was treated with both sympathy and overt displays of friendship, which were reciprocated. But that was before the days of suicide bombers and bulldozers. I somehow doubt that it would happen now.

Even if you’re certain that none of your class is personally involved, then the question of parallel disasters in their own lives comes up. You’re highly unlikely to know whether the event is replaying deep emotions. Perhaps this is always true. Personal memories of car accidents, murders, plane crashes or whatever can always be set off and we couldn’t ever get bland enough to avoid any possibility!

Collecting money
What situation are you teaching in and how far does it dominate the student’s interface with the outside world? If you’re teaching in a residential university or (as I was for years) in a multi-lingual school in an English-speaking country, the school will provide the easiest route for students to contribute to disaster relief. We never put the hat round in class. Some of our students on government contracts had very little money and were sharing classrooms with rich bankers. Instead we made a collection point available in the student reception area. If you’re teaching in a non-residential system or a private language school, you will be aware that students have had the opportunity to contribute elsewhere in their lives and that no one can be expected to give everywhere, every time.

What can we do?
This is a natural response, and one the teacher might be in a position to assist. It happened for me in the UK during the devastating earthquakes in Nicaragua and Mexico City. We already had a weekly show for students with 400 seats. When we announced that the next show would be for earthquake relief, we were overwhelmed by students wishing to participate. It feels better to contribute time and personal energy rather than (or as well as) simply contributing cash. We had a lot of Latin Americans and we put on teacher / student shows. No language content except necessary language in rehearsals. They sang in Spanish. A Japanese pop singer who was at the school sang in Japanese. An Iranian girl sang in English. A professional Turkish mime artist performed silently. The singers either backed themselves or we had our regular band back them. We raised a lot of money for Nicaragua. Also people felt they had done their bit. It takes a great deal of organization. It needs facilities and above all a potential paying audience.

Compassion fatigue
In the last two days, this problem has been mentioned by both Sir Bob Geldof and Tony Blair. Both referred to the ongoing situation in Africa, with starvation, war and AIDs, which they said results in the weekly equivalent of the tsunami (this was said a week ago, since when numbers have doubled, but the exact scale is irrelevant. It’s not a competition for sympathy), but Africa has passed beyond the public perception of immediate need. So how do you avoid this happening with the tsunami victims, who will need help for months and years to rebuild their communities? I don’t know the answer any more than they do. In a school or university situation, some lengthy ongoing project or relationship with a connection to a school in an affected area might be possible, but we won’t know for a few months because that’s the least of their worries now.

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Curtis Kelly

Tsunami. Death and dislocation. What a difficult topic for our Think Tank. But I have been thinking about this topic a lot, and one recurrent doubt has kept creeping up into my mind: Just because I am so moved by this tragedy, what makes me think my students are too? After all, most of the eighteen year-olds I know act like they would go blind if they read a newspaper, but I was like that too. Granted, a disaster as traumatic as this one, flooding into our television screens every hour is bound to have some impact. As Marc said, of course they feel, “they’re human,” but it might be wrong to assume they feel the way we do for that same reason. They’re human, and the one crucial notion that education has inherited from cognitive psychology is that we can only attend to what is meaningful to us and we can only learn things that we have some kind of personal ownership of.

“We imagine our own families and homes being destroyed and we wonder what we can do to help. This is ownership.”

We older, wiser, and more worldly Think Tankers own this tragedy. All of us are living, or have lived, in an Asian country. All of us have visited at least one of the countries affected, and have friends there. All of us have worked to gain a home and strived to raise a family. So when a woman in a sari comes on television and tells us about how she lost her home and family, we can share her misery. We feel we know that person because she is, in part, each of us. We imagine our own families and homes being destroyed and we wonder what we can do to help. This is ownership.

It is all related to what Senge termed “mental models” twenty years ago. We have these internal constructs and maps that allow us to interpret the events of the tsunami disaster in a personal way. We can use these mental models to imagine what it would be like if it happened to us, and as a result, we experience the wonder of empathy.

But is the same true of an eighteen-year old who has never been out of Sendai? She has never built a home, protected a family, or visited a Thai beach, and she has certainly never bonded with an Indonesian Moslem. Her life is focused on gaining autonomy, finding out who is in her clique, and testing the waters of adulthood. It is wrong to expect her to feel the same way we do about the tsunami disaster. She has a much weaker degree of ownership. To her, the victims of the tsunami might be just as alien as the victims of that even more horrendous disaster in Africa, the one Peter commented, are to us. We have a hard time empathizing with and emoting for the victims of the African disaster ­ compared to say, those of the 9/11 disaster ­ because we cannot take ownership of their situation. We do not have the appropriate mental models. None of us has starved, felt abject poverty, or belonged to a tribe, and that makes it hard for us to make it personal. Well, my creeping doubt has been that the same is probably true for our students in regard to the tsunami disaster.

To test this doubt, I took some time in class today to find out what my students knew about the tsunami disaster. I first asked them information questions to see if they were following the tragedy, and then some questions on their attitudes. The students I asked were eight fourth-year college students, all women, and some of the best I have ever taught. Still, I was surprised that only three of them knew that the most deaths occurred in Indonesia, the others thought Thailand, and that only one could come up with a figure within 50,000 of current death toll estimates. Likewise, only one of the eight had watched at least one television broadcast on the event for 20 minutes or longer. In other words, they were not very informed on the event, which suggested that they were not very interested in it.

Odd, because the latter conclusion was different from what they said. All of them responded they would be “interested” or “very interested” in devoting at least one class to learning about the event. They also had excellent ideas on what we should do in the class. They would like to see news broadcasts from different countries to see how different countries portrayed the event; they would like to know more about problems less directly related to the tsunami, such as post-tsunami crime, health risks, and rebuilding issues; and they would like to discuss what would have happened if the tsunami had hit Japan instead. They even said they would like to do a simulation.

Indeed, even though my little survey confirmed the dark doubt that students are not empathizing to nearly the degree we are, and cannot, it also turned on a light: a light that shines out the solution of how to handle such tragedies in class: Give them the tools to make it their tragedy. Build a bridge over their deficit in mental models that will help them understand, help them empathize, and help them care. As my wonderful students suggested, make them think about what they would do in such a disaster and what they would feel. Do a simulation. Have them write about losing their own homes and families, and then if possible, connect them to someone who did. Help those mental models grow. Watch them take ownership.

In fact, I saw this happen once a long time ago, in the days before e-mail, when I was teaching at Kansai Gaidai. I set up a letter exchange between my first-year college students and English students in a Thai refugee camp. My students wrote nice little letters about themselves and their happy lives. Then, a month later, a packet of replies came, and I will never forget how my students sat right down in the hallway and ripped the packet open to read the letters. Then something happened. They read stories about people who had lost limbs to land mines, lost family members at sea, or were separated forever from their spouses. Their glee changed to grief, but suddenly a whole new world became theirs, because they were actually communicating with someone who invited them into it. They had trouble writing back sometimes, but they were never the same after that, and I am sure that those students, wherever they are now, were hanging on every word of the tsunami reports.

And so the key is to sponsor personal ownership. Then step back and feel the empathy.

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Chuck Sandy

There are times when even our own language fails us, and it is then, through silence, that we come to terms with that which is beyond ordinary comprehension. Because we are all alone in our individual thoughts, it is often only when we are gathered with compassionate others that we can begin to make sense of the incomprehensible. Yet silence is not the opposite of language, nor is being alone the exact opposite of being a part of a group.

“Silence is not the opposite of language, nor is being alone the exact opposite of being a part of a group.”

This was illustrated in a very moving way at the opening plenary of last year’s JALT conference when Jim Swan opened that session with a minute of silence in response to the brutal murder of seven-year-old girl in Nara. This murder had taken place very recently, somewhere very close to where everyone had gathered. It was on everyone’s mind and an unavoidable topic of conversation as friends met up outside the plenary site. Still, in these informal conversations, what was most often mentioned was first horror and astonishment that anyone could do such a thing to a little girl, and then the horrendous facts of the case. People pieced together what information they had and shook their heads in dismay. There really was not that much to say.

Then, in a room with well over a thousand people it all coalesced in that minute of silence. Thoughts and prayers turned both inward and outward at the same time. Each person was alone with his or her thoughts, but united with others as well. One could feel the gathered and focused energy in the moment. Silence and language, alone but together, and what did it accomplish? That silence united us, and in so doing, allowed us to move forward in the thoughtful way we then did. To have done nothing in the face of the tragedy circling around us would have been unthinkable, yet to have done more with words would not have been enough. That moment of silence was the one appropriate response. Jim Swan, a true teacher, knew this and brought the group together in silence.

Not long ago a member of my small poetry seminar walked into class and burst into tears. She had just learned that her beloved grandfather had died, and came to class because she wanted to be with us rather than alone with her grief. There was, as is always the case in such situations, not much of real value that could be said. Yet we comforted her as we could and then, gathered in our usual comfortable circle, offered a minute of silence and prayer in honor of her grandfather. Together, united in that silence, we were able to hold up our classmate in a way that none of us could do singly with words. The class then continued with each of us sharing our work for the week, even much more focused than usual, with everyone even much more sensitive to the feeling of others. At the end of class, the student whose grandfather had died lingered behind to thank me for the prayers, then added that the normalcy of later continuing on with our work was a help to her. Then she burst into tears again, and though I could have spoken to her in either of the languages available to us, I did the only thing I could do at that moment. I hugged her tight.

In a first draft of this essay I began by lamenting that although we strive to promote communication in our classes we often do not in fact communicate much. The truth, though, is at times and in any language, even in our own, there really is not much that can be said. What true words are there in response to the murder of a child? What language is there to comfort one who has lost a family member? What do you say in the face of a natural disaster that sweeps away the lives of over 150,000 people in a handful of instants?

There is no language for tragedy, yet we as teachers are sometimes put into the position of being our group’s center ­ the person who all look towards for guidance and understanding. Whether we are language teachers or math teachers, humanities professors or lecturers in one of the sciences, it is at such times that we need to strip whatever content area we have from in front of our title and remember that we are first of all teachers of the human heart, charged at least to some extent with the pastoral care of our students. Then, we know it is up to us to bring the group together, united in silence, and to offer anyone grieving whatever compassion and connection we can.

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Chris Hunt

Well, the Charity Lady wiped the diamonds from her eyes and said,
I keep saving all my pennies but the African dead stay dead
I sent them some elastoplast and dunlopillo bread,
Hey, hey, hey
But they sent me a letter saying,
Send us Guns instead.

Ride the werewolf jump upon his hairy back
Ride the werewolf,
Ride until your mind turns black
It's the twenty-first century werewolf,
Twenty-first century werewolf,
Twenty-first century werewolf
And it's coming this way.

(Verse from Ride the Werewolf by Adrian Mitchell)

“What makes the tsunami real? Because it happened or because it happened on TV?”

I feel like screaming, in fact, I think I did scream at the television, or at least shout at it. I can hardly bare to watch it at the moment. So much death, so much devastation, so much suffering, so much hypocrisy.

What makes the tsunami real? Because it happened or because it happened on TV?

The American and British Governments have murdered (or if you want to quibble, killed) over a million people in Iraq, over 400,000 of them children. Where were the TV cameras when that was happening? Where was the outpouring of concern? Where were the pledges for international aid? Where was the empathy? Somewhere else.

It's as if we are only allowed empathy when a disaster has natural causes. When a disaster is man-made, other rules apply. Not that the hand of man is entirely absent from the current horror. Environmentalists had been warning for some time that unbound commercial activity in the region was storing up trouble for the future.

The future just arrived.

When is it going to arrive again?

2004 saw massive earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and the tsunami. Meanwhile, many Europeans are still waiting for snow. And meanwhile, business continues as usual. The world stock markets hardly registered that the tsunami had taken place. The United States and Australia both refuse to sign the Kyoto treaty on global warming. The treaty expires in 2012 and the United States is working to ensure no tougher treaty appears to replace it. To quote Adrian Mitchell again,

"Peace was all I ever wanted.
It was too expensive"

The country with the largest military budget in the world is acting unilaterally. It is pursuing policies that kill people and will kill more people. Is this a topic that should enter the classroom?

If you think it should, then you might find a pair-work sheet I made useful. If you think I'm an idiot with a one track mind, then you should take a look anyway. Perhaps the numbers might give you pause to think. Here's the link (PDF file).

The sheets are asymmetrical. They are different and after completing them, students will have different sheets. Should we always try to make sure that everything in the classroom is balanced? Just what is balanced in the real world? Certainly the dominant economic system isn't.

All around the world the initial response of ordinary people to the tsunami disaster put the response of their governments to shame. In a way, though, the whole situation is topsy-turvy. As my father pointed out, it would be far better if there were proper mechanisms in place so that when disaster strikes there are funds already in place to deal with it. Conversely when governments wished to go to war they should need to ask for donations. Want to invade another country, have a whip round and see what funds you can raise. This ties in nicely with a solution to war offered by A. A. Milne who created the bear with very little brain. This basically boils down to the idea that if leaders want to fight a war then they should do so themselves rather than send the young off to die in their stead.

I just wonder when we will all stop playing follow my leader. As Herman Goerring said while sitting in a cell during the Nuremburg trial:

"Naturally, the common people don't want war, but after all, it is the leaders of a country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag people along whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country."

But for me, the lesson from the tsunami is that people can act without leaders. At least, I hope that is the lesson. I hope it's not just a reaction to death by television. We'd better get more democracy and we'd better get it fast.

To conclude, Song in Space by Adrian Mitchell (how is it that we can put a man on the moon but we can't end misery?)

Song in Space
When man first flew beyond the sky
He looked back into the world's blue eye
Man said: What makes your eye so blue?
Earth said: The tears in the ocean do.
Why are the seas so full of tears?
Because I've wept so many thousand years.
Why do you weep as you dance through space?
Because I am the mother of the Human Race.

Postscript: In the past I've stayed off the ELT News message boards but I will get myself onto them. So if you would like to raise questions or comments I'll do my best to respond. Also if anyone would like to see different statements and numbers in the "Death by Numbers" pair-work sheet, give me the statement, the number, the source of the information and the statement to be replaced and I can change it.

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