"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

“Do you enjoy having sex?” and Other Inappropriate Comments (or, Fun in Culture Class)

I continue to be enriched by teaching English and being a part of an international community at EF Evergreen. After Christmas break I had a significant schedule change, picking up a number of new students. Before, I was teaching mostly the mid-level students; now I’m teaching both our most advanced English speakers as well as our beginning English speakers.

And being a part of each group brings different rewards. Improvement is obvious with beginners. And being able to identify progress and growth is always a great feeling for a teacher.

It can be difficult at times, for sure. I find people outside of the ESL world are often puzzled about how we’re able to teach beginners without knowledge of their language. My Spanish students are a bit easier because I can occasionally “cheat” and explain something with my own intermediate-level Spanish. But with my Arab students, for example, I’m lost.

So how do I do it? With a good deal of patience. And I hope and pray my students retain the same kind of patience. In general, they just kind of stumble through it and figure it out. There are many educators here with the philosophy that students actually learn a language better from total immersion, without the crutch of someone who can translate from their language to another. I was skeptical at first, though I’ve come to believe it. I do encourage use of electronic translators and dictionaries, but students often make progress without them.

But depth of discussion is obviously lacking with beginners. Which is why I'm so grateful for my new class “Culture, Music, and All,” a class without a curriculum in which I can essentially go in any direction I choose. And the students are fairly strong speakers, enabling more thoughtful discussion.

Selfishly, I would hate to give this class up. I get to discuss relevant-to-life topics with an international community, guiding thoughtful discussion and frequently playing mediator when it gets heated or it feels like people are simply talking past one another.

On the first day of class I gave a brief lecture on epistemology. The purpose was mostly to reveal my biases to the class and encourage them to open themselves up to learning from one another. I described myself as a sort of pluralist—in the sense that I believe our ability to know Truth and more fully get our heads around “how things really are” is limited when we isolate ourselves from other people groups and enhanced by our interaction with such diverse communities.

Granted, I personally believe that the Christian narrative tells the story of a unique revelation of Truth by God in the very unique life, actions, and person of Jesus. That’s partly why I identify as a Christian and not something else. But I also believe there is one God, not many, and that something like the old Indian tale of blind men grasping at an elephant and reporting their varied interpretations of the experience is somewhat appropriate here. I may follow Jesus, but there are a multitude of people and places in this world where I’ve yet to encounter the God I believe to be present everywhere.

In less “religious” terms, I try to lead a class interested in getting a better sense of reality with the aid of others. I try to foster a self-reflective spirit among my students, encouraging them to more deeply seek understanding, as well as appreciation of and reconciliation with others. I can only do so much, I realize; some of them may even be further along than me in this area. But I have to think I can at least make a dent. And at least I’m benefiting and being changed by the class, if they aren’t.

On MLK day, we had an engaging discussion about prejudice and racial issues. We talked about the presence of racism in students’ home countries, the values of a homogeneous vs. diverse society, causes of prejudice, and American immigration issues (and to what extent these are racial issues).

I had a slightly awkward blunder during this discussion. I accidently referred to my ethnicity as “normal.” I had 3-4 students vocally displeased. I tried to turn it into a teachable moment, asking them why my comment bothered them so much. As I hope became obvious to them all, in light of earlier comments I made about ethnocentrism and racism, my point was that I’m in the ethnic majority in America. “In the majority” probably would have been better than “normal,” as some interpreted that as “best” or “most right” or “superior.” Oops. My students don’t let me get away with stuff like that.

It was a good discussion. One student expressed that in her (Asian) country, she doesn’t really experience racial prejudice because everyone looks the same. Another (European) student expressed similar prejudices in his country toward immigrants as in the US. Another (South American) student talked about how he and his fellow non-Black friends call each other the “n-word” (only he comfortably used the actual word in class).

His willingness to say the word contrasted with my discomfort with it is in itself revealing about the value a culture ascribes to language. I warned him (and others) how serious the word was, and that it would be wise to not use the word here. Especially at Evergreen, where tolerance and issues of social justice matter. And since most tolerant people tend to be pretty intolerant of intolerant people, he’d probably get himself in trouble.

I’ve incorporated music into a couple lessons, bringing my guitar and playing popular songs as a means to improve listening ability as well as discuss the poetry of the music. It seems to be an effective teaching tool. It’s fun to try to discern together the possible meanings of the lyrics, talking about various references and idioms along the way. So far we’ve discussed “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” by Death Cab For Cutie and “A Long December” by Counting Crows.

Fun conversations (and a bit of confusion) have followed, especially centered on such topics as hotel “No Vacancy” signs, popular sentiments about the harshness of Catholic School, the afterlife, breakups, regrets and second chances, hopes and resolutions, and Californian geography. And the meaning of “na.” (No meaning, we concluded.)

We’ve had several comparative discussions about the differences between the US and the respective countries of my students in regard to facial and hand gestures (like giving someone the finger), spatial issues (like not sitting in the seat next to someone on a near-empty bus), and acceptable topics of conversation with someone you've just met.

I did some role play with a student, pretending to have just met him and then trying to make as many socially unacceptable remarks as I could in a short conversation. I was pretty obvious in my inappropriateness and so I think most students got the joke (and point). The line alluded to in the title of this blog post was one such inappropriate remark. I also asked him “So you must make a lot of money, right?” and “So what do you think of Black people?”

I also had an awkward moment talking about gesture-related idioms (e.g., “Could you give me a hand?” or “giving her the cold shoulder”). Most of the expressions in the worksheet I used were legitimate, commonly-used expressions, except one. “To finger something or someone” was defined as “to steal or tell on someone.” The material I was using may be a bit outdated or something. I quickly urged them to avoid use of the expression. I dropped a few hints without being too blunt; I think most of them got my drift.

Through moments of both depth and levity, this class is truly a gift.

1 comment:

Cassie said...

I very much enjoyed this post and realized that, sadly, I have not jumped over to your blog in quite some time!!!

Tonight I am so glad I did!