Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head
ELT loves a PARSNIP. The inclusion — or exclusion — of them from ELT materials fuels many a blog rant and keeps editors and materials writers on their toes. A recent project I was involved with, re-versioning material for the Middle East, came with pages and pages of unmentionables, most of which I knew or would have guessed but, even so, I still tripped up and had to take out place names including “St.” amongst other things. As a reminder, for myself as much as anything as I can never remember what all the letters stand for, the PARSNIPs are:
Isms (eg sexism, racism, Communism)
These are often seen as generic taboos for the classroom, subject to the teacher’s discretion since they know their students and can bring in materials specifically designed to cover the list (eg this free ebook series Vol I and Vol II) but are most definitely off the table for publishers who have sales, marketing and education ministeries at the forefront of their considerations.
In addition, there are other topics teachers have probably learned to avoid for fear of upsetting someone in the class, things like illness, divorce, death, that seem reasonable. I had a student once, an adult male, going through a breakup who refused to even discuss songs about relationships in class. Fair enough. In my earlier teaching days I did a lesson using one of those calculate-how-long-you’ll-live tests based on whether you smoked, exercised, lived in a big city etc. A Muslim student refused to participate because it was against his religion to speculate about something only God was allowed to know. Now, with more experience and downright common sense, I wouldn’t touch a lesson like that in class. Making students confront their mortality in order to learn a few prepositions or whatever the supposed function of the lesson (if there even was one as, let’s be honest, I was probably just trying to fill class time)? What on earth was I thinking??
Now that I write materials, I sometimes choose to nudge the status quo a little bit — a very little bit since ELT usually means not making certain things explicit. I don’t think that prejudices, though tolerated as normal in some parts of the world, deserve to be reinforced in the materials we present to students. So, I slipped a male couple into my Speaking Skills book, two of my Graded Readers have single mothers (The Tomorrow Mirror and As Others See Us), the third (Rain, rain, go away!) the protagonist would have been a single mother and her child but, for a teen audience, it was (rightly) decided that a teenager and her younger brother suited the target reader better. And, I recently sold my proposal for the formerly rejected Reader, Queen Arthur, for release next year, which features a girl dressing up as a boy to pass for King in a society where girls are judged as weaker.
Also, I’ve just written a short story for the British Council Learning English Teens site which unapologetically mentions another of these non-PARSNIP taboo topics — periods. I’ve never heard it said that menstruation is off-limits but considering it’s something that potentially affects half the population for half their lives, it’s strangely absent in ELT, not least because girls and women travelling or working in English-speaking countries might need to buy sanitary products, or see a doctor for pain relief, or tell someone they’re unwell in order to leave class or work. As a teenager I had to excuse myself from class most months and explain to the school secretary that my mum needed to pick me up because my period made me too ill to be in class for the rest of the day. If I’d been living abroad, I’d have needed the language to cope with period-related illness from age 13 right up until 3 years ago when I had my first baby and my hormones changed, as I’d sometimes have to cancel classes in order to go home, curl up, throw up and pass out for a couple of hours.
In some countries, it’s much more serious than simply not knowing the words to talk about periods. In India, for example, girls are made to feel dirty and ashamed for having periods. They miss school, not only because sanitary products are too expensive or simply not available, but because they are not deemed pure enough to be around other people. I remember travelling in Bali and seeing a sign outside a temple that menstruating women were forbidden from entering. I was furious and fervently wished I had my period so I could deliberately flout their bigoted rule. I said as much to someone who replied that it was a matter of respecting different cultural norms but I felt then, as now, not every cultural rule deserves any more than the contempt with which it itself treats people.
There are campaigns in India, like in the video below, to normalise periods and take away the taboo that can, in its worst forms, lead to the suicide of young girls after being period-shamed. And it’s not just India, girls and women in countries in Africa and South America suffer more than just period pain when they menstruate due to lack of sanitary products and clean water to maintain hygienic use of rags and other substitutes. Even in rich, supposedly developed countries, period pain is dismissed by doctors as something girls just have to get used to and sympathy or solutions are in short supply.
So, while writing my first short Graded story for the British Council about a girl who gets attacked by a shark in a swimming pool (or does she?) a line about periods just popped out as I was typing the first draft. I left it in as I did second draft edits and made a point of asking my editor if it could stay because it occurred so naturally and it seemed crazy that it should come out just because … well, because ELT doesn’t usually go there. Luckily for me, not only did my editor agree, she’d been reading about period shaming in India and was very pro the idea of normalising something so absolutely normal, not least because the British Council Teens site has good readership in India.
I picked the right place to do this as the British Council Graded Reading section on Teens is able to include a few more topics and issues that may not find their way into regular ELT-published material. For example, in Guess what? there’s an emerging relationship between two boys and a boy with a stutter and in Love is Blind a boy falls in love with a blind girl.
The story, The only thing to fear is … , is written at three levels, B2, B1 and A2. and for all three, the word “period” was out of level with the meaning of menstruation as opposed to time. It needed glossing and putting into the pre-reading exercise which proved tricky. How to explain the word in words that suited the level and how graphic to go? The easy part was saying it’s something that happens every month (even if that is not strictly true for everyone who menstruates). Mention blood or not? Mention that it only happens if you’re not pregnant or not? We decided that we were only trying to teach people who already knew what a period was in their L1 the word in English. Anyone who already knew what periods are would get it from month-blood anyway and anyone who didn’t would need to seek a bigger reference than a dictionary.
The aim of the story is not to raise awareness about menstruation. It’s a story, designed to be enjoyed, based on my own wimpyness about sharks — I once had to get out of a swimming pool where I was swimming alone because I convinced myself that once I’d had the thought of sharks, my fear might be enough to summon one from the ether. I think the casual mention of periods, same-sex relationships or single/unwed parents and other “controversial” issues does more towards normalising these things than more in-your-face discussions of Taboo Topics. And, anyway, the most highly charged debate I ever saw in an ELT classroom was between some Russian girls and a Slovenian guy who disagreed about whether pets can be considered part of the family. I doubt my story will ignite anything like that, and I’d have partly failed in what I was trying to do if it did.
If you’d like to use the stories with your students, they come with pre and post-reading exercises and I’ll be writing eight more for the Learn English Teens site over the next few months.