Thirty years ago, when I was immersed in initial teacher-training (doing what became known as the Cambridge CELTA, but which was then called the RSA CTEFLA), our trainer gave us some crucial advice for classroom discussion: ‘There are three things you should never talk about in class’ she said: ‘sex, politics … and religion.’ The advice seemed sensible, and it duly went into my novice teacher’s toolbox, alongside timelines that distinguished between past simple and present perfect, and 30 things to do with a phrasal verb.
It was not until some years later, when I was teacher-training myself, and a Spanish trainee wanted to construct overtly ‘political’ materials based on publications by Amnesty International, that I began to reflect on the advice and worry about it. And by the time I got interested in intercultural language education, the obvious had occurred to me: if you exclude sex, politics and religion from the ELT classroom, you exclude three potent expressions of culture. And yet as anyone who has tried to publish a textbook with a major ELT publisher will know, these three topics are among a list of taboo subjects that materials developers are still instructed to avoid. Anyone browsing my own resource book, Intercultural Language Activities, might notice the warnings that CUP insisted be attached to practically every page that addresses religion and politics, no matter how inoffensively. (I couldn’t manoeuvre any sex into the contents; we are, after all, British.)
I have some residual sympathy for the taboos. When I was writing Intercultural Language Activities, the news was full of an English teacher in the Sudan who had been charged with inciting religious hatred because she had allowed her class of primary school children to name a teddy bear ‘Muhammad’. If you are publishing a textbook for international use, you need to be sensitive to how it might be used across cultures – and yet, avoiding sensitive issues seems still to be a way of denying that powerful differences in values and traditions exist. And in my experience of teaching learners from a range of religious – and non-religious – backgrounds, there is often a genuine curiosity and indeed hunger to explore these issues.
As we approach Easter weekend, I have been thinking about how the religious topic of Easter might be approached in the intercultural classroom. There is a well-established tradition of teaching culture as ‘food, festivals, folklore and fashion,’ particularly in North America – a tradition that, at least since 1996, the various editions of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages’ National Standards has sought to challenge or, at least, enrich. (The tradition is still lively, though, as Gholson and Stumpf’s description of their application of folklore and ethnography to English teaching in Canada shows.) In the 21st century world, of course, learners with access to the internet can simply be sent to find out facts about festivals and their origins on, say, Wikipedia, and then they can paraphrase – or parrot – the content in individual or group class presentations. No doubt learning will occur, and reading skills might well be enhanced, but the process of trawling websites for information perhaps lacks direct engagement with the power of an individual’s religious belief and sense of lived tradition.
Easter traditions obviously vary, even within Christian cultures. I have lived in a number of countries where Easter is celebrated in rather different ways. When growing up in Scotland in the 1960s, my sister and I painted hard-boiled eggs in different water-colours; we were then driven to the nearby Carrick hills, where we rolled the eggs till the shells cracked, whereupon we ate them. I have no idea whether that still happens.
A quarter of a century later, in a church in Moscow, just as the Soviet Union was beginning to crack, I attended an Easter service in a dark, packed Orthodox church. There was still snow on the ground, and the women were in winter hats. Everyone held candles and we were crammed so close to each other that there was the occasional smell of singed fur. The priest revealed an icon of Christ and, in a procession, we followed him, chanting ‘He is risen’ in Russian, as he paraded it around the church grounds. A circle of stone-faced militia-men watched us carefully.
Then, again, at another point in my life, I found myself in a Pennsylvanian Dutch show farm, in the United States, with a group of children who were learning about life among the local Amish community. ‘And another thing,’ said the guide, ‘is that it was German immigrants right here who introduced the Easter bunny to America.’ There were gasps from the children, and I whispered to my host, ‘What’s the Easter bunny?’ Unfortunately my host relayed my question to the guide, who pounced on the fact that I was a convenient alien, and prompted the children to explain the Easter bunny to me. One small child stepped forward and did so, with the happy outcome that I now understand Charles Schulz’s Peanuts cartoons that feature Snoopy as the Easter Beagle.
The point of these anecdotes is that any individual’s experience of tradition and belief is layered and varied. An intercultural exploration of Easter, or a similar festival, needs to combine book or web-based learning with ‘loafing and lurking’, or ethnographic interviews with people of different cultures – or different generations within the same culture. Online intercultural exchanges, of the kind discussed in Robert O’Dowd’s excellent anthology, can enable learners to explore the religious traditions (or lack of them) followed by learners in other places – and to monitor the accuracy of information gleaned from websites.
‘Loafing and lurking’ activities can report back on the visible signs of Easter in the local community: here in Brazil, the main sign seems to be the proliferation of chocolate eggs in the supermarkets. This is not a card-sending culture, so few Easter cards seem to be in evidence. One of the sections in Intercultural Language Activities suggests a procedure in which some learners attend a religious service as ‘participant observers’ and report back on it to the class: different learners might attend services by various local Christian denominations that are available, e.g. Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, Orthodox, etc. Other learners can interview older members of the local community about the traditions they remember from their youth. Classes linked by the internet in online exchanges can compare their experience with their peers elsewhere.
These activities sound reasonable – but wherever beliefs are concerned there is clearly potential for conflict and disturbance. When I was much younger, I was involved in training a group of Saudi Arabian language teachers who were spending two years in Scotland, doing professional development. Around Christmas, they wanted to attend a church service, out of curiosity, and a colleague agreed to shepherd them to a local church. They returned to class the following week, scandalized by the nativity play, and in the ensuing discussion, it became clear that their Islamic code of belief forbade them from portraying sacred figures – like Muhammad or Christ – in fiction or drama. They found it difficult to comprehend how Christians could encourage children to participate in such activities. The discussion was heated and fascinating – and though it did not result in a change of views, it certainly made it easier for me to understand the depth of animosity aroused by later incidents such as the blasphemous naming of the Sudanese teddy bear, or even the publication of The Satanic Verses.
So, religion – like sex and politics and other inflammatory subjects – can be a profoundly engaging topic to address in the language class, although it should certainly be handled with care. Easter, like other public festivals, offers a fantastic opportunity for the exploration of language and culture; ethnographic activities can bring factual readings to life, and guide learners in understanding and respecting the beliefs and complex, sensitive histories of others.
American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) et al. (1999) National Standards for Foreign Language Education: Executive Summary. Available at http://www.actfl.org/publications/all/national-standards-foreign-language-education
Corbett, J. (2010) Intercultural Language Activities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gholson, R., & Stumpf, C. A. (2005). Folklore, literature, ethnography, and second-language acquisition: Teaching culture in the ESL classroom. TESL Canada Journal, 22(2), 75-91. Available at http://teslcanadajournal.ca/index.php/tesl/article/view/88/88
O’Dowd, R. (Ed.). (2007). Online intercultural exchange: An introduction for foreign language teachers. Bristol: Multilingual Matters