Sometimes, when I get too serious about intercultural language education, I remember a student I once taught in my first job, in Salerno, in Italy. He was a lively Italian law student, and he drove a Fiat 500 with a maniacal fury along the winding roads of the Amalfi Coast.
‘Look, look at the culture!’ he would yell, as we overtook a nun on a moped.
He gestured to the vine and olive trees on the steep slopes above us. ‘The agriculture!’ he cried.
I was reminded of this student by the BrazTESOL Special Interest Group event on Intercultural Language Education that Andrea Assenti del Rio and I held last week in Sao Paulo, an event kindly supported by Martins Fontes bookshop and Cambridge Brazil. Somewhere between 30 and 40 participants turned up, which was just enough to fill the room, and they stayed for the day’s events. I did some of my usual stuff on understanding images, and on the cultural aspects of conversational interaction. Andrea talked about the cultural content of course-books, and how to supplement them, and she took us through some techniques from the ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’ that she has been using to combine language learning, critical thinking and conflict resolution. And she also talked about gardening.
The participants were wonderful. I like working with Brazilian teachers – there is no problem in getting them to respond. It is more of a problem stopping them from responding; but that is a very good problem to have. So they enthusiastically shared their ideas on making and understanding art in the classroom, questioned the use of phrasal ‘chunks’ in conversational stories, told us of their rich experiences in adapting course materials to their own ends –and participated whole-heartedly in Andrea’s dramatic exploration of critical incidents.
The drama techniques of ‘The Theatre of the Oppressed’ can be understood as a metaphor for cultivation. There is the stage of germination when the ‘spect-actors’ – those who both spectate and act – have to build up trust. A simple way of doing this (while revising numbers) is to stand in a circle and see if you can count from 1 to 10 without anyone overlapping. It’s not easy. Like cultivation, it takes patience, and quite a few failures. One person says ‘one’ and three people immediately call out ‘two’. Or they let a pause elapse. But how long a pause can we stand? Or more precisely how long a pause can Brazilian teachers stand? When it works well, an almost palpable sense of trust develops in the silences between the calling out of numbers. We stop shouting and we begin to listen. And gradually, out of the failures, the group develops its own rhythm.
From the listening and trust-building we become ready for a more elaborate technique. Small groups – of around four or five – identify an incident in which they feel someone has been abusing his or her power over someone else, and they act out that incident together before the whole class. In the sessions I’ve attended, there have been different kinds of everyday oppression portrayed – people using their size to jostle for space on a metro train or bus; migrant workers labouring in sweatshops with no basic working privileges. Since we usually work with educators, the incidents frequently involve teachers, parents, secretaries and pupils – sometimes a parent is abusing a teacher, sometimes it’s a director of studies browbeating junior colleagues. Sometimes you can see the ‘oppressor’s’ eyes light up as he or she channels an incident from memory. The sap rises. Language flows.
The audience then reflects on the critical incident that has been performed, and the teacher asks for suggestions on how to subvert or challenge the oppression. But because the audience is composed of ‘spect-actors’ they can’t simply make their suggestions; no, they have to join in and perform their interventions in a replay of the original incident. So the erstwhile viewer takes on the role of the bus passenger who is being jostled; or turns one of the migrant workers into a kind of shop steward or negotiator; or finds some words to say that might calm an angry parent or soften the attitude of an unreasonable boss. Then, we discuss whether or not that intervention would have worked in real life, and perhaps act out some further alternatives.
Again, it is a simple technique that works surprisingly well in generating language and cultivating – there’s that word, again, ‘cultivating’ – critical thinking. We may not agree with the solutions put forward in the scenario, but we are prompted to think hard about possible alternatives. And in the shared experience, and in the discussions that pool that experience, we are encouraged to grow.
So it seemed appropriate that when Andrea was describing the work of her school in La Plata, Argentina, she also talked about a gardening project that the younger learners are currently engaged in. Her city was dreadfully affected by flooding earlier this year, and many of her neighbours lost their lives, or know people who were suddenly and terribly bereaved. The community is coming together in a number of initiatives, and one that Andrea’s school has initiated – small though it might be – is a garden project. The children are bringing seeds and learning about the vocabulary and grammar of gardening in English. The springtime lettuces that are beginning to germinate in La Plata are more than just a resource for learning language; they are a symbol of rebirth, renewal.
Or, as my Italian student said so many years ago, of ‘culture’.