Addressing racism in your ELT class: 3 ideas.

What’s the most challenging thing about teaching teens? Getting them to behave? Getting them up to standard to pass exams? One of my greatest challenges was addressing prejudice in class, which often manifested itself in the shape of racial prejudice. Not all students of course, but some. At the start of my teaching career I foolishly attempted to use my authority to ‘stamp it out’: how dare the students utter such reprehensible ideas? It wasn’t effective. Predictably, a subtler approach, talking about the issues raised, worked better. Taking into account phenomena such as a spike in hate crime after the Brexit referendum and given that the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is coming up on 21 March, in this blog post we look at 3 ways to address racial discrimination with our students

1. Prepare to talk about difficult issues.

Even if we don’t plan to look at social justice issues like racism as part of the curriculum, there’s a good chance that they’ll come up at some point. Pretending not to hear or administering a quick telling off can deprive students of an important learning opportunity. But talking about delicate issues is not easy. Teaching tolerance has a guide with some useful strategies such as a “Reiterate, Contemplate, Respire, Communicate” routine in debates (restate what you think you heard and have the speaker confirm to avoid misunderstandings, take 10 seconds to think, take a breath and then reply compassionately, challenging the statement and not the person). Have a look.

2. Use a song

As a way into the topic of apartheid in South Africa, Eddie Grant’s Gimme Hope Jo’Anna, an anti-apartheid protest song aiming to “make Jo’anna see how everybody could a-live as one,” is a good place to start. Here’s the music video and the lyrics. We can use the song to do traditional listening exercises, such as filling gaps or having the students unjumble the lines, but we’re most interested in the lyrics of course. Who or what is Jo’Anna? (Johannesburg) Why is money referred to as ‘golden’? (Gold mined by black South Africans) What is apatheid? (institutionalised racial segregation). How does the government use the media? (Censorship, propaganda…) Who are the ‘supporters in high up places’? (USA, Britain…).

Incidentally, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is is on 21 March because on that day, in 1960, police opened fire and killed 69 people at a peaceful demonstration in Sharpeville, South Africa, against the apartheid pass laws.

3. Study an experiment

On April 5th, 1968 (the day after Martin Luther King was assassinated) Jane Elliott decided to teach her students about racism in a lesson with a difference. She divided the class into blue-eyed and brown-eyed students and treated them differently. The effect on the students in terms of their attitudes and grades was shocking and the experiment showed how racism is an easily learned behaviour. It would take a brave teacher to repeat the experiment (though Oprah Winfrey did ), but it’s a great starting point for discussion.  



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