I remember back when I did the DELTA course in 2004. The time leading up to the dreaded ‘external observation’ was nerve-wracking: I listened to a lot of people tell me what and what I shouldn’t teach in those 50 minutes. Fortunately, I got some good advice from someone whose opinion I valued, constructed an extremely well-planned and extremely safe lesson and passed without too much trouble.
The reason I still remember this so vividly, though, is not the elation at having made it through what was a stern enough test. No, the reason I remember it was because of the reaction of the learners I shared the experience with. When I asked them if they’d actually enjoyed the lesson, their reply was: ‘No, of course not!’ Surprising as it may be to you reading this, I was delighted with that answer, because I knew this group of people well and understood exactly what they meant by that comment.
Consider the picture below…
Believe it or not, this was an accidental snapshot, eventually taken a couple of seconds after I though it actually had been, my guard let down and my true feelings about what I held in my hands exposed. Don’t get me wrong, I have all the respect in the world for Headway: the series has sold in the region of 80 million copies and you don’t manage that without doing something right. Nevertheless, the look on my face is revealing: how could I inflict some of the banal, inoffensive, safe and fluffy material on learners who I enjoyed sharing a classroom with?
The answer is… I didn’t make a habit of it. Once I’d got to know this group well and we’d developed a trusting teacher-learner relationship, we ditched the coursebook as often as we could get away with and based lessons on their lives and on topics they collectively found interesting. We would always come to an agreement that we all needed to feel comfortable with what the lessons would be about, but that didn’t necessarily exclude us bring the dreaded PARSNIPS into the classroom occasionally.
What’s that you say? PARSNIPS? This is the lovely acronym for Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, -Isms, and Pork. These are the DMZ of the ELT world, the no-go zones where coursebook publishers fear to tread (in case they lose customers)
…by the end of the 1980s, every publisher had complied with the demands of the critics, both from left and right. Publishers had imposed self-censorship to head off the outside censors, as well as to satisfy state adoption reviews. Achieving demographic balance and excluding sensitive topics had become more important to their success than teaching children to read or to appreciate good literature.
Diane Ravitch (2003:96)
So, this is where we were by the end of the 1980s, and where we were at the turn of the century. This is where we remain: it’s time to do something about it!
With this in mind, and in the spirit of actually respecting the thoughts and sensibilities of our learners, several of us have worked on a new project to bring together a series of lesson plans based on these taboo subjects: Parsnips in ELT: Stepping out of the Comfort Zone (vol. 1).
This e-book is free to download and is available in multiple formats (epub, mobi & pdf) and contains one lesson on each topic from a collection of authors including me.
The book also has an accompanying blog where you can find some of the ideas from the book as well as a range of shorter ideas to stimulate discussion on the Parsnip topics with your classes.
We appreciate that these subjects will not be for everyone, so I’m quoting our foreword here:
We hope you enjoy the lessons contained in this first volume of PARSNIP lessons; the intention is to give you a selection of plans that will add to the class, so think about their suitability and breach the idea of using these subjects with the people who will be most affected by them: your learners.
If you want to learn more about PARSNIPs, here’s some recommended
- ‘T is for Taboo’ by Scott Thornbury
- ‘Embrace the PARSNIP’ by Luke Meddings
- Diane Ravitch (2003). The Language Police: How pressure groups restrict what students learn. New York: Vintage Books.