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March 2003

Matthew Scelza

Marc Helgesen

Phonics Boring?

Teachers Debate Iraq War

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Is the Iraq Crisis Relevant to ESL Teachers?
Spirited Exchanges on NIFL-ESL Suggest Yes

The current debate in America and around the world concerning the administration’s seemingly inexorable march towards war with Iraq has created a context which ESL professionals are finding hard to ignore. On January 28th, TESOL President Mary Lou McCloskey sent a letter to President George W. Bush, which begins:

“As members of the Board of Directors of TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages), a 14,000-member international professional organization of educators, researchers and linguists, with members in 50 states and 130 countries, we urge you and members of the United States Congress to resist calls for unilateral action against Iraq and to work with the United Nations to address the threat that is posed by the reign of Saddam Hussein.”

In recent weeks, hundreds of thousands of Americans—across party lines, across lines of race, class and status—have participated in demonstrations and protests against the war. There have been symposiums and debates on college campuses across America. And the tensions of this historical moment have also spilled over into online discussions which might usually not have directly addressed political issues. The responsibilities of list moderators have become more complex as they attempt to monitor abuse while respecting free speech. Lynda Terrill is the moderator for NIFL-ESL@Literacy.NIFL.gov, a listserv whose exchanges are archived on the Web for anyone to access. From February 20th to March 1st she did a yeomanly job of managing a lively, somewhat raucous and, once or twice, belligerent discussion of how or whether ESL/EFL teachers should incorporate news about the Iraq crisis into their lessons.

The fireworks started innocently enough when one member drew our attention to the federal government’s www.ready.gov, Web site, instructions for preparedness online ("Are You Ready: A Guide to Citizen Preparedness") at www.fema.gov/areyouready and the launch of the government's "Ready Campaign." Here are some of the comments from an nifl-esl listserv member:

"Using Microsoft Word's quick and dirty check of readability, I ascertained that the information and instructions at ready.gov are written at a Flesch-Kincaid reading level of grade 9.8. Worse still, the FEMA guide is mostly written at the 11th to 12th grade reading level. I will (with difficulty) refrain from comment on that information. However, I made a suggestion to adult literacy and ESL teachers in Texas via our statewide teachers listserv as to using this information in the classroom. Perhaps some adult learners would want to develop a simpler, more accessible and readable version of the preparedness guide to share with friends, family and other classes as a classroom project."

Another NIFL-ESL listserv member expressed some reservations about incorporating the "Ready Campaign" into ESL classrooms.

"I must admit that I'm only luke-warm to the idea. (I've lived in North Carolina six years and have yet to make a hurricane/severe storm kit. Maybe I'm an ostrich.) I've developed and taught lessons on the unusually cold winter we've had (frostbite, wind chill, no charcoal grills in the house, carbon monoxide poisoning) because most of my students are from tropical countries and had no concept of 'dangerous cold,' but I've no intention of suggesting they buy plastic sheeting and duct tape. What is a reasonable approach to this unreasonable situation? Have any of you addressed this situation in your adult classrooms? I'm at a total loss about this."

One listserv member answered with some tentative ideas about preparing students for the "Ready Campaign."

"I think a reasonable approach might be to bring the topic up for class discussion. Ask students what they know about 'Operation Ready,' if they've bought duct tape and plastic, etc... You could even make a list of what students feel is reasonable, what they think is extreme. List ideas they have or what they think they might need to 'survive,' or maybe even more importantly, discuss their fears. Call me cynical, but I sometimes feel the best ideas come from us 'normal' citizens and not our government officials who often seem to be lacking in common sense (and lately seem to be hell-bent on making us paranoid, nervous wrecks)."

A member in Florida was more direct.

"We live in Florida, so have the usual preparedness mentality for hurricanes, but duct tape--please--I think worthless against such disaster as they are portending. Some of the media fear-feeding is only to rationalize the need for a wrongful war."

That mention of war turned loose the floodgates and NIFL listserv members saw dozens of messages over the next several days, mostly against the war and blaming the media for its complicity in the campaign to convince Americans of the necessity of bombing Iraq.

"I find it interesting and comforting to hear others voice the same concerns as I have. I have resorted to reading the New York Times on Sundays and have an online subscription to the Washington Post, and read other publications that I can find time for... I find a lot of things that I hear from the government amazing, thoughtless and foolish. One thing I never thought I'd hear from our government is a need for a preemptive strike against another country. Thanks for the opportunity to share my opinion."

Another member expressed even stronger concerns about the media:

"I have almost stopped reading the New York Times and the Post, except for their national headlines. If I want world news, I go elsewhere. Now, I get all my news from The Independent, The Guardian, Le Monde and Samachar.com. After the abysmal and biased, almost sycophantic coverage by the papers I so loved to read, I simply could not take the thinly veiled party lines that were being dished out in lieu of honest news."

But one listserv member sent across a message on February 22, 2003, which questioned whether these concerns belonged on an ESL literacy listserv.

"When I signed up for this, I didn't sign up for political rantings from either the left or the right. This is supposed to be a listserv concerning ESL, not a forum for self-righteous proclamations about what someone thinks is going on in the world. All I'm saying is let's stay focused."

That same member sent across another message soon after, suggesting some ground rules for teaching ESL students about the Iraq crisis.

"Who's making sure students are getting a fair, objective point of view on the war? I think it's important to teach students how to nurture and voice their own opinions and not the manufactured ones you're spouting here. If you want to talk about how to show both sides of this complex issue to students and let them decide where their thoughts are, we can do that, too. But I'm not seeing that in the last few missives. What I'm seeing is a lot of rhetoric about how bad this country and its government are, how going to war is wrong, yet not how there may be just cause for war.

This member also put three questions to teachers regarding how they approach this topic in their classrooms.

1. How do you propose to present both sides of this issue to a low level ESL class?
2. How would you present both sides of this equation?

3. How do we as teachers avoid editorializing in situations like this and instead show point/counterpoint?

Another NIFL listserv member was grateful for the clarity these questions brought to this important discussion.

"Thank you for turning this melee of personal views into ideas for what to consider when discussing political issues with our students (who we all need to remember also have widely varying views). I think some ideas on how to present material in as neutral of a way as possible would be helpful. We all know that all forms of media have their biases, as well as our texts and we also. Have any of you out there tackled such highly charged political issues? Were you able to present both sides accurately and fairly? What activities and methods did you use? In debate clubs across the country, students learn to research, present, listen to and critically evaluate issues from all sides. Perhaps we could bring some of this into our classes."

Several listserv members teach ESL/EFL overseas, and had valuable insights on the challenges of discussing sensitive geopolitical issues in those settings.

"What is the best, most honest, most pedagogical way to respond to students' queries about this? Even if the students are incorrect in their impressions, one can't just brush them aside--all learning starts from where the students are... It's quite tricky to be an American overseas, because you do represent your country, but the country consists of a wide range of opinions and a wide spectrum of actions, some of them good, some bad. The same is true to a somewhat lesser degree in the classroom here in the U.S. The common thread, though, and what we share with our overseas friends is the democratic process. It might be productive to focus on process issues. How does change come about? What rights do we have? How do we use them? How do we NOT use them? What can a citizen do, both short term and long term. Specifically, where can you take your concerns? What responses are proactive? What ones are destructive? I can think of a lot more questions that would be interesting to discuss both here and abroad."

A workplace skills instructor in North Carolina saw the main issue as a question of what it means to be a citizen.

"When I teach my ESL students, I find that I am often teaching them citizenship skills as well. Many are studying to become citizens and need to know what it means to be a citizen in this country. Since many of them already have experience with repressive governments and are refugees from places where dissent will get you shot, I want my students to understand they can dissent without being called un-American. It is a fundamental right that exists here and in few other countries around the world. I call it exercising my rights as a citizen, not 'spewing' anti-government rhetoric. We, the people ARE the government. I teach them that because that's why they are here, and they want and need to know how to be a citizen in a country that doesn't shoot protesters and dissenters (yet)."

An ESOL/Civics instructor in Queens, New York City, pointed listserv members to a lesson, "War and the Military," in a book called "Talk Your Head Off and Write Too," by Brana Rish West (Prentice Hall, 1997).

"I haven't tried this lesson with my students, but I thought it seemed like a potentially interesting and non-judgmental way to put the subject of war into a cross-cultural, historical perspective. We recently studied the powers of the president as each student prepared a brief presentation on the life of one of the U.S. presidents. So, while we did not address war in Iraq as a topic, we did discuss the presidential power to make war or treaties, and how some of the honored and famous U.S. presidents led the country during times of war (Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt). In this way, we were able to discuss what the current president might think he stands to 'gain' by being pro-war."

A community college ESL instructor from Seattle shared insights on how to tread the thin line between discussing and advocating views in the classroom.

"While I have strong opinions on many national issues, I don't feel comfortable being an advocate for one stand or another in the classroom. As educator in (or from) a democratic system, I feel that we have the professional obligation to inform our students of (or show them how to find out about): 1) the basic facts of the case, 2) what the American president does as well as his reasons for doing so, also 3) to inform our students of the criticisms of the president's policies, then 4) let the students discuss and decide for themselves, and to possibly reflect on their own nations' past policies. As an ESL instructor, my priority is always to take advantage of the content to lead them to improved English literacy and communication. This latter is more important to me than the content itself. How well they learn and discuss is more important than whether they end up agreeing with me or not. If they initiate the inquiry, then I try to draw their own perceptions and understanding out as clearly as their level of English can make it. If anything, I play devil's advocate against any side, just to get them to better describe or explain their own understanding and positions."

I've left out some of the most vociferous comments from the NIFL list discussion, a debate which lasted nearly two weeks. Unfortunately, some of the strongest statements were couched in language more fit for a street fight than an online forum of ESL teachers. I've also left off the names for quotes I've pulled, yet readers can find these easily enough and pursue further exchanges by accessing the NIFL-ESL archives online.

As the dust cleared from these spirited exchanges, NIFL-ESL Moderator Lynda Terrill reported that she had messaged certain individuals "who have continued to engage in agressive and inappropriate talk on the list" and that "they have been enjoined to stop such divisive exchanges." She also referred list members to another list, NIFL-POVRACELIT, and shared an invitation from NIFL-POVRACELIT listserv member George Demetrion, who encouraged teachers interested in discussing the Iraq conflict to check out his comments on war and peace and jingoism.

Other members of the NIFL-ESL listserv (sponsored by the National Center for ESL Literacy Education, based in Washington, D.C.) reflected on where the heated debate had taken us.

"I have found this an interesting discussion. It reminds me of two things: 1) always go to the source and teach your students to know who the source is, and 2) do something about it and teach your students how to make changes in things they don't like (We have a 'don't complain if you aren't willing to do something' policy). This has led to many simple civics lessons, neighborhood change, writing letters, expressing opinions, honoring others, etc..."

And others looked at implications for content-based teaching approaches, as expressed by this family literacy coordinator in Oregon:

"Obviously, we don't 'need' to get so deeply into subject matter. But sometimes it's useful. When people get interested in something that is meaningful to them, they quit thinking so hard about using the language and just communicate. If you can have a discussion of a topic that affects everyone--and if war isn't it right now, I don't know what is--then sometimes that's fruitful to meet more than one need, and sometimes more useful than simply to practice a particular grammar point."

A bridge program and immigrant scholarship coordinator in Vermont had the last word, on March 2, 2003, bringing the entire debate into perspective for anyone teaching ESL in the United States by considering budget implications.

"Independent of the morality of the "inevitable" (to quote our president) war on Iraq and independent of its proposed outcome (democracy in Iraq), there is the issue central to this listserve, ESL services: 1) Minimally, $100 billion will be spent to fund the war and the ensuing occupation in a period of significant budget cuts, particularly at the state level where federal revenue sharing could be extremely helpful, and 2) I assume in the name of cost-cutting, the president has proposed and the just-passed House bill removes ESL services from the traditional adult ed. block grant to the states."

"If I have this right, and correct me if I'm wrong, with war or no war on Iraq, there is an attack on ESL services for adults as well as a much broader attack on adult basic ed. in general. (It's time to contacting our Senators to amend the House action!) So, we can discuss methodologies and materials (from which I've benefited), but we need to recognize that entire learning centers are shutting down and for many of our students our pedagogical discussion will be a moot point in that many will have no classes to attend."

Story by Robb Scott, Hays, KANSAS

2003 ESL MiniConference Online