A Thousand Splendid PARSNIPs

We all know that ELT is a huge, profitable business. It must be. Students who want to obtain the FCE certificate, for example, must save a fortune first. Some can never afford it, so their talent finally goes up in smoke. If you think of doing the CELTA, oh, you need to take a month off work and take out a loan. The fact is that English coursebooks are the most expensive coursebooks my students buy each year. What is worse, they can’t be recycled because a new edition pops up before a student can sell it. 
The new editions are supposed to be upgraded versions; something better and more up-to-date. But in the first place, they are different enough to prevent the teacher to use a mix of, say, the 2nd and the 3th edition with the same class. What they always do, however, no matter how upgraded and modernized they are, is that they avoid the PARSNIPs – topics which coursebook writers are generally supposed to stay away from. As if politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, -isms, and pork were not commonplace, everyday issues. I know, there’s always the danger that the publisher may sell fewer copies if the topics are not ‘harmless’ enough; I suppose that alcoholics may feel offended and boycott the purchases, and those who reject the idea that the universe is controlled by one good and one evil force may refuse to buy a coursebook dealing with the topic of dualism. Thus the topics are always the same: technology, environment, family (usually including only heterosexual couples, of course), sport, hobbies, travel, etc. That’s why a grown-up woman like me needs to have a dictionary always at her disposal while reading a modern novel. Too often does she come across words the coursebook writers found inappropriate or taboo when she was learning the language.
There are issues people read about and deal with on a daily basis, yet you’ll never come across them in a typical coursebook. I wonder what would happen if a publisher included an excerpt from A Thousand Splendid Suns – the parts where the author Khaled Hosseini describes the tragedies Afghan people had to endure, and especially the part where he lists the rules Afghan men and women had to follow, otherwise the Talibs would cut off their hands or even execute them …. Mind you, this isn’t fiction and it wasn’t happening centuries ago; this was happening towards the advent of the new millennium, somewhere around the time the students I teach were born.   

I guess it’s the teacher’s job then to bring these issues up in class. There’s no point in encouraging students to judge and stereotype, but it’s damn important to raise their cultural and social awareness. Yes, the knowledge of Shakespeare’s production is part of this awareness too but Hamlet is unlikely to leave a noticeable trace in the light-hearted students’ minds. Sometimes it’s necessary to shock to make people think. The incessant babble about British traditions and holidays is so stultifying that it turns students into zombies and teachers into nervous wrecks. The lesson based around A Thousand Splendid Suns bestseller, on the other hand, can be one of the highlights you and your students will always remember. It can be something out of the ordinary, something genuine and unhackneyed; it can incite a heated discussion or encourage students to stop and ponder. A couple of Google images of women wearing burqas (bless you, Google), projected on a large screen, can be linked to issues that really appeal to today’s teenagers and young adults, such as freedom, fashion, style, etc. Let’s not underestimate our students; let’s not think they are only interested in Justin Bieber’s new girlfriend and Katy Perry’s new hairstyle. They do care about the environment and women’s rights, but the content needs to be thought-provoking as well as relevant. 

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About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
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2 Responses to A Thousand Splendid PARSNIPs

  1. Hi Hana, I feel the same way (as do many other teachers I suspect) about introducing topics considered taboo into the classroom. There are very few topics that I will shy away from with my learners, and they generally find these topics more enjoyable. I was actually talking about someone about this just the other day. The only topic that I wouldn't really voluntarily bring up with my learners is sex, just because the city that I teach in is quite conservative when it comes to the topic. But if students bring it up, I'm happy to discuss with them – in a sensible way.

    I don't have to work with course books fortunately because the company that I work for produces all materials in house. In fact our course is built around a kind of ongoing soap/drama storyline that the students watch online before coming to classes. The themes that come up are quite 'controversial'. One of the characters gets arrested and sent to prison for dealing drugs. The same character gets caught cheating on his wife. There's a footballer, who's only interested in hooking up with hot women. And alcohol comes up quite a lot. Come to think of it, perhaps the course writers mis-understood the literature on PARSNIPS 🙂 This is a multinational company with teaching centres in many countries in different parts of the world, btw.

    -David

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  2. Hana Tichá says:

    Thanks for your comment, David. Yes, there are some topics I'd be cautious to touch on, especially because I teach kids and teenagers. No matter how innocent a discussion may be, you never know what the kids say at home when they talk to their parents about school. A funny remark may discredit you as a teacher. The other day I wanted to show my students a South Park episode about Facebook, which was, by the way, recommended by a methodology teach that had created a project for schools called Sustainable Development, only to find out that the Czech subtitles included several swear words. I desperately needed to play the episode so I finally did and then dreaded the subsequent reactions. Luckily, the kids didn’t even notice, but I felt it was rather risky. Nevertheless, I still believe that this is real life and the sterile environment of coursebooks needs to be spiced up from time to time 🙂

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