Classroom decoration and documentation of students’ work on the school walls was of great importance at the Loras English Academy (the school I owned for ten years with my two sisters in Ioannina, Greece, before I moved to Switzerland). We firmly believe that students can learn from anything, be it a poster on the wall, a song they might listen to or a postcard with a place around the world which can invoke a very productive discussion in English. In fact, we are of the opinion that students can learn more that way than being in the strict confines of a textbook (thank you Scott Thornbury!).
Flicking through yet another catalog with school stuff and anything you can imagine (posters with educational messages, banners, pictures and so on), only one thing caught my eye. I thought this item would be the most important thing I could ever hang in my classroom. It was a poster of Martin Luther King and one of his most influential sayings: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” I had always been a great admirer of Dr. King’s work for the protection of human rights, and more specifically the rights of black people in America. I had been prompted to read more thoroughly about the whole issue after probably the most interesting university lecture I had ever attended in my four years in university (the course was called Introduction to American History and my professor was Mr. Joseph Gratale, one of the most enthusiastic, knowledgeable and objective educators whom I remember to this day.)
I just ordered that one item that day, which proved to be the greatest lesson for my students – and for myself. Someone told me that day not to purchase the specific poster. “It is too politically charged – a classroom is definitely not the place to hang such a poster.” Good thing I did not take her word for it. I went ahead and when the poster arrived in the post, I was glad I had done it. Now I was waiting for the students’ reactions.
“Who’s that, Miss Vicky?” was the most common question. Younger and older students were looking thoughtfully at it at times and I always think that if the children do not know something, it is up to us to inform them (this is after a comment I heard from a teacher of the type “Oh dear, these kids do not know anything these days. Come on, who does not know Martin Luther King?”). Children as young as eight years old could understand what Dr. King was fighting for and they were all overwhelmed that people actually suffered from racism as recently as the 1960s.
So I decided to grasp the opportunity and make the most of it. I printed out Dr. King’s speech (for those of you who have not read it yet, it is a speech that even to this day, no matter how many times I read it or hear it, still gives me the same goosebumps. Linguistically, it is one of the richest texts I have read in terms of vocabulary, opposites, parallels which all combine together to send out the same powerful message). I bought the CD with the whole speech on it so we could listen to it and not just read the speech. I believe that when teaching a song or a poem, or a speech in this case, it is much more helpful to listen to a recording of it as well, if there is one, for the reason that it becomes livelier and the most important points are illustrated in a unique way.
The lessons we had from then on were absolutely fantastic. We got to see the history behind the speech (all in English and I was teaching Greek students!), the opposite opinion (that of Malcolm X, so that the students would have a view of both sides), the lexical items, we saw it in terms of literature, everything! However, the most important lesson I received first of all, was how many things kids can understand once you explain to them. The most important lesson for the students was being introduced to diversity and how toxic racism can be for society and that even today it unfortunately finds its way to seep into our lives.
That is when I made another decision: to take it to another level with the students. Discrimination (as we all know) is not just about skin color. It can be against people who have different religions and beliefs, against people’s sexual orientation, even against people who suffer from mental or physical disease. Of course, the audience now would be the oldest students, because these topics are difficult for younger students to grasp. So one day I brought in a scene from the movie starring Tom Hanks called Philadelphia, which is both about the rights of a homosexual man who is suffering from AIDS. I was foolish enough not to ask the students’ permission to record the discussions we had, as you would have the read the transcripts of the most insightful and wonderful discussions from young people.
Unfortunately, in Greek schools students do not have the opportunity to come into contact with humanitarian values. The system is such that it dryly directs students into getting into university and missing out on more important things, like the ones I mentioned above. I am almost quite certain that this happens in other countries. Therefore, in our school, we made every attempt to expose students to values such as respect towards everyone, no matter how hard it was and no matter how we were pressed by curriculum and parents to lead kids to exams and getting language certificates in order to gain more formal qualifications for their future professional life. We tried and we still do try to do our best as racism and toxicity as such finds its way through every aspect of human life. Fortunately, I know many other educators who do a wonderful job either with their students or writing articles in this field.
Our work as educators is so important and can be so influential. It should not only lay in the confines of imparting knowledge or leading students to exams. First of all, educators have to model acceptance to people regardless of color, religion, belief, sexuality. There will always be those who resort to offensive remarks or actions against people, but I am optimistic that there are more people out there who are receptive to diversity.
Vicky’s Note: Unfortunately, racism even pervades ELT. There are textbooks and materials and even ELT educators that stereotype and lash out against anything “different” from what they think the norm. To these people especially I have to say that opinions like this are not welcome in education.