#KELTChat Summary: Taboo Topics (14th April 2013)

For the full transcript of the chat: click here.

Last week’s KELTchat was moderated by Mr. John Pfordresher, who introduced our topic of Taboo Topics. John P got the ball rolling with the question: What is taboo? Answers included sex, sexual orientation, religion and politics, drugs, swear words (for elementary students), interracial and intercultural dating, anything that can be perceived to make Korea look bad.

Barry Jameson added “cultural imperialism”, and explained that “I try to avoid the arrogance of talking down and imposing my (western??)beliefs and ideals on my students…unless it’s a debate.”

Bryan Hale contributed that sometimes there were things that were taboo for him, but not his students, like talking about weight, stereotyping based on ethnicity, and homophobia.

Daniel Craig interjected to disagree that homosexuality is taboo anymore and to make the excellent point that taboos can change over time.

Anne Hendler commented that taboos might also depend on the age of the students.

The next question chatters discussed was, “Have you been a Ss in a classroom where a topic has come up? How have you felt? And as a Part 2…How do you feel the teacher handled the situation?”

Bryan recalled the discomfort of being in a class in which the teacher did nothing when a taboo topic arose. Others responded as teachers, with various ways of dealing with taboos in our classes, from laughing it off to ignoring it and moving on, to being matter of fact and providing the language the students need to discuss the topics. Barry said that he tries to tackle each situation as it occurs, so maybe there are no hard and fast rules for dealing with taboos. Mike Griffin wondered whether discussing class norms with students would be helpful in dealing with topics that are or are not okay to talk about. Barry reminded us that just because students are laughing doesn’t mean they are comfortable talking about a topic. Dan added that religious topics can cause “silent discomfort”, but Mike said that Korean students seem to be more comfortable talking about religion in a language class than Americans might be.

John wondered whether it is our duty to move on as quickly as possible away from taboo topics. Gemma Lunn answered that it might depend on the situation, but our duty is to prevent students feeling awkward. Bryan said it is important to be mindful of students who might be hurt and also of the motives and maturity of the students. In some situations engaging with the students and opening things up helps. Anne commented that taboos aren’t just limited to topics, but also extend to body language, touch, distance. Suzanne added personality factors as well. Taboos can occur on a cultural level or a personal level.

Jenny Ankenbauer contributed a big question: “What about a talk on why some subjects are discussed in private &/n public on x&x & others aren’t? Can clarify what defines taboo”

Dan: “Most of these topics are simply uncomfortable or awkward and not really taboo. I take them on a class by class basis.” When questioned, he added that he doesn’t see very many topics as being “taboo”.

Anne said she prefers to deal with all taboo topics raised by students in the open in class.

John’s next question sparked a lot of conversation: “What of our duty as cultural ambassadors? Do we have that duty? How does that affect our decision making when a topic comes up?” Chatters didn’t all agree that we have a role as cultural ambassadors, but Gemma pointed out the need to be more culturally sensitive abroad than in the UK. The question of whether we have a duty to help our students be more culturally sensitive led to an issue of approach. Bryan contributed, “I find opening things up by saying ‘Well I’ve heard in __, __’ can be more helpful than ‘I am westerner, so __’” Gemma added, “i think using objective language can help e.g `most ppl in my country feel that` rather than `this is the right way`allows Ss to discuss topics without causing offence” reiterating Mike’s earlier point that it is important to teach students the language for discussing (or not) taboo topics. Jenny agreed that the language is critical and challenged the term “taboo” itself.

A couple other interesting questions arose from John P and Mike G:

“What about teachers that bring in hot topics just to get a reaction/argument/debate going?” (MG)

Responses included the suggestion that teachers walk a fine line, the need to know the students well and set some ground rules for debate or discussion, the need to be prepared to deal with myth. One teacher suggested bringing in divisive topics, not merely debate topics.

“Racism is an ugly topic that pops up all too often. What is our duty as T here? I have a hard time letting that topic slide by” (JP)

Anne responded that perhaps teachers should make the classroom a safe space to get those views out into the open and discuss them. Gemma says that she voices her own opinion, especially with younger learners.

As the chat wound down, Bryan asked, “What about taboos-in-Korea you might want to break yourself/get sick of, e.g. questioning Korean nationalism. Any experiences?” A certain island between Korea and Japan was mentioned by several teachers.

Gemma shared that her final classes were allowed to ask her “anything” and some taboo topics came up: `what do you think of gay?` `is racial discrimination a problem if we lived in england?` `do you like banana milk` oh and `when was your first kiss?!` think ill make myself a few `pass` cards!

Final suggestions came from chatters:

“Strategy: never talk about anything interesting :-)”
“Strategy 2: talk about interesting things in a respectful way that does not privilege your POV”
“teaching useful exp like `i see your point, however` might help? also bing a gd model~ respecting others opinions”
“Be wary of (but also sensitive towards) domineering Ss.”
“Beware of topics Ur prof exp Cs as 2 hot. But don’t miss spontaneous teaching opps…??? Oh, I mean use Ur ‘gut’ ;-)”

Thus ended another exciting KELTchat. Thanks to everyone who participated and thanks to those who are reading and please feel free to participate in future chats!

Useful links:
http://eltrantsreviewsreflections.wordpress.com/2012/09/28/responding-to-shocking-comments-from-students/ (shared by @michaelegriffin)

http://the-round.com/resource/52/ (shared by @bryanteacher)
“I think “52” is a great book and very reasonably priced as well.” @michaelegriffin #KELTchatadvertising

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About livinglearning

I live and work in Japan (formerly in South Korea) as an English teacher. I'm blogging here because I want to reflect on and share the things I have learned about teaching and learning over the years. I look forward to your feedback!

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