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Our curriculum does not always include texts and exercises connected to global issues, simply because Life itself brings in unexpected topics faster than any new textbook may be compiled. Sure, such themes as climate change or a healthy way of life or dysfunctional families, to name but a few, have been discussion staples for quite a long time. Students of any age would ask all sorts of questions within and without our lesson plan or erupt into hot disputes on anything. I have always believed that it is our responsibility as teachers, as trusted adults, to try and help them better understand the world around them, and to cope with the problems they face.
Nobody could predict the current pandemic, less so the ensuing measures. It is not the first serious epidemic, but it is the first time in recent history that the whole planet is involved. There are several important differences evident by now in the course of every country trying to fight COVID-19. I would place the internet and mass media in general on top. This is what we have to deal with daily. The barrage, the avalanche, the flood of scary news is taking its toll on everyone. The younger our students are, the less they understand the current events; they are also the most frightened, the most vulnerable members of the society. “Are we all going to die?” That’s a question from a nine-year-old who lost some of his relatives to COVID. It is clear that “eventually” is not a good answer. What is? And in fact is there one? Basically we can only soothe, say that yes, some people die of infection, but the doctors are doing all they can, there are vaccines available now. And then we can revert to a Healthy Way of Life as a conversation topic; use role play, have a short contest: Who can suggest the biggest number of physical activities? Which foods are the healthiest? If you teach adults of any age, you can be rather frank, but also remind your class to speak English, which is a good distraction in itself.
Freedom of speech is another global issue which is quite prominent now. It seems that, as quite a number of well-known personalities already said, cyber-bullying and trolling are on the rise. If an overwhelming minority does not like anything anyone said, they start a relentless besmirching campaign, often using distortion, misinterpretation and misrepresentation of the actual statement. Then typically some suggestions or even demands are made, like “let’s strip an author of their rights. But we want to read their books, play video games, watch films, visit amusement parks based on their creation”. Re-writing history, demanding to blot out whole chapters is never good. As Leo Tolstoy once said, “If you shoot into the past with a pistol, the future may retaliate with a cannon”. Naturally every country has various periods in their past; it does not mean that we should pretend that some pages do not exist. Everybody is entitled to freedom of speech, provided they are not terrorists and other illegal groups.
Race is another issue which we must somehow address. I live in a country where historically the whole population is white. There are lots of Northern nations in Siberia, like Buryat, Yakut, and also Asians from the Altai mountains, Koreans, Chinese. The point is, race is not an issue here. In the USA, when I was asked for the first time, “Are your children also white?” – I simply had no idea what to answer. Today, I wonder: if I visit the US, would some people automatically see me as having “white privilege”? Would some of them be hostile to me because of the way I look, while I don’t have a clue? Local children have no idea of these issues, but young adults, my colleagues ask me how to treat this subject. I read up on it to understand what to say, how to behave. It is important because we teach English, thus we are to teach our students how to communicate with people from those countries where this is an issue.
The restrictions all of us suffer are by now hard to bear. We do not know when we may swing from online learning to face-to-face learning and back. Throughout this past year, when I give a talk to teachers or take part in a webinar, I marvel at how versatile we teachers are! We managed to go from in-class process to distance learning practically overnight. We do not know when, or even if, we’ll all be able to travel freely again, to see our nearest and dearest whom we miss. I talk regularly to many young people who are far away from their families, who do not know when they can meet. One cannot hug via skype or zoom or any other platform. I confess I tell them well-meaning optimistic platitudes.
Nina Koptyug, Ph.D.