Yesterday morning, I was starting to think I'd have been better off to stay in bed. I woke up with a head cold (on top of the nausea, which persists), and did not feel like dragging myself into work. But I'd seen the boss dragging his bad self in all week, and he was worlds sicker than I was. Our little school is so small that if a teacher is out, some students don't have class that day. So in I went.
I was to teach a listening and speaking lesson for three hours yesterday, and all the material I needed was on some CDs that I couldn't find. Turned out they'd gone home with the administrator so that she could make backup copies of them. Oh dear. (She was thoroughly apologetic, as was the boss. Some days I am very glad I am not a new teacher.)
So I had to do next week's lesson (which I hadn't prepared) on reading and writing. The reading part went well, but the writing after the break went completely to pieces. The prompt was "'I think that there is too much violence in movies.' State whether you agree or disagree, and give specific reasons and examples for your opinion." Standard TOEFL-type boilerplate 30-minute essay with the introduction and the body paragraphs and the conclusion and the hey hey hey. Two of the (five) class members had spent four hours with me earlier in the week discussing what makes for good reasons and examples in such an essay, so I figured that for them, at least, the exercise would just be a review and a chance for some extra practice.
Silly me. After they'd written for 30 minutes, I started a table on the board of the "for" and "against" reasons that they'd come up with. Suddenly two things became clear. First, all of them had misunderstood the assignment. Several had simply described the plots of violent movies that they'd seen, without offering any supporting reasons or evidence as to why that violence was "too much". Others had disagreed with the prompt without offering any compelling reasons why. They were a bit baffled when I told them that the TOEFL graders would not give their essays good marks. Sigh.
Second, and what set me back on my heels a lot more, was discovering that what constitutes "violence" in some cultures is very, very different from "violence" in North America. Some of them seemed genuinely surprised that the definition assumed by the essay prompt was limited to the realm of the physical. A Turkish guy mentioned "bad language" as an example of violence, and pointed out that in his country, prison sentences for murder are reduced if the person you've killed insulted you. He was surprised that the law is so different in Canada. One student, an utterly charming young woman from South Korea, had given "same-sex marriage" as an example of "too much violence in movies".
The topic of homosexuality and same-sex marriage has come up in my classrooms before. The first time that it did, the ensuing discussion left me a blubbering mess, what with students I respected deeply saying things like "finding out my daughter was gay would be like finding out she was a cocaine addict" and "I'd rather my son were dead than gay" (this one from a wonderful older woman whose first son had died in the Iran-Iraq war, so she knew what a child's death really meant). The next couple of times, I was better prepared, and I like to think I handled it better. (The third time I even told them that although I'm married to a man, I'm attracted to women. They were wonderful about it.)
The class I'm teaching now is much more focussed on preparing people for tests, so I couldn't let the discussion stray very far. But I did say that in North America, violence involves efforts to hurt other people, usually physically, and I couldn't see how two people standing up in front of a wedding officiant to say "we love each other and want to keep each other" could hurt anyone. I mentioned the three weddings we attended in 2004: one straight, one lesbian, and one gay. I said that my sister is making noise about maybe marrying her girlfriend. And I did acknowledge that hearing about these kinds of relationships discussed openly can be a very big shock for people who come from other cultures that anathematize them, but that in Canada, equal marriage is the law of the land.
I'm polite about it (hell, I'm Canadian), but I don't brook homophobia in my classroom.
Eventually the Korean woman acknowledged that she shouldn't use same-sex marriage as a negative example in future essays. It's a start, I guess. Damn shame it was her last day in the class; I'd like to work with her more on writing good, solid, well-reasoned essays. I hope I at least planted some seeds.