What is taboo in the classroom and why?

There are certain topics generally viewed as taboo. They are either viewed with extreme caution or avoided all together. Why?

  • We don’t want to cause embarrassment. Let’s face it. Even with our best friends there are facts we don’t care to share. Sex is taboo for a reason. It’s highly personal.  There are some aspects of our lives that don’t have a place in the classroom, and our sexual activities are a clear example. Some students may have less reservation than others about sharing private information, but limits should definitely be respected to avoid embarrassment.
  • We don’t want to cause discomfort. Some topics do not exactly embarrass people because no one is divulging overly personal details, but at the same time the very nature of a topic can create unease. Death and war are examples of topics that can upset sensitive students. If students experience a negative emotion throughout a lesson, learning is hindered because a positive atmosphere is required for a successful outcome.
  • We don’t want to cause offense. Highly controversial topics can spark the wrong kind of debates. Instead of promoting self-expression, discussion can become a vehicle to promote a set of beliefs as being superior to all others. For this reason, religion is generally taboo.
  • We don’t want to be unprofessional. You may have partied quite a bit in your college days, but to glorify past drinking binges would threaten your professional image. You need to maintain students’ respect. This is one reason why alcohol and drugs are usually approached with caution as topics for language lessons. It’s also possible for your attitude toward a student to be altered for the worse in the face of the discovery that she or he has used drugs in the past.

I believe, however, that so-called taboo topics can be broached if done with respect for others and respect for the classroom.  I’ve experimented in the past, weaving delicate topics into language lessons. The success of those lessons was due in part to the following practices:

  • Stating rules. At the outset of a debate, it’s good to explain rules of conduct for the sake of maintaining order as well as practicing tolerance. Examples: Only one person will speak at a time. Disagree respectfully.
  • Being sensitive. We constantly need to be attuned to our students.  Watch their body language and facial expressions. You can always steer the lesson in a new direction if a topic is causing discomfort of some form.
  • Bearing in mind language goals. There are interesting questions to discuss and interesting ideas to consider, but perhaps the best place for all this is outside the classroom. You need to be able to justify the use of a delicate topic as a means to achieve a language goal.

In my next posting, I will share concrete examples of activities I did using so-called taboo topics.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Lucy says:

    Excellent post Jennifer:) Sometimes at the beginning of a session I hand out a list of topics that may or may not be discussed throughout the term (these are topics that I envision incorporating within my lessons as debates or discussions). I ask the students to check off whether this is a topic that they might feel comfortable discussing- or not. It’s anonymous. For me, it’s generally a good indicator of no-go-zones.

    I love your pre- steps to opening discussions. Because let’s face it, very often topics of discussion come up on their own. So, in that eventuality, it’s good to be prepared in order to avoid any possible situations , like those you mentioned here.

    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      Thank you, Lucy. The way you use that list of topics is a good practice for others to consider. Do you tend to see some topics repeatedly go unchecked? I’d be interested to know.

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