Dare We Touch the Taboo in the Classroom?

When I was a teacher trainer, I raised the issue of taboo topics. I did not merely want to state a list and warn trainees never to allow such topics into their classroom. I wanted them to consider the appropriateness of the topics and justify or challenge their use with adult language learners. My personal position is that there are a great deal of topics to discuss without ever having to utter or write a single word about sex, drugs, and violence, so there is no need to invite conflict by choosing highly controversial issues or cause embarrassment by allowing  extremely personal talk. However, within a respectful and mature atmosphere, so-called taboo topics can be addressed in a professional manner in order to achieve language learning goals. Don’t believe me? Here are some examples:

  • DEATH. Tip: Use real-world contexts, but favor softer views over harsher ones.

I once used obituaries to illustrate how purpose dictates form and language structures. We looked at two samples from the local paper. I purposely chose people who had lived to an old age and left behind memorable accomplishments and many loved ones. We examined the similarities in organization of content. Then we noted expressions such as beloved father, was known for, and leaves (behind) his wife, three children, and six grandchildren. I then had students think about the kind of life they wanted to lead and the kind of person they would like to be remembered as. Using the organization from the samples as well as the language forms we had noted on the board, each student wrote his or her own obituary. It wasn’t morbid in the least.  Students were either amused or inspired. Everyone chose to live past 80. Some fancied themselves famous in the future and wrote accordingly. Others envisioned their dreams coming true: a happy marriage, a successful career, etc.

  • PERSONAL BELIEFS. Tip: Don’t jump into serious topics. Transition from lighter ones.

Around Halloween it seems appropriate to bring up the topic of ghosts and the supernatural. I’ve witnessed students excitedly write their own scary stories in honor of this U.S. holiday. But even at other times of the year, superstitions and the supernatural can find their way into a language lesson. In fact, I remember one conversation book having an entire unit on this topic. I covered that unit many times with different groups of students. I clearly recall one group wanting to share their views on ghosts and the afterlife. At first, I was hesitant to go near the topic of religion, but I then allowed the discussion to go forward with the warning that we would allow each student to express his or her views and be respectful even if we strongly disagreed. They were more than respectful. That group was eager to understand everyone’s beliefs, and I merely played the role of moderator, making sure that each person had speaking time.

  • DRUGS AND ALCOHOL. Tip: Allow opposing views to be expressed within a structured format.

I once took inspiration from a book of conversation games and experimented with debate through role play. The topic was whether or not to lower the drinking age in the U.S. Each student received a role card: police officer, judge, high school teacher, college student, teenager, parent, etc. They each had to voice an opinion while assuming their roles. Later they were invited to express their personal beliefs.

  • SEX.  Tip: Keep the strictly taboo off-limits.

Okay. I admit this is one topic that I would not want to delve into much detail with students of any age. However, lightly touching upon it is possible.  As part of a conversation class on parent-child relationships, I asked my students to brainstorm questions that most parents don’t want to answer. The list caused laughter, and it inevitably included How was I born? and other variants: Where did I come from? What’s sex? How did that baby get in the mother’s tummy?


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