One of my goals as an instructor in an intensive English program (IEP) has been to encourage my students to pay more attention to the news in the United States. (See “Producing Newscasts for the ESL Classroom“) When students watch the news in English, they strengthen their listening skills, expand their vocabulary, and increase their awareness of American culture.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s 26 June 2015 ruling on same-sex marriage was one of several “hot topics” in the news this summer that we tackled in class. Beforehand, I wrestled with the question of how best to approach this issue in a class where I knew that a number of students, because of their religious beliefs, might disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision.
The solution I hit on was to put together a 10-question survey (.docx) that students could administer to each other in pairs. The survey asked questions like, “Do you think being gay is something you are born as or something you choose?”, “Do you think gay people should be allowed to get married?” and “What would you do if you found out that one of your siblings was gay?”
I had the students sit in two concentric circles and distributed a survey questionnaire to each student in the outer circle. Their job was to interview their counterpart on the inner circle, to (anonymously) record their classmate’s answer to each question, and to ask follow-up questions to find out more about why the student on the inside circle chose the answer he or she did.
The “surveyers” took their job seriously, with extended discussion accompanying the recording of each answer. Once the first set of surveys was completed, I asked the students in the inner circle to move over one seat, so they now had a new conversation partner. This time, I gave each member of the inner circle a survey questionnaire to administer to their classmate on the outer circle. That way, everyone had a chance to respond to a survey, but with different partners for the second round of interviews so that different conversations and discussions ensued. And everyone had the chance to discuss a wide range of issues relating to gay rights in a smaller, more intimate setting than a public, class debate would have afforded.
Finally, I tallied the survey results and put them on the board for everyone to analyze together. The results, I think, were a surprise to everyone. Seven out of eleven students supported gay marriage (strikingly similar to the results of public opinion polls in the United States). However, 6 out of 11 students opposed gay adoption. I asked my students to discuss whether they saw any contradiction between these two outcomes and invited students who supported gay marriage but opposed gay adoption to explain their positions.
The survey results on the issue of whether people are born gay or choose to be gay were also intriguing: 3 students thought gay people are born gay, 4 thought gay people choose to be gay, and 4 weren’t sure. This led to a class discussion of whether there were significant differences between gay men and gay women in this respect.
All in all, we had close to an hour of lively conversation, mostly in small group settings, that maximized speaking opportunities and allowed us to address one of the most hotly debated decisions of the Supreme Court’s recent term.
Have you addressed this, or other potentially sensitive topics, in your English language class? How did you do it, and how did it go? Please share.