Investigating Social Issues Through Literature

Sybil MarcusA Guest Post by Sybil Marcus
Sybil Marcus has lived and worked on four continents.  She taught ESL at the University of California at Berkeley Extension and at the Summer English Language Studies on the Berkeley campus.  She has presented at conferences in Canada, the United States, and Mexico. For 15 years, she ran a PCI workshop for TESOL on integrating literature into language studies. She has also run workshops internationally for the U.S. State Department on Using Literature for Critical Thinking and Using Literature for Conflict Resolution. She is a coauthor with Daniel Berman of the A World of Fiction series, which uses literature to teach integrated language and critical thinking skills to ESL/EFL students at the high-intermediate to advanced levels.

In one of my favorite classes, we explore social issues through a literary lens. Literature is perfect for this because good writers tend to avoid dogmatic positions. They show rather than tell, which helps students get a nuanced view of a complicated subject.

Constructing a Social Issues Course

I usually try to cover four broad topics in an 8-week course. This gives us enough time to explore each one in depth. It’s not difficult to decide on topics. You only have to look at current news headlines such as those on immigration, war, the changing face of marriage, technology, culture clashes, and race.

As always, it’s important to choose stories of sufficient substance to conduct an in-depth examination of an issue.

My lessons look something like this:

  1. Students read the story for homework.
  1. In class, we discuss the issues raised in the text. I add a factual dimension with supplemental material about the topic, and, if possible, we watch a film clip as well.
  1. We conduct a debate in which I arbitrarily assign each pair of students a pro or con position. Students often end up having to formulate an argument that’s opposite to their own opinion. On one occasion, a student who was a Catholic priest from Korea was assigned to argue in favor of abortion. He told me afterward, he hadn’t had such fun since seminary school!
  1. As a wrap-up writing assignment, I have students pick a story that resonates personally and explain why. Students can give remarkably thoughtful replies. For example, after reading and discussing “Disappearing,” by Monica Wood (1988)—a story in which the narrator struggles with distressing family issues and eating disorders—my student Li Ling wrote:

When I read the story, my heart was touched by the main character.  I could understand her very well because I am a little bit overweight and I think it is unfair that society has stricter standard on women’s appearance and body image than men’s.  Why do women have to be evaluated by men’s viewpoint which is just like an X-ray examination? … I truly believe that everyone has a need to be needed, to be noticed, to be cared, and to be loved, so I felt very sorry for the main character when I read the part in which she thought she was invisible…

Dealing With Controversial Subjects

When tackling social issues, you can’t avoid difficult subjects. Over the years, I’ve taught stories exploring religion, gender, and race discrimination; spousal abuse; and euthanasia, among others.

It’s natural for teachers to be anxious about introducing these subjects in class. But once we start self-censoring, where does it end?  Should we omit a story about addiction because one of our students may be an alcoholic, or leave out a story about adultery because another student’s religious code might forbid it?

Actually, most of the time, I’ve found that my students are grateful for an opportunity to think and talk about a subject that’s taboo at home. The trick is to make the environment safe for expressing honest opinions. Therefore, I lay down some ground rules:

  • Students have to respect each other’s point of view. There can’t be any eye-rolling or snide comments if they don’t agree with a particular viewpoint.
  • There can’t be any interruptions.
  • Everyone has to try to keep an open mind.

I’m delighted to say that my students usually rise magnificently to the occasion.  There are often vigorous cross-cultural discussions in which different points of view are expressed and minds are sometimes changed.

Occasionally, students express misgivings about a sensitive topic. When that happens, I remind them that they’ve chosen to come to the United States to study. I stress that it helps to learn about the target language culture rather than cocoon themselves against the hot-button issues of the day. They don’t have to agree with a certain point of view, but they should be aware of the issues that are being fiercely debated in their host country.

I want to stress that I’m not saying that anything goes. We all draw lines about what’s appropriate. I choose not to teach stories that are sexually explicit or ones with vulgar language—and of course your lines may be different from mine.  The trick is to draw them sparingly.

I’d like to end with a short excerpt from a story that powerfully embodies a social topic, one which is on the front pages of the world’s newspapers today. It’s a chapter titled “Geraldo No Last Name” from The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros (1984), and it exemplifies how a writer can show with empathy and scalpel-like economy the experience of illegal immigrants. The character Geraldo has been killed in an accident. His anonymity is poignantly expressed in the title, as well as in these concluding lines:

They never saw the kitchenettes.  They never knew about the two-room flats and sleeping rooms he rented, the weekly money orders sent home, the currency exchange.  How could they?

His name was Geraldo.  And his home is in another country.  The ones he left behind are far away, will wonder, shrug, remember.  Geraldo – he went north … we never heard from him again.

What’s Next?

In my final guest blog next month, I’ll be discussing how to use literature for conflict resolution.

I’d be very interested to hear how you tackle sensitive issues in class.  Please add a note in the comments section.


Wood, M. (1988). “Disappearing.” Kent, OH: Kent State University Press.

Cisneros, S. (1984). “Geraldo no last name.” In The house on Mango Street (pp. 65–66). New York, NY: Vintage Books.

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9 Responses to Investigating Social Issues Through Literature

  1. Steve says:

    Hi Sybil –

    I attended your seminar in Dallas 2 years ago. I tried emailing you my completed MA thesis – centered on short stories and critical thinking. I never heard back so maybe you did not receive. Are you interested in reading? I’d be happy to send. Really enjoyed your teaching.


    Steve Hunt

    • Sybil Marcus says:

      Hi Steve,

      Apologies for this late reply, but I have been out of town.

      Thank you so much for responding to this post. I did not ever receive your email with your thesis. I should have responded to you immediately.

      If you send it to me again via a second email address I have – – I promise to read it. But please don’t expect a quick response as I have a number of projects I’m involved in at the moment.

      I hope you found some of my suggestions in the Dallas workshop helpful in your writing and teaching. Where do you work now?


  2. Julia Atcheson says:

    Thank you for your post! I’m also as ESL/EFL teacher, and I often have taught Reading/Writing classes in which I have always strived to use the reading materials to highlight social issues, problems, and the connection between the literature and students’ lives and experience. I love to use the debate with assigned roles because I feel that it not only ensures that a discussion will actually take place (sometimes all the students’ personal opinions are similar), but also helps to encourage a bit of alternative thinking. I completely share your opinion about not being afraid of sensitive topics (yes, to a certain extent! I also draw the line at sexual themes); however, there is a couple of things that come to mind: First, I have had experience in class when students may have strong religious or value opinions and aren’t ready to even hear out a different point of view without getting angry. You say that you establish a culture of respectful listening which I believe is crucial in any classroom, but I was wondering if it always works and how you have dealt with discussions getting too heated.
    Another thing I wanted to point out is that taboo topics actually aren’t limited to foreign students’ cultures. I find that in the US, there are plenty of issues that are not really touched upon- such as politics, racial questions, class differences, people’s religious preferences or value standpoints. That is to say, there is some debate but it often seems to be limited to paying lip service to some topic without really opening a difficult conversation about the underlying problems.
    Finally, I have another question for you- you mention that sometimes you watch movie clips (based on the stories that your students read, I assume)- so I was wondering what is your teaching objective with that activity? Do you treat it as a visual illustration, or do you also delve into the significance of the clip you chose for the story? Maybe there is a discussion of differences between the text and the movie? Or is it a listening activity?
    Thank you once again, both for your article and for responding (in advance!)


    • Sybil Marcus says:

      Hi Julia,

      Sorry about my tardy reply. I’ve been out of town.

      Thank you for your detailed and interesting response. Let me try to address the points you’ve raised:
      I have certainly had students with closed minds and anger issues. I’ve found that it is easier in a heterogeneous class, as it always helps if other students express varying opinions. These serve to offer an alternative way of thinking and to offset some of the more intolerant responses.

      Where there is a 100 percent united response to an issue that adheres to a rigid political, social, or religious line, I try to raise opposing arguments in as mild a manner as possible, just to allow some opposite thinking to seep in. I don’t seek to change students’ minds – merely to open them a chink if possible. Usually, the story offers ample opportunity to explore gray areas, and I simply try to get them to explore them more deeply. I never express anything as my own opinion; merely say that there are other ways of looking at the issue and here are some of them.

      Anger has occasionally erupted – after all we are talking about highly sensitive issues – and when it does, I always intervene, insisting that other points of view have the right to be raised and listened to, not necessarily agreed with.

      What you say about native speakers in American colleges being reluctant to tackle many of these issues in depth is indeed true. However, living and working in Berkeley has meant that this is perhaps less true of my university than of many others. I firmly believe that all students benefit from a literary approach to social issues because of the propensity of good writers to see and delve deeper into difficult subjects.

      Regarding the movie clips: They are usually for illustrative purposes since I think they add color to a classroom discussion. And yes, they are also designed to add an extra listening component to the class. For example, if we were to discuss class issues via a story like “The Swimmer” by John Cheever, or “The Legacy” by Virginia Woolf, I might take a clip from the movie of “The Swimmer” in order to amplify the ways in which the Westchester upper class live. Or I might take a clip from the movie of the E.M. Forster novel, “Howard’s End” that shows the snobbery of the upper middle class in Britain toward the working class. I’ve also shown clips from documentaries to illustrate any number of social issues.

      I hope I have answered your queries. Please don’t hesitate to let me know if I haven’t responded adequately.

      • Julia Atcheson says:

        Hello Sybil,

        Thank you very much for your reply! I really appreciate you taking the time to go into all the details.

  3. Kimberly says:

    Throughout my different experiences in the classroom – specifically at the middle school age – I have always had a moment of panic whenever any social issue arises in class discussion. It’s that moment where I’m unsure how to respond, how to buffer students’ responses, and ultimately, how to keep students from offending one another. I have always found myself to stray away from political conversations and other social issues, unless I’m around a group of people I’m comfortable with. I find that people so easily get defensive as well as offended during this conversations; therefore, I try to stay out! Nevertheless, this blog provides a great approach at bringing social issues into the classroom – through literature!

    I have an English background, thus, the idea of using literature to address social issues is right up my alley! Furthermore, the Sybil Marcus provides an ideal lesson plan when implementing social issues in literature. This is a great resource. Finally, I love the precautions that are taken when discussing social issues. I agree that rules must be set in place for this setting. The rules are simple and straight to the point. Plus, they are rules that students should generally follow on a daily basis.

    One question for the author, is there an art of scaffolding into social issues? In other words, should I start with one in particular, or just choose a book and see what happens? What are your thoughts?

    • Sybil Marcus says:

      I’m delighted that you found the post helpful, Kimberley. When you refer to a book, do you mean a novel, short stories, or a textbook? I have to admit, I have taught this course in a somewhat scatter-shot fashion. As I indicated, I use short stories. Since I have a voluminous bank of short stories, I usually pick themes that resonate at the time and then use stories that touch on this theme. I try to find different approaches to the same theme. That isn’t really a scaffolded approach. Since my students are all adults, I am most concerned to match the content to their language level without too much thought about the appropriateness of a theme, a consideration that definitely applies to younger students.

      Of course, it’s possible to choose a novel or play as well that delves more deeply into a particular theme. For instance, there are wonderful novels covering virtually every war of the past century including “The Yellow Birds” by Kevin Powers and “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, but I don’t advocate these for middle-schoolers. However, I find that the advantages of using short stories are the variety of themes they embrace and the different language levels they reach. For example, the Sandra Cisneros book I cite in the blog, covers a large number of themes in a series of manageable vignettes that can be used in multi-age-and-language-level classes.

      I hope this helps.

  4. Bina Varma says:

    Really interesting, as a teacher myself, I can understand how invigorating and socially perceptive the class will be.

    • Sybil Marcus says:

      I hope you will try it, Bina. I’ve found that students get really involved in issues that they consider socially important or interesting. And in the process, a huge amount of language learning goes on as they read, discuss, and write.

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