Link to the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dj2lzLZ6YxM&t=310s
Whenever you have to talk about sex, religion, politics or drugs, how do you feel? Are you comfortable discussing these hot topics or can you feel the cold sweat coming down already? If I had to guess, I’d say basically everyone has reservations when it comes to controversial issues. I certainly do. Don’t get me wrong. I love a great conversation and debating my point of view with other people, I’m just a little worried about the impacts my opinions may have on my relationships (personal, professional, and academic). Now, ask yourself the following: what if our students want to talk about PARSNIPS – politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, -isms, pork – or their books presents a controversial topic? Let’s analyze this, shall we?
Most of us teach our students how to write a For and Against Essay at some point in their course. What strikes me as a little odd is that my students have trouble making the case for something they don’t agree with or making the case against something they do. Do you face the same problem? Their biggest difficulty: Looking at something from a different perspective. What really provokes students and offers very different perspectives is a PARSNIP. Nothing better than a controversial topic to make students ponder about many points of view.
Last week, in order to help my students exercise their critical thinking and create this mindset that will help them become better For and Against Essay writers, I planned a lesson with statistics about Brazil. I showed them how much money is lost due to corruption every year (both in the public and private sectors). I also showed numbers about education and scientific research. Naturally, I used official sources and I tried to balance, as much as I could, the cases for and against privatizing everything (as most students in my classroom wished) and the same about letting the government take care of things. As homework, I assigned an essay about any topic of their choice, as long as it was controversial and that they showed me statistics from official sources. I’m excited about the weeks to come when they hand in the essays.
Last year, I did something similar with my CEFR B2 group. I’m talking about a group of 18 teenagers (15-17 years old) who gave me a hard time throughout the year. I wrote down some topics and sorted them out. My students had to briefly present their opinions on a post-it (anonymously), then put the post-its on the wall next to the debate stations we had created. Each station (a wall in the classroom) had one topic written on a sheet of paper. The topics were Abortion, Legalization of Marijuana, Gay Marriage and Affirmative Action in Brazilian Universities (“cotas”). After the post-its were on the wall, students could walk around the classroom and check their classmates’ opinions without knowing who had written them (I wanted students to feel safer when they shared their opinions). Under each debate station, there were desks arranged in groups so that the students could select what topic to discuss first. They had to discuss as many topics as possible with as many classmates as possible.
As a result, what I saw was blossom. Students who were shy defended their point of view and were not intimidated to engage in the debate. They realized that everyone was doing it and there was a respectful atmosphere that allowed them to have a go. All the steps led to this outcome. I saw a civilized discussion of teenagers who deserved to be set as an example to many grownups who can’t even respect each other’s opinion in a family reunion, happy hour or a political debate. It was indeed a beacon of hope for better days to come when people will listen and talk to one another exercising their sense of tolerance.
But those were not the only positive aspects:
1) My TTT nearly vanished. Students never stopped talking.
2) Classmates had the chance to interact with different groups more than ever.
3) The choice (even limited) of selecting which topic to engage first gave the students a sense of autonomy.
4) Critical thinking happened at its finest. Every student actively listened to their peers and tried to respectfully present their opinion. They were forced to take into consideration their classmates’ perspective.
Watch the video and let me know what you think! Have you discussed PARSNIPS in your classroom? Would you like to try, if you haven’t? Share your experience here.
PS: For more on PARSNIPS, check out this link: http://research.sabanciuniv.edu/27130/1/parsnips-in-elt-stepping-out-of-the-comfort-zone-vol-1.pdf