Humanising Language Teaching
Hazards of Using Humanistic Techniques in a War- stricken Countrysecondary and adult
Visnja Grgicevic and Visnja Makek, Croatia
Here are some recent experiences ( time of writing: late 90's) of two teachers who teach English at a language school in Zagreb, Croatia. The students are young adults.
An obvious thing to do in a so called humanistic class is to use a lot of personal exercises and relate as much language as possible to the students' personal lives, experiences and feelings. It is understood that the teacher has to have some training in using these techniques, and the good judgement not to overdo them.
The population in our language classes in Zagreb has changed a lot recently. Since the war in Croatia, thousands of people had to leave their homesteads in the parts occupied by the Serbs, leaving all their possessions behind. In most cases they came to Zagreb, fleeing their burnt or demolished towns and villages, carrying all their belongings in a carrier bag. They realised that all that counts is not what they had, but what they know. A lot of these displaced people come to our school to learn a foreign language. Since the war started in Bosnia and Hercegovina, we have had a lot of refugees from there, too. Sometimes it is whole families who learn English, with a view of going to live abroad at a later date, or of sending their children abroad for further education through various humanitarian or religious organisations.
However, relating the new language to their painful, often tragic experiences, has proved to be quite dangerous at times. A few examples from a beginners course will exemplify the point.
Á young woman from Vukovar*, when asked about her husband's name and job, started sobbing. Her husband has been missing for many months, and is either dead or in a Serbian concentration camp.
When doing the unit on housing, two students started crying when asked to draw the plan of their house or flat. A few others drew the plans and then explained that they had drawn them from memory, since they no longer existed.
The teacher's request to bring to class some photographs of their families and friends produced similar reactions. Quite a number of students explained later that what they missed most of their lost belongings were the photographs that were left behind in their burnt or demolished homes. They were the link with their past and with their true identities and their loss seems to be very painful for them.
When writing simple homework about their families, a lot of students from Zagreb wrote very moving stories about their parents, sisters, brothers and in-laws whose homes have been destroyed, who have lost everything, and have now come to Zagreb to share the homes of their children or relatives.
This is the homework that a student from Vukovar in the beginners class wrote about her home town.
'My true heart is in Vukovar. This feeling is beautiful and sad. I always think about my home, about my friends and other nice things that were there.'
When asked about her nationality, a Muslim doctor said 'Bosnian' in a stifled voice. To the question where she was from, she said 'From Brcko' and started crying. The town of Brcko has been under Serbian siege for many months, and both her and her parents house, with everything in it, has been destroyed. There is little hope that she will ever return there, but what she misses most is her and her father's large library.
Students often come to class traumatised by tragic events in the circle of their families and friends, either on the war front or in their neighbourhood. Therefore it is not wise to start the lesson with the question 'What's new?'
The answer may blow up the whole structure of your carefully planned lesson.
Here is another example of the impact of war on our students, though it is more implicit and not so dramatic. After reading the Aesop's fable "The crow and the jug", the students were asked to choose whether they wanted to be crows or jugs.
A young man of 22 chose to be a nice, enamelled, antique Chinese jug. But, he explained, he did not want to be part of the collection of a large museum in Zagreb, since the whole collection has been moved elsewhere during the war, and he did not want to be a refugee. As a matter of fact, he is a sort of refugee, because he studies in Zagreb and his parents live in Vojvodina, which is part of Serbia now. He cannot go back there, because if he did, he would be drafted into the Serbian army, to fight against the Croats and Muslims, which he does not want.
It is clear that a teacher has to tread very carefully when dealing with such traumatised students. A colleague teacher has asked her children students to write lists of people they are willing to talk about. This is one way of getting round the problem. Some others have fallen back into talking about textbook characters or popular personalities, avoiding the issue of real people in the classroom. What we did was what any teacher would probably do in normal circumstances. We asked the students with an emotional outburst to coffee, which all of them gladly accepted. Our training in empathetic listening came in useful. We would often sit with them for one or two hours – listening, listening, listening. All they wanted to do was to talk. The quality of their talk and the range of their feelings changed greatly during out long hours together but this is a topic for another article. In the process we became good friends, exchanged little presents, and the atmosphere in the whole class became very friendly and warm.
In the class itself we had to modify our approach a little and to adapt it to the new circumstances. When we get new students now, we take a careful look where they come from, and try to find out something about their families in a one-to-one talk. In this way we know which areas to avoid in class. We also ask them whether they want the whole class to know where they come from, and whether they want to share with other students some, often tragic, details about their families. We have to be very careful not to embarrass our students in front of the whole group and to bring back painful memories.
In conclusion, it seems that caring and sharing in the EFL class is to be recommended (with some modifications mentioned above) even in these tragic circumstances. The one condition being that the teacher is willing to extend her help and service well beyond the classroom. The rewards on the human plane, however, make it worthwhile.
*a very rich town in Eastern Croatia, which bravely withstood Serbian siege for many months. It has become a symbol of Croatian resistance and is referred to as the new Guernica. Several thousand soldiers and civilians were killed there and the town itself has been almost completely destroyed. It is now in Serbian hands.