by Kitty Barnhouse Purgason
TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) has long been touted as an ideal profession for those who wish to proclaim the gospel in both open and closed countries (e.g., Baurain 1992).
TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) has long been touted as an ideal profession for those who wish to proclaim the gospel in both open and closed countries (e.g., Baurain 1992). However, precise mechanisms for introducing spiritual and religious topics to students are less frequently discussed. The purpose of this article is to present a rationale and some general principles for communicating Christian values and truth in the context of an ESL or EFL (English as a second/foreign language) class and to outline some techniques.2
From the outset I want to say that I do not advocate direct evangelism in the classroom. Because of secular employers or governments hostile to Christianity, this is unwise. It is also inappropriate because of what most of our students expect. They come to class expecting to learn English, not be propagandized. To preach to a captive audience who came expecting something else is unethical. However, although direct communication of the gospel and actual conversions will be unlikely in our classes, something can happen. We can use our profession to contribute to the preaching of the gospel in all the world and the coming of the kingdom.
Jesus’ own metaphors for the kingdom are helpful here, especially the agricultural ones. He talks about the planting of seeds, the growth of weeds along with crops, and the gathering of harvests. If we accept these pictures of the kingdom, we will be willing to take on a number of different roles in what is a long process. What we do with our students will sometimes be the equivalent of planting seeds, doing a bit of weeding, providing water or some needed nutrient. We may be privileged to harvest a ready plant. There are a variety of teaching activities that reflect this range of possibilities. Although some may seem rather removed from traditional ideas of evangelism, they are no less important in the overall picture.
Some teachers would say that it is enough to be in the classroom, that being a good person and an excellent teacher is the best kind of witness, and that proclamation per se is not necessary. Certainly who we are is of absolute importance. Without the witness of our character and our professionalism, any proclamation is hollow. But proclamation, in an appropriate way, can enhance our fruitfulness. Proclamation, however, needs to be seen in broad terms, encompassing asking questions as well as providing answers.
Whatever activities we choose should be justifiable not only in terms of their kingdom significance, but also in terms of their pedagogy. In other words, they should embody principles of sound language teaching. There are several current trends in TESOL that provide a rationale for many values-related activities: content-based instruction (e.g., Brinton, Snow, and Wesche, 1989), experiential learning and project work (e.g., Eyring, 1991), culture and language learning (e.g., Damen, 1987), and a renewed emphasis on motivation and "depth" (e.g., Poulshock, 1989). Values and the ultimate questions of life can be the content which we integrate into content-based language instruction. Experiences with churches or Christians can be incorporated into project work or culture learning. Dealing with the important issues in life can add enough depth to a language learning activity to make it more effective.
Professionals in TESOL recognize, usually with dismay, the potential for using language teaching to convey values usually described as "chauvinistic" or "imperialistic" (e.g., Eggington, 1992, Jones, 1993). It is up to Christian professionals to make use of this potential to convey the content we believe is spiritually important and do it in such a way that our students are empowered to make choices.
Here are some guidelines which will help teachers plan what to do in the classroom. First, I will present general guidelines. Then I will follow with some specific ideas for teaching in acontext hostile to Christianity. Finally, I will describe some guidelines for choosing classroom activities.
1. Cultivate a sensitivity to the Holy Spirit. While this should always be a principle by which we live our lives, it is especially important in regard to communicating Christian truths to our students. What shall we say? When shall we say it? To whom shall we say it? How shall we say it? As we design syllabuses, choose textbooks, create materials, and plan day-to-day lessons, we should ask the Holy Spirit to provide guidance; we should ask to be channels through which God can speak as he wants.
2. Make it a goal to listen to and understand your students. So often when we think about evangelism, we think about talking, rather than listening. But before any talking, there must be listening. Jesus spent about 30 years listening, and only two years proclaiming. Students should think of us not so much as people with answers (though we do have some), but as people who will listen to questions. Students should think of our class not so much as a place where they will find out what we think, but a place where everyone’s ideas are valued.
THE PURPOSES OF LISTENING
This listening will accomplish several purposes. First, it will help us understand our students. We can find out how interested they are in spiritual things, what beliefs they currently hold, how sympathetic they are to Christianity, what problems they perceive in their lives, and what issues are important to them. We cannot speak effectively without knowing these things.
Second, it will create an open atmosphere in class. When everyone’s ideas are welcomed, encouraged, and appreciated, students will not hear what the teacher says as propaganda or proselytizing, but as one opinion among many that have been expressed. We win the right to say what we believe after students have said what they believe.
3. What happens in class is primarily a bridge to after-class discussion with individual students. We should not see what happens in class as the final event. This view will push us in the direction of presenting the whole gospel in one class and asking for decisions on the spot. Instead, we should see our in-class activities as accomplishing such things as:
- Letting our students know who we are: Christians, serious Christians, people who value spiritual things, religious people. How we live our lives and teach our classes undergird this message in a crucial way.
- Providing some information about Christianity to those who have no idea who Jesus is and what he taught.
- Providing corrective information about Christianity to those who are misinformed and have based their ideas on American TV shows or local propaganda. Encouraging our students to think critically about what they have heard and to be discerning can be very important for this first step toward belief.
- Pushing our students to consider spiritual questions.
- Raising issues which those students who are serious will bring up with us in private.
OFFER THE BAIT
As fishers of men, we can offer the bait in class and see which fish bite. The interaction with these in particular can continue out of class. Out-of-class discussions have several advantages. First, the privacy makes it safer both for us and for the inquiring students. Second, the intimacy makes it more fruitful. Specific issues can be dealt with in a way impossible when talking to a group of 12, 35, or 50. The implications of this are, of course, that we need to make a time and place for out-of-class relationships and discussion.
GUIDELINES FOR WORKING IN CONTEXTS HOSTILE TO CHRISTIANITY
Teachers in such contexts need to ask two questions before they consider their activities as evangelists. The first is, How long do I want to stay here? Being sensible is less likely to lead to premature deportation or loss of an invitation to return. Thesecond is, How many others do my actions affect? What we do affects our teammates, Christians in other expatriate organizations, and national Christians. With that background, here are three guidelines.
1. Be even-handed in the content. For example, if you talk about how Christians celebrate Christmas, also talk about how the nonbelieving business community celebrates it. If you talk about Christian holidays, also talk about Muslim holidays.
2. Don’t feel that you should ask special permission to do something, for example, singing Christmas carols in class. It only alerts the authorities that "something" is going on. If it is necessary to clear one¡|s lessons with the administration, present your entire curriculum at the beginning of the semester. That way, you don¡|t draw attention to particular content or activity.
3. If you think there are students in the class acting as informers, be extra sensitive to letting the class shape the direction of the discussion. Take your cues from your students’ questions. You will probably not be seen as propagandizing, but simply as responding to student interest.
GUIDELINES FOR CHOOSING ACTIVITIES
1. Choose materials and activities based on student interest. There are many different ways of getting at ultimate values in the class. Not all of them will work with all classes. Some students may be interested in Western culture, some may not be. Some may enjoy fiction, some may not.
2. Make sure there is a language learning objective for every activity and tie the activity to the rest of your curriculum. For example, don¡|t just show the Jesus film to your class. Link it to a reading on Christmas in your assigned textbook. Select key language points (e.g., if . . . then) and point out examples in the film. Help students apply listening comprehension strategies they have been working on. Students will be less tempted to view the film as religious propaganda, but will rather recognize that they are learning English at all points in our class. This is a primary responsibility we as teachers have to our students.
Now that we have discussed goals and principles, it is time to look at specific activities that can accomplish them within the constraints we have mentioned. What follows is simply an outline of possibilities. I also mention some resources (not specifically Christian) to help teachers use these activities for effective language teaching.
Surveys and journals. These are tools to help teachers "listen" to their students. Surveys can help us learn about our students’ backgrounds, what topics they’re interested in, or what they believe about important issues. Journals can be a means of on-going dialogue on an individual basis, allowing students to express ideas they might not be able to in the classroom, and allowing us to respond in a personal way. Teachers unfamiliar with the use of journals in the language classroom will find Peyton and Reed (1990) a good resource.
Literature. Much literature deals with themes such as the meaning of life, the significance of human beings, death, love, and sacrifice. Some of my favorites include Hemingway’s short story "A Clean Well-Lighted Place,"¨ Updike’s story "Pigeon Feathers," Philip Roth’s story, "The Conversion of the Jews," and John Donne’s poetry. In addition, when literature contains allusions to the Bible, you have the opportunity to explain the background. Some anthologies contain famous stories from the Bible, for example the Good Samaritan.
CREATE A LENDING LIBRARY
Even if you can’t use them in class, create a lending library where students can borrow Bibles and books by authors who will stimulate their thinking along spiritual lines, for example, C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, and Patricia St. John. For a wealth of ideas on how to teach language in the context of literature, consult Lazar (1993) or Collie and Slater (1987).
Nonfictionreading. Ask students what they believe after the class has read an article from a current newspaper on what Americans believe. Have students compare and contrast different texts which discuss the origin of life, including the Genesis account and an article written by a Christian biologist, as well as others. When students read about what inspired Martin Luther King, Jr., or what motivates Mother Teresa, they are introduced to Christian values.
Films. Students can both learn language and be stimulated to think about spiritual topics with a range of movies or videos, including classics such as "Ben Hur," dramas such as "Les Miserables" with Anthony Perkins, films based on the Bible such as "Jesus," and Christian films such as Corrie Ten Boom’s "The Hiding Place." There are many resources with ideas on how to use films with language students; Stempleski and Arcario (1992) is one good one.
Holidays and celebrations.Students enjoy both getting information and experiencing holiday events. From St. Patrick’s Day to Christmas, from Easter to Thanksgiving, much about Christianity can be communicated.
Music. Popular songs often contain lyrics that spark thinking about the deeper issues in life. Examples include Eric Clapton’s "Tears in Heaven" or the Indigo Girls’ "Up on the Watershed." Amy Grant and U2 might be other choices, depending on the taste of your students. A resource for using songs for language learning is Griffee (1992).
Discussions and debates. A number of ESL texts from major publishers use values or problem solving as the springboard for discussion (e.g., Schoenberg, 1989, Rooks, 1988). Topics include honesty, generosity, getting along with neighbors, an unresponsive landlord, studies vs. work, ranking the world¡|s problems, etc. Classroom techniques include: discussing in small groups, finishing a story, assessing solutions, role playing, giving advice, and completing surveys.
Projects and after-class events. Teachers in the U.S. have sent their students on a field trip to different places of worship with questions to ask participants and a report to prepare for class. Teachers in China have held a mock wedding ceremony to develop listening comprehension and to stimulate discussion. Fried-Booth (1986) is a useful reference for teachers who want project work to be maximally useful for language learning.
English names. Many students want a new name when they join an English class. They can learn about biblical characters if Bible names are included in a list of names, meanings, and namesakes.
Quotations. Some teachers like to put a quotation on the board at the start of each week. Include among them quotes from the Bible, quotes that get students thinking about important issues in life, and quotes that illustrate Christian values.
In one class we may be able to get a few students to think about the meaning of life beyond the acquisition of material goods. In another class we may be able to pique a student’s interest in the Bible and get her reading it on her own. In another class our selection of readings may help students think more accurately and positively about Christians. In another class we may discover an ardent seeker through a dialogue journal and may use out-of-class discussion to help him take the next step of faith. A teacher who is sensitive to what is inappropriate yet creative with the many possibilities for communicating values and truth can make a big difference for the kingdom in the ESL/EFL classroom.
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Brinton, D., M. Snow, and M. Wesche. Content-Based Second Language Instruction. New York: Newbury House, 1989.
Collie, J. and S. Slater. Literature in the Language Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Damen, L. Culture Learning: The Fifth Dimension in the Language Classroom. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1987.
Eggington, W. "On the sociopolitical nature of English language teaching." TESOL Matters 2:6, p. 4, 1992.
Fried-Booth, D. Project Work. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Griffee, D. Songs in Action. Prentice-Hall, 1992.
Jones, S. F. "Culture teaching or English teaching?" TESOL Matters, 1993, 3:3, p. 19.
Lazar, G. Literature and Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Peyton, J. K. and L. Reed. Dialogue Journal Writing with Non-Native English Speakers. Washington, DC: TESOL, 1990.
Poulshock, J. Values Interaction in an ESL/EFL Context. Unpublished M.A. thesis, William Carey International University, Pasadena, CA, 1989.
Rooks, G. The Non-Stop Discussion Workbook (2nd ed.). New York: Newbury House, 1988.
Schoenberg, I. Talk about Values. New York: Longman, 1989.
Stempleski, S. and P. Arcario (Eds.) Video in Second Language Teaching. Washington, DC: TESOL, 1992.
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