Burn the book

Twice this week, and for very different reasons, I’ve felt the need to cast aside the textbook from which I teach English, in order to focus on other things. At the English language academy where I work Monday to Friday, each class works from a textbook published by Cambridge University Press. In the past I’ve taken issue with some of the material in the books (igloos are made from ice; the universal use of contractions – don’t, can’t, I’m, etc –without teaching what those contractions are or mean; and the insistence on teaching such archaic phrases as ‘Whose books are those?’ and ‘Needn’t she go there?’). The boss wants us to get through those books quickly, thus demonstrating to the parents, who pay for their children to attend, that English is being learned. But ploughing through a text book doesn’t mean they’re learning anything.

I teach children and adults but, both occasions this week when I decided to not use the book (don’t tell the boss) were with nine-year olds, currently on different pages of the same book.

I was horrified when I looked over the page I was supposed to teach on Thursday. How could I teach this rubbish? The top half of the page contained four photos – a teacher, a bus driver, a street cleaner and a doctor (the street cleaner was the only person whose face wasn’t shown…just a hand on a sweeping brush); and in the corner of each photo was a cartoon depicting what life would be like if these four professions didn’t exist. Without a teacher there would be anarchy in the classroom; without a bus driver, anarchy on the bus; without a street cleaner…you get my drift. The accompanying dialogue CD had children being rude to a teacher, rude to a bus driver, rude to a street cleaner….. The point of the lesson was that children should show respect, but the content of the lesson was so poorly thought out. I’m sure the teachers among you will be appalled to see that the writers of this textbook think that your primary role is not to educate and facilitate learning, but to keep people in line! Likewise, if you’re a bus driver, street cleaner or doctor. I really didn’t want to teach this.

And then my nine-year old students saved me from having to. Sergio came in first and proceeded to show me part of his gem collection that he had brought to class. When the others arrived (seven students in all) they wanted to see what Sergio had and to tell me about their minerals and stones. I show them the tiny fossil I always carry in my purse. They all wanted to know the English words for these and so an impromptu geology lesson ensued, as they explained the characteristics of various rocks and minerals and I tried to figure out what they meant before finding the word in the dictionary. In English they described iron, slate, marble, and fossils. Without any prompting from me, they all insisted on writing the words down and each one showed me the vocabulary notebooks they keep. No-one had ever told them to keep vocabulary notebooks – every one of them does it of their own accord.

‘What’s that teacher?’ Ainhoa asked, pointing to the pendant around my neck. I explained it is a caribou antler carving of an Inuit woman wearing an amauti. I took it off and passed it around the classroom, together with my walrus ivory rings – one in the shape of a beluga whale, the other a snowy owl. So we moved from geology to Arctic animals, to the difference between an antler and a horn, to the differences between toothed and baleen whales. For these little kids to do this in English, struggling to understand me and to be understood by me, was phenomenal. And I was learning too. For every new word they learned in English, I learned its Spanish equivalent. I would never have guessed that by the end of this week I would know that morsa is walrus, reno is reindeer, and lechuza is owl.

Buoyed by the fun we were having, Sergio piped up ‘I know all the planets in order’. Ok, so maybe he didn’t say it in such perfect English, but he communicated it well. As he listed the planets, Ainhoa jumped up and drew the solar system on the board. Miguel and Jose added bits and pieces and by the end there was a blooming good solar system, complete with orbits around the sun, covering the board. A debate ensued (in English) as to whether Pluto is still considered a planet or not. The seven children told me things about the planets that I didn’t know, and I told them things they didn’t know. We even talked about the possibility of travelling to and colonising Mars.

And then I did a naughty thing. At the end of every class we have to fill in a form stating what we’ve covered. The boss isn’t interested in geology and ecology and astronomy. So I wrote that we’d covered that page about the anarchy-quelling teachers and bus drivers. Who’s to know otherwise!


The second instance of throwing the book away was far less pleasant. It happened a day earlier, with another class of nine-year olds. This all-boy class has always been a little challenging for me. They are boisterous and fun-loving and, with a couple of exceptions, not at all interested in learning English. In the past I have had particular difficulties with two boys – I shall call them Juan and Luis, who seem to have an unhealthy obsession with anyone whose skin colour is not white. The textbook depicts cartoon characters with various skin colours and one of the two cartoon families that appear throughout the book is Indian. (Interestingly, all of the photographs in the book are of white people – well done, Cambridge University Press). On days when we open a page to a cartoon of people who clearly look Indian or African, these two boys begin their giggles and tittering and making comments about ‘negros’ and ‘terrorists’. My Spanish language abilities are virtually non-existent, so dealing with this effectively, is proving difficult for me. I have asked the principal to speak to these two boys, but he did so without having me present, so I’m not sure if he effectively conveyed why their behaviour is inappropriate.

On Wednesday I was teaching ‘er’ endings (riveting stuff). I asked the boys to think of words that end in ‘er. They came up with teacher, driver, mother, brother, etc. Then Juan said ‘nigger’. Now, I don’t know if that word is as awful in Spanish as it is in English, but it was time to forget about teaching English for a while. A much more important lesson was necessary.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to make myself understood. But if I used clear, simple English, was repetitive, and used the dictionary when necessary, the boys would understand by the tone of my voice how using this word was such a serious matter. I’d had enough of these two boys goofing around about ‘negros’ and thinking it was all a big joke.

I began by explaining very carefully and clearly that I never wanted to hear that word used in my classroom again. I would refuse to teach the boy who used that word. If I found out that a boy had used that word on the street, or in school, or at home I would similarly refuse to teach him. Juan, who had uttered the word, had downcast eyes and twice he said ‘sorry’.

With the help of my English-Spanish dictionary and a lot of body language, I explained that this word had been used by one group of people to put another group of people down and (and here I struggled to express myself simply but effectively) that some people felt it was alright to abuse and murder people they called by that name. Juan looked at me. He had disbelief written all over his face. ‘Really?’ he asked me, genuinely in disbelief. At this point, a wonderful boy, Alejandro, chimed in and, from what I could make out from his rapid Spanish, gave Juan a potted history of slavery in the US. From the look on Juan’s face, he had never heard of this before. He looked to other students for clarification. Arturo and Adrian told Juan that what Alejandro had said was true. I was delighted that these boys knew this history and could tell it.

I felt I had cracked Juan somewhat, but Luis was not convinced. I changed tack. ‘Look around this class’, I said (I was scrambling for ideas that would hold some weight), ‘Every one of us has a different skin colour’. Ivan noticed that he was the ‘whitest’ and had a smug grin on his face. But no, you miss the point, I told him. The point I’m making is that the colour of our skin is not important. By the way they responded to me I knew they understood what I was saying. But did they believe me?

Almost every week, Luis equates ‘negro’ with ‘terrorist’ and I have tried and tried to disabuse him of his beliefs. He came up with this argument again and it was time for me to try to change his mind again.
‘Negros are terrorists’, he said.
‘Luis’, I said, ‘There are Irish terrorists, Spanish terrorists, Japanese terrorists, American terrorists, Australian terrorists, English terrorists’ (I knew I was oversimplifying the complexities and confluences of nationality and race, but I wasn’t playing to a sophisticated audience). In the past he had refused to believe that there are Spanish terrorists and got very angry with me one day for insisting they exist.
‘Terrorism has absolutely nothing to do with the colour of anyone’s skin’, I said. But he seemed unconvinced.
‘They are terrorists in Iran’, he told me.
‘Yes’, I said, ‘There are. And just like Spain and Ireland and America and Kenya and any other country in the world you wish to name, most people in Iran are not terrorists’.
He gave me a ‘You sad naive woman’ sort of look.

‘Tell me, Luis, do you eat tomatoes’, I asked, changing tack once more and hoping to encourage empathy. ‘Yes’, he replied. I asked all the boys in turn if they ate tomatoes, and I told them that I do too. I then did the same for lettuce, peaches, cucumber and a variety of other common fruits and vegetables. We all admitted to eating a lot of these a lot of the time.
‘Where do they come from?’ I asked.
They had no idea, despite the fact that most of the produce we eat (here and across much of Europe) comes from the vast corporate poly-tunnel farms that cover the coastal plains of southern Andalucia, and where the parents of some of my students work as laboratory technicians, scientists and managers.
‘Who works on those farms?’I asked.
No-one knew.
‘The vast majority of the men who work on those farms are from Senegal, Mali, Morocco and other west African countries. Those men work extremely long hours for very little pay to provide you with the food you eat every day’. (This took some explaining, with dictionary, gestures and assistance from the boys with the best English abilities). ‘Those men are not terrorists. Those men feed you. They deserve your respect and gratitude’.

I don’t know if my message got through. And if it did, well, it’s only a tiny speck of ocean foam against a fast flowing current of bigotry and ignorance. I attempted to explain why we need to think carefully about the words we choose to use; and why we need to think about the labels we stick on people. I could have let Juan’s choice of ‘er’ word go, and I could have carried on with the lesson. But I decided closing the book was more important.


I’m not a qualified school teacher, and I suspect my approach to teaching is often ham-fisted and lacking in sophistication. But I enjoy teaching. I like these kids a great deal – even Juan and Luis. Especially Luis – he’s a troubled kid with a messed up home life. And I don’t really care if they learn English or not. But I do care that they learn kindness and compassion. And sometimes ‘wasting’ time on geology, astronomy and compassion is worth one hundred pages of the book.


10 thoughts on “Burn the book

  1. You’re definitely not wasting time with these detours! I am about to finish several years’ english tutoring for a South Korean boy and once he’d reached basic fluency, we simply started talking about things we found interesting – he remembers words that he actually cares about, far better than ones some list somewhere claims are important.

    • Ah words are great!! I have smatterings of vocabulary from various languages…words I am likely never to need or use (the Portuguese for pumpkin, anyone?)…but I learned them from friends, because I like the sounds of those particular words, or because I learned them in peculiar or memorable circumstances. Our brains have a wonderful way of storing such knowledge.

  2. These children are lucky to have you as their children, bringing a little in schooling to what could otherwise be a rigid learning environment will certainly make a difference to their education, how ever small, they will remember the cool Irish English teacher they had!! As for explaining racism and bigotry, it’s hard enough when working with 9 year olds talking in their mother tongue- sounds like you did well, especially as you were thinking on your feet with no time to prepare!

    • Oh I hate it when a device corrects ones spelling- they are lucky to have you as their ‘teacher’ and I meant, unschooling not ‘in schooling’!!

    • I’m thinking I might follow up that ‘on the hoof’ lesson of last week with something more planned this week – something that focuses on culture or history. I heard an interesting story on BBC radio a few days ago about ancient manuscripts in Mali, that might be turned into a lesson of interest to nine year old’s – I might get them to make their own Malian manuscripts, but in English. Time to get planning!!

  3. As a “qualified” school teacher myself, I would say that your approach to teaching these 9 year olds demonstrates that you are more qualified than a great number of “qualified” or even “highly-qualified” (license plus master degree) school teachers. Don’t put a disclaimer on what you put out there, for your experience and methods sound exactly like what a highly qualified teacher with natural intuition would do.

    I agree, the textbook is rubbish as most are. I use a textbook with my seventh graders, focusing on the literature that is most meaningful and bringing in other literature, as well as video and music to suppliment the goof literature, while tossing out the junk.

    Keep teaching and doing what you’re doing. You are making an impact that has far more meaning that the difference between “er” endings as a verb and “er” endings as a noun.

    • Hi Timothy. Many of my friends are teachers and I’ve been lucky enough over the years to observe a few of them with their students. They are awesome. I guess I undersold myself somewhat! I have been teaching in one form or another for the past 21 years – mostly at university. And I’ve taken various compulsory classes over the years to improve my university teaching. Sometimes 8-year olds aren’t all that different to 21-year olds!! They all want to be engaged and kept interested, and they generally wanted to be treated with respect and given the opportunity to air their views and opinions and to show off their knowledge. Happy teaching!

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