Monday, 25 June 2012

Parsnips Part Three: Religion

It is easy to see why course books (and many teachers) avoid bringing the topic of religion into the class. This subject is to be approached with a certain amount of trepidation, if we do not wish to cause offence, upset and even divisions among our learners. As with all PARSNIPS, context is of the utmost importance!  My approach to this topic would differ considerably depending on whom I was teaching: a group of learners in a secular country, for example, would receive markedly different input from learners within a religious country.

Religion is not a topic I have ever explicitly addressed in my classes (although perhaps the process of researching and writing this post will encourage me to give it a go!) For one thing, there is the issue of my personal beliefs (or lack of them). I am not religious myself, and this would make me ultra wary of appearing to question or criticise the beliefs of others. Another off putting factor is religion’s potential to ignite differences in a group: I had to avert a moment of egginess a few weeks ago during a class discussion on celebrations, when a Polish learner informed the class that Polish Christians had a “more serious” belief in God than their Hungarian neighbours! (The Hungarians in the group were not impressed…)

However, religion has shaped the world we live in and continues to do so. It brings happiness and meaning to life for many people, and (most importantly for the language teacher) provides a wealth of discussion areas in sub topics ranging from celebration to marriage to daily routine.

Here are some potential approaches. Please let me know if you can think of any others!

1.      Generating Discussion.
To avoid putting the learners directly on the spot about their own religious beliefs, you could try showing them the beginning of this video, where Guardian reporter John Harris interviews members of the British public about their belief in God. The answers he receives illustrate the patchwork of religious beliefs and degrees of religious observance which make up modern Britain, while providing relevant lexical input.  (The subsequent interview with Richard Dawkins would be suitable only for advanced learners)
Learners based in Britain could follow up by interviewing members of their own community, and could compare their findings with what they know about religious belief and observance in their own country.

 2.  Reading and Discussion
The following texts and video clips recount stories of people who have been forbidden to wear religious dress (a Christian woman in the UK and Muslim women in France)

These texts provide good starting points for a discussion, once you have checked learners’ comprehension of the main points. There are also many opportunities for follow up work: learners could role play interviews, or they could do some web based research of discrimination against other religions.

3.    Research and Presentation   
Religious celebrations provide very interesting subjects for reading and discussion. You could divide the class into groups, and assign each group a religion, e.g. Muslim, Christian, Sikh,  and Jewish. Each group would then research festivals associated with this religion and report back to the rest of the class.  Alternatively you could assign each group the task of researching the rites and rituals for a wedding in this religion.

4. Project Work.
If all this is a bit too serious for you, a light hearted project idea for a Friday afternoon  might be more up your street. (The following idea would work well with teenage learners and young adults in a secular context.)
  • Establish as a class what the main components of religions are: a set of rules, a “supernatural” element, a sacred text, places of worship etc.
  • Tell the class they are going to design their very own world religion, and must address each of the points mentioned above.
  • The class have twenty minutes to brainstorm ideas and then must write a little tract about their new religion. They nominate a preacher in the group, who will attempt to “convert” the rest of the class.

5.    Language Work
 What about the language we can usefully teach and elicit through our discussion of religion? Here are some ideas:
  • Question formation (through the survey mentioned in number one)
  • Modals of obligation (should, have to, can, must etc.) e.g. Catholics should go to confession regularly.
  •  Practise the present simple and adverbs of frequency through discussion of religious habits, celebrations etc.

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