The Right of Choice

RRR12

The author’s take on universal marriage after the Supreme Court’s decision regarding Same-sex Marriage

Marriage: a unity between two people who share the same values and ideas, who respect each other and their shortcomings, who love and care for each other, who want to take a lifelong voyage together until death does them part. Up until Friday, marriage was supposed to be a union between a man and a woman. Since the Supreme Court’s decision, now the right to marry has been extended to between two women or two men. Every state in America now has to honor the right to administer the marriages regardless of whether the couple is hetero or homo.

This historic decision has split the country in half, between those who prefer to keep the tradition of a man and a woman being married and those who favor more freedom to marry someone they like, regardless of sex. While I consider myself hetero and prefer the traditional way, I do fully understand the feelings of others who are different than they are and are welcoming this decision with open arms. If we look back 100 years, one would see a marriage as being a process of tying the knot between a preacher’s daughter and an owner of a local merchantile. In other words, they were on a local level; it would be rare for a Minnesotan to marry someone from New York, or a Mississippian marrying a Washingtonian. And even more so an American marrying someone from Europe. Yet as the years roll on, so do we see an increase of Americans marrying foreigners, whites marrying blacks or hispanics, and Christians marrying Muslims. So why not see people of the same sex marry each other? They are the same as us heterosexuals. They love some good company, have to deal with the same issues as we do, regarding taxes, raising families, dealing with college expenses, and the like, and are as normal as we are.

Homosexuality was considered a crime a century ago, and attempts to convert people to become heterosexuals only garnered partial success. In fact, some success stories ended in tragedies as the patients took their own lives, as was seen with the hanging of Kirk Murphy in 2011. Yet attempts are still being made to force the ideals on homosexuals that it is a sin to by gay. While the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of same-sex marriages, some states, like Texas and Alabama are disobeying Washington’s orders and are denying marriage licenses to these people. Churches are still not allowing them to marry or be part of the congregation, and many people are taking to the newspapers and electronic media shouting down the decisions. My question to these people is this: Would you do this if you knew someone from a Catholic faith marrying a Muslim- a heterosexual couple for that matter? Or what about an Iranian marrying an American? A Native American marrying an Aborigine?  How would you define a marriage, BEYOND the concept of a man marrying a woman? Think about it.

From my perspective, I would like to comment something a friend of mine mentioned recently in a discussion on this topic, which hits the spot: institution of marriage is a union between two consenting adults who love and care for each other and want to legally bind themselves together as they journey through life. The choice of who to love, marry and start a journey together for as long as they live. It should be regardless of what religious, cultural and sexual preferences should be. Couples change many times in order to the right fit. Some choose to wait until they find the right one. Others find love in high school, lose it for 20+ years, then regain it. Then there are others who find each other and after 30+ years, still have a healthy marriage with loving children. But the bottom line is, as long as the couple is happy, they should have the right to marry and live a long and prosperous life. It should not have to be based on a long religious tradition which still exists but has to make room for other couples who may be different, but share the same values as we do. And with this, a comment to finish my soapbox comment, something I wish and hope others will have that same opinion, regardless of background and preference:

 

While I prefer to be different from the rest, I respect those whose views and feelings differ from mine, as long as they respect the opinions and decisions I have made that I’m living with. Through this understanding we can have a peaceful co-existance where we can talk about these issues and share our ideas.

 

It’s time to put down the differences and share, instead of slamming the door on certain people because they’re different. It’s long since due.

 

FF new logo1

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Germany at 25: Kindergarten

playground

This is the first of 25 installments on Germany at 25 years, as we celebrate the country’s 25 years of existence since Reunification. 

Kindergarten.

Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi was once of the opinion that in order to have a society of proper people with a creative state of mind and the ability to interact with each other, education has to start as early as possible so that the children do not become a generation of beasts without a proper form of education to survive in a modern society.  With the creation of orphanges in Neuhof, Yverdon les Baines and Stans (all in Switzerland), Pestalozzi encouraged his children how to be creative, while at the same time taught them how to interact with a society that was sophisticated and selective, through the use of letter, numbers and other creative forms of communication- the necessary tools needed to survive in this society.

While Pestalozzi died a poor man, his legacy was passed down to his disciples, among them Friedirch, William August Fröbel, a German educator from the state of Thuringia, who had created a Play and Activity Institute where through the usage of geometric materials (known as his Gifts), he encouraged his children to become creative in their own development, allowing them to create whatever they wanted and learn through their creative talents. In 1840, he coined the term Kindergarten, derived from the terms Kinder (children) and Garten (the place to create and grow). Since that time, the term Kindergarten has become the norm in both German as well as Anglo-Saxon culture, meaning an institution where children up to the age of seven attend on a daily basis to learn how to communicate with others and to be creative. But what is the difference between a German and an American kindergarten? And can each one learn from one another?

Looking at the American kindergarten, we can see the difference from a European’s perspective. Generally, Kindergarten is considered a grade (German: Klasse) and is part of the school system. As a rule, if you hear the words Grades K-12, that means 13 years of writing, math, reading and other forms of creative artwork, be it music, art, computers, etc. starting the at age of five or six. You have a full year in Kindergarten before taking that step and going into first grade, yet in many schools (and this is speaking from personal experience), you have half-days, meaning one group has morning Kindergarten from 8:00 until 11:30, another has afternoon Kindergarten from 12:30 until 3:00. How the groups are divided up depends on parental preferences and many times, the geographical standpoint. In my Kindergarten back home in rural Minnesota, the country kids had morning Kindergarten, the city kids had the afternoon portion. There were a few exceptions where kids  stayed the whole day.  During the time in Kindergarten, we learned the letters and numbers and started writing, yet we also did various forms of artwork, went on field trips to see the nature and lastly, learned to interact with others by sharing, being kind to one another and handling conflicts. While the landscape has changed over time, thanks to the high demands of testing and the Core Requirements, as well as the introduction of technology, the structure remains the same. Kindergarten is the last phase of the two-step process, where kids enter pre-school at the age of four or five for a year before entering Kindergarten. Prior to that, there is daycare although many parents stay home  with their children before putting them into pre-school.

German Kindergartens are much different from their American counterparts, independent of the fact that there are two types that exist: state-owned and privately owned (counting Montessori and Waldorf). In any case, children can attend a Kindergarten from the age of two on, and stay until they enter school at the age of six or seven- a span of 4-5 years. There, the children can stay all day or even half-days while their parents are away, while at the same time, become creative using the materials and tools at their disposal. Some kindergartens offer the kiddie version of industrial arts, where they can build many things using wood. Others have paper, clay and other materials available for them to allow their imaginations run wild. My daughter’s kindergarten in central Germany has both and I (as a parent) along with the educators (German: Erzieher) were amazed at some of the items she has produced over the years.  Yet that is not all what the Kindergartens in Germany teach them. Many of them take their children on field trips to several places of natural and/or historic interest, many of them only require 15-20 minutes of walking in order to get to their destinations as they are only a short distance away. Even when all is in close vicinity of each other, these field trips allow the children to explore and learn new items they have never heard of before.

Also unique in a German Kindergarten (which you will most likely not see in an American one) is the opportunity to learn a foreign language at an early age. Through singing, learning new words, role plays and other items, children have an opportunity to learn both German and another foreign language (mainly English, but some offer French as the first language) at an early age.  As all German states require schools to introduce English in the first grade and French (or another foreign language) in the third grade, this type of bilingual education, albeit not in all Kindergartens, provides children with a headstart on their language training when they enter school. With globalization dominating the landscape, it is a must to learn your native language plus one other language as early as possible. At the conclusion of the time in Kindergarten, there is a closing celebration followed by the start of elementary school. But this celebration will be written later.

When comparing the German and American kindergartens, one can see the difference in terms of flexible offers and classes, the quality of education and availability of teachers and resources. While American Kindergartens maintain a strict guideline, are incorporated in the school structure and only offer 1-2 teachers for every 25 children, German Kindergartens are a single entity with as many as 4-6 educators for every 30 children- two per group- in a Kindergarten. More attention is paid to the development of the kids  in Germany. And even when they learn the numbers and alphabet in an American Kindergarten, the emphasis in a German Kindergarten is the importance of independence, respect and friendship, whereas the writing part, despite many kids learning it early even at home, usually starts in elementary school, especially as dualingual education has become the norm in much of the educational curriculum in Germany.

This leads to the question of whether we can learn from each other. The answer to this question is a resounding yes. Even though there are some different types of Kindergartens in Germany, and the number of private Kindergartens are increasing in the US as well, Kindergartens in the US would be better equipped if they allow the children to develop on their own and not be obsessed with writing and numbers at an early age. With the education system focused mainly on tests, kids are forced to write earlier than expected instead of being creative and exploring new things every day. And while some critics may say that bilingual education in the Kindergarten is too early and that the kids should first learn their native language first (at least in the oral sense), sometimes it does pay to learn to be at home with two languages given the high demand of English, Arabic, Chinese, French and Spanish as the lingua franca nowadays. Therefore keeping all these factors in mind, one needs to find the right balance between learning and creating something for the good in a Kindergarten. After all, the kids of the next generation need to learn to work and have fun and not be focused on tests alone.

To sum up our view of Kindergartens, as the term has been in our vocabulary for 175 years, the institution has advanced over time as kids need to be prepared for the constant changes in the environment, yet the purpose remains the same: to teach kids to be creative and independent, respectful and talented, and lastly, as Pestalozzi stressed and Fröbel used in the establishment of the first Kindergarten in Germany, be civilized in a society where multi-culture and modernization are the norm, and the children has to adapt to live in it, but change it for their benefit. However, the Kindergarten is only the first stepping stones to the development of the children, teaching them the basics of interaction and creativity, and establishing a foundation to build off of when school starts. When the first steps are taken, it becomes easier in the long run.

FF 25 Logo

The Right of Choice

RRR12

The author’s take on universal marriage after the Supreme Court’s decision regarding Same-sex Marriage

Marriage: a unity between two people who share the same values and ideas, who respect each other and their shortcomings, who love and care for each other, who want to take a lifelong voyage together until death does them part. Up until Friday, marriage was supposed to be a union between a man and a woman. Since the Supreme Court’s decision, now the right to marry has been extended to between two women or two men. Every state in America now has to honor the right to administer the marriages regardless of whether the couple is hetero or homo.

This historic decision has split the country in half, between those who prefer to keep the tradition of a man and a woman being married and those who favor more freedom to marry someone they like, regardless of sex. While I consider myself hetero and prefer the traditional way, I do fully understand the feelings of others who are different than they are and are welcoming this decision with open arms. If we look back 100 years, one would see a marriage as being a process of tying the knot between a preacher’s daughter and an owner of a local merchantile. In other words, they were on a local level; it would be rare for a Minnesotan to marry someone from New York, or a Mississippian marrying a Washingtonian. And even more so an American marrying someone from Europe. Yet as the years roll on, so do we see an increase of Americans marrying foreigners, whites marrying blacks or hispanics, and Christians marrying Muslims. So why not see people of the same sex marry each other? They are the same as us heterosexuals. They love some good company, have to deal with the same issues as we do, regarding taxes, raising families, dealing with college expenses, and the like, and are as normal as we are.

Homosexuality was considered a crime a century ago, and attempts to convert people to become heterosexuals only garnered partial success. In fact, some success stories ended in tragedies as the patients took their own lives, as was seen with the hanging of Kirk Murphy in 2011. Yet attempts are still being made to force the ideals on homosexuals that it is a sin to by gay. While the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of same-sex marriages, some states, like Texas and Alabama are disobeying Washington’s orders and are denying marriage licenses to these people. Churches are still not allowing them to marry or be part of the congregation, and many people are taking to the newspapers and electronic media shouting down the decisions. My question to these people is this: Would you do this if you knew someone from a Catholic faith marrying a Muslim- a heterosexual couple for that matter? Or what about an Iranian marrying an American? A Native American marrying an Aborigine?  How would you define a marriage, BEYOND the concept of a man marrying a woman? Think about it.

From my perspective, I would like to comment something a friend of mine mentioned recently in a discussion on this topic, which hits the spot: institution of marriage is a union between two consenting adults who love and care for each other and want to legally bind themselves together as they journey through life. The choice of who to love, marry and start a journey together for as long as they live. It should be regardless of what religious, cultural and sexual preferences should be. Couples change many times in order to the right fit. Some choose to wait until they find the right one. Others find love in high school, lose it for 20+ years, then regain it. Then there are others who find each other and after 30+ years, still have a healthy marriage with loving children. But the bottom line is, as long as the couple is happy, they should have the right to marry and live a long and prosperous life. It should not have to be based on a long religious tradition which still exists but has to make room for other couples who may be different, but share the same values as we do. And with this, a comment to finish my soapbox comment, something I wish and hope others will have that same opinion, regardless of background and preference:

While I prefer to be different from the rest, I respect those whose views and feelings differ from mine, as long as they respect the opinions and decisions I have made that I’m living with. Through this understanding we can have a peaceful co-existance where we can talk about these issues and share our ideas.

It’s time to put down the differences and share, instead of slamming the door on certain people because they’re different. It’s long since due.

FF new logo1

Germany at 25: Kindergarten

playground

This is the first of 25 installments on Germany at 25 years, as we celebrate the country’s 25 years of existence since Reunification. 

Kindergarten.

Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi was once of the opinion that in order to have a society of proper people with a creative state of mind and the ability to interact with each other, education has to start as early as possible so that the children do not become a generation of beasts without a proper form of education to survive in a modern society.  With the creation of orphanges in Neuhof, Yverdon les Baines and Stans (all in Switzerland), Pestalozzi encouraged his children how to be creative, while at the same time taught them how to interact with a society that was sophisticated and selective, through the use of letter, numbers and other creative forms of communication- the necessary tools needed to survive in this society.

While Pestalozzi died a poor man, his legacy was passed down to his disciples, among them Friedirch, William August Fröbel, a German educator from the state of Thuringia, who had created a Play and Activity Institute where through the usage of geometric materials (known as his Gifts), he encouraged his children to become creative in their own development, allowing them to create whatever they wanted and learn through their creative talents. In 1840, he coined the term Kindergarten, derived from the terms Kinder (children) and Garten (the place to create and grow). Since that time, the term Kindergarten has become the norm in both German as well as Anglo-Saxon culture, meaning an institution where children up to the age of seven attend on a daily basis to learn how to communicate with others and to be creative. But what is the difference between a German and an American kindergarten? And can each one learn from one another?

Looking at the American kindergarten, we can see the difference from a European’s perspective. Generally, Kindergarten is considered a grade (German: Klasse) and is part of the school system. As a rule, if you hear the words Grades K-12, that means 13 years of writing, math, reading and other forms of creative artwork, be it music, art, computers, etc. starting the at age of five or six. You have a full year in Kindergarten before taking that step and going into first grade, yet in many schools (and this is speaking from personal experience), you have half-days, meaning one group has morning Kindergarten from 8:00 until 11:30, another has afternoon Kindergarten from 12:30 until 3:00. How the groups are divided up depends on parental preferences and many times, the geographical standpoint. In my Kindergarten back home in rural Minnesota, the country kids had morning Kindergarten, the city kids had the afternoon portion. There were a few exceptions where kids  stayed the whole day.  During the time in Kindergarten, we learned the letters and numbers and started writing, yet we also did various forms of artwork, went on field trips to see the nature and lastly, learned to interact with others by sharing, being kind to one another and handling conflicts. While the landscape has changed over time, thanks to the high demands of testing and the Core Requirements, as well as the introduction of technology, the structure remains the same. Kindergarten is the last phase of the two-step process, where kids enter pre-school at the age of four or five for a year before entering Kindergarten. Prior to that, there is daycare although many parents stay home  with their children before putting them into pre-school.

German Kindergartens are much different from their American counterparts, independent of the fact that there are two types that exist: state-owned and privately owned (counting Montessori and Waldorf). In any case, children can attend a Kindergarten from the age of two on, and stay until they enter school at the age of six or seven- a span of 4-5 years. There, the children can stay all day or even half-days while their parents are away, while at the same time, become creative using the materials and tools at their disposal. Some kindergartens offer the kiddie version of industrial arts, where they can build many things using wood. Others have paper, clay and other materials available for them to allow their imaginations run wild. My daughter’s kindergarten in central Germany has both and I (as a parent) along with the educators (German: Erzieher) were amazed at some of the items she has produced over the years.  Yet that is not all what the Kindergartens in Germany teach them. Many of them take their children on field trips to several places of natural and/or historic interest, many of them only require 15-20 minutes of walking in order to get to their destinations as they are only a short distance away. Even when all is in close vicinity of each other, these field trips allow the children to explore and learn new items they have never heard of before.

Also unique in a German Kindergarten (which you will most likely not see in an American one) is the opportunity to learn a foreign language at an early age. Through singing, learning new words, role plays and other items, children have an opportunity to learn both German and another foreign language (mainly English, but some offer French as the first language) at an early age.  As all German states require schools to introduce English in the first grade and French (or another foreign language) in the third grade, this type of bilingual education, albeit not in all Kindergartens, provides children with a headstart on their language training when they enter school. With globalization dominating the landscape, it is a must to learn your native language plus one other language as early as possible. At the conclusion of the time in Kindergarten, there is a closing celebration followed by the start of elementary school. But this celebration will be written later.

When comparing the German and American kindergartens, one can see the difference in terms of flexible offers and classes, the quality of education and availability of teachers and resources. While American Kindergartens maintain a strict guideline, are incorporated in the school structure and only offer 1-2 teachers for every 25 children, German Kindergartens are a single entity with as many as 4-6 educators for every 30 children- two per group- in a Kindergarten. More attention is paid to the development of the kids  in Germany. And even when they learn the numbers and alphabet in an American Kindergarten, the emphasis in a German Kindergarten is the importance of independence, respect and friendship, whereas the writing part, despite many kids learning it early even at home, usually starts in elementary school, especially as dualingual education has become the norm in much of the educational curriculum in Germany.

This leads to the question of whether we can learn from each other. The answer to this question is a resounding yes. Even though there are some different types of Kindergartens in Germany, and the number of private Kindergartens are increasing in the US as well, Kindergartens in the US would be better equipped if they allow the children to develop on their own and not be obsessed with writing and numbers at an early age. With the education system focused mainly on tests, kids are forced to write earlier than expected instead of being creative and exploring new things every day. And while some critics may say that bilingual education in the Kindergarten is too early and that the kids should first learn their native language first (at least in the oral sense), sometimes it does pay to learn to be at home with two languages given the high demand of English, Arabic, Chinese, French and Spanish as the lingua franca nowadays. Therefore keeping all these factors in mind, one needs to find the right balance between learning and creating something for the good in a Kindergarten. After all, the kids of the next generation need to learn to work and have fun and not be focused on tests alone.

To sum up our view of Kindergartens, as the term has been in our vocabulary for 175 years, the institution has advanced over time as kids need to be prepared for the constant changes in the environment, yet the purpose remains the same: to teach kids to be creative and independent, respectful and talented, and lastly, as Pestalozzi stressed and Fröbel used in the establishment of the first Kindergarten in Germany, be civilized in a society where multi-culture and modernization are the norm, and the children has to adapt to live in it, but change it for their benefit. However, the Kindergarten is only the first stepping stones to the development of the children, teaching them the basics of interaction and creativity, and establishing a foundation to build off of when school starts. When the first steps are taken, it becomes easier in the long run.

FF 25 Logo

In School in Germany: The Devil’s Advocate in the Classroom

IMGP4143

To start off this article, let’s play a bit of Truth or Dare, looking at the three scenarios below and daring you to do the following:

  1. You have your students find a newspaper article and write a brief summary to be presented in a social studies class. One of them finds an article on the recent shooting of nine African Americans in a South Carolina and the plans of the southern states to retire the Confederate flag. After presenting the summary, you as the teacher, in an attempt to spark a discussion in class, jump in to speak about the importance of the Confederate flag in American history and the need to keep it flying, unaware of the fact that half of your class consist of African Americans plus one of your pupils comes from a white supremist family…..
  1. You start off a debate about the question of wearing headscarves in the classroom of a predominantly Catholic school because of a debate in the Bavarian parliament about banning them in schools. This despite the fact that you have three Muslims and two Indians out of a total of 25 pupils in the classroom…..
  1. You and your class just finished reading the book and watching the film “The Perils of Being a Wallflower,” and start a question for discussion about the question of homosexuality, stating the benefits of being gay. The catch: Three of your pupils are homosexual, four pupils are opposed to homosexuality for religious reasons, five pupils find the topic too sensitive to talk about and keep mum, while the rest of the 20 pupils in your group…..

It is really hard to start a discussion about controversial topics, like the ones mentioned above. This especially holds true in a foreign language classroom, like English.  However, to play the Devil’s Advocate and state an argument in an attempt to start a discussion is like playing with matches. If you don’t strike it properly or near something flammable, and it produces a flame that you don’t want, you better hope you and your house are both properly insured. In other words, to start off a discussion by stating an opinion to the students in order to start a conversation could possibly result in you (as the teacher) coming under intense fire and later scrutiny by students, parents, and even the school principal.

It does not mean that you cannot play the Devil’s Advocate in the classroom. In fact, stating an opinion, be it your own or that taken from a source can provoke some form of discussion from the classroom, bringing out some ideas and thoughts from your fellow students and maybe even producing a few questions for further consideration. If you choose the right topic for the right audience, you may end up having one of the most productive sessions with your group. The right topics could include the ones mentioned above, the first of which is a current event that happened just recently. Current events would be the best brain food for such an activity. Yet a controversial topic based on a film or book, as mentioned in the third example would also be a good platform to take a side and spurn a discussion.

The caveats involved in being the Devil’s Advocate include these key elements:

1. The students: Your class will have a heterogeneous mixture of people coming from different ethnic, religious and socio-economic backgrounds as well as those who have certain preferences.  You cannot introduce an activity like this without having gotten to know your group for a long period of time. And even then, you need to make a very careful judgement as to which topic you wish to provoke a discussion with, keeping the risk of a possible fall-out in mind. Therefore, as a teacher, I would wait a few months before even trying this activity out on them.

2. The environment: What is meant by environment is the school, the policies that are in place and the “unwritten” rules that you do not see on paper but that you have to be aware of. This ranges from the way teachers teach and discipline their students, to the apparel to be worn, to the mentality of both parties- meaning their views on topics deemed sensitive to the school. It is possible that there is a sense of inflexibility as to what topics should be talked about in the classroom. Sometimes conformity is the safest way to avoid confrontation, so choosing a topic and deciding whether the Devil’s Advocate is appropriate is one to be taken quite seriously.

3. The materials available for use: This is even trickier, especially if you are teaching in an American school, because of a wide array of ever-growing number of books and films that have made it to the Red List- namely those not to be used in the classroom. While it is sometimes necessary to use certain materials to cover a topic before trying to be the Devil’s Advocate, you as the teacher have to be careful as to using the materials that are approved by the school. Sometimes in order to play it safe, I go by the rule of  “When in doubt, check it out.” That means ask your colleagues if the materials you plan to use for this particular exercise is ok or not.

4. You as the teacher: There are two types of passion to be aware of while standing in front of the board presenting new topics. There is the passionate type, where the teacher loves to work with the topic and the students. Then there’s the passionate type where the teacher has an opinionated topic to enforce on the class. This is the danger of playin the Devil’s Advocate- one gets too carried away with the topic. This has been seen too many times in school and even at the university. When you force your ideas onto someone, you will certainly have a stampede on your hands when the majority opposes it forcefully. In my humble opinion, playing the Devil’s Advocate is not suitable for these types of teachers if they cannot keep their passionate opinions to themselves.

To make it short and concise, being the Devil’s Advocate in order to start a conversation on a controversial topic is possible to do, but it takes a balance of a good student-teacher relationship, a good multi-cultural environment, a good but controversial topic to discuss, a good piece of literature and/or film (if necessary) and a good enough information about the school and its sets of guidelines- written and non-written, in order to pull it off. Even if you don’t play the Devil’s Advocate and state two different arguments to a controversial theme while allowing the students in groups to discuss among themselves, you are also running the risk of having some heated debates in the staff room.  The risks are high, but the risks are even higher if you don’t try this in your classroom.

Why?

Because school is a place for personal development, allowing students to grow beyond their limits. If we are obsessed with manual learning, testing them constantly, students will become robots as adults- programmed to do what was taught in school. We should allow the students to progress at their own pace, think for themselves and allow them to be creative in their own environment, challenge what is not right and what they think is in the right, and lastly, be themselves. Activities like these should serve as thought-provoking and challenging. Not to enforce one’s opinion on another.  To to close, I would like to ask the teachers when they should play the Devil’s Advocate in the classroom and which topic is suitable for this activity. If they have done this already, what were the results and why?

Any stories, place them here or in the Files’ facebook pages.

FF new logo1

In School in Germany: The Devil’s Advocate in the Classroom

IMGP4143

To start off this article, let’s play a bit of Truth or Dare, looking at the three scenarios below and daring you to do the following:

  1. You have your students find a newspaper article and write a brief summary to be presented in a social studies class. One of them finds an article on the recent shooting of nine African Americans in a South Carolina and the plans of the southern states to retire the Confederate flag. After presenting the summary, you as the teacher, in an attempt to spark a discussion in class, jump in to speak about the importance of the Confederate flag in American history and the need to keep it flying, unaware of the fact that half of your class consist of African Americans plus one of your pupils comes from a white supremist family…..
  1. You start off a debate about the question of wearing headscarves in the classroom of a predominantly Catholic school because of a debate in the Bavarian parliament about banning them in schools. This despite the fact that you have three Muslims and two Indians out of a total of 25 pupils in the classroom…..
  1. You and your class just finished reading the book and watching the film “The Perils of Being a Wallflower,” and start a question for discussion about the question of homosexuality, stating the benefits of being gay. The catch: Three of your pupils are homosexual, four pupils are opposed to homosexuality for religious reasons, five pupils find the topic too sensitive to talk about and keep mum, while the rest of the 20 pupils in your group…..

It is really hard to start a discussion about controversial topics, like the ones mentioned above. This especially holds true in a foreign language classroom, like English.  However, to play the Devil’s Advocate and state an argument in an attempt to start a discussion is like playing with matches. If you don’t strike it properly or near something flammable, and it produces a flame that you don’t want, you better hope you and your house are both properly insured. In other words, to start off a discussion by stating an opinion to the students in order to start a conversation could possibly result in you (as the teacher) coming under intense fire and later scrutiny by students, parents, and even the school principal.

It does not mean that you cannot play the Devil’s Advocate in the classroom. In fact, stating an opinion, be it your own or that taken from a source can provoke some form of discussion from the classroom, bringing out some ideas and thoughts from your fellow students and maybe even producing a few questions for further consideration. If you choose the right topic for the right audience, you may end up having one of the most productive sessions with your group. The right topics could include the ones mentioned above, the first of which is a current event that happened just recently. Current events would be the best brain food for such an activity. Yet a controversial topic based on a film or book, as mentioned in the third example would also be a good platform to take a side and spurn a discussion.

The caveats involved in being the Devil’s Advocate include these key elements:

1. The students: Your class will have a heterogeneous mixture of people coming from different ethnic, religious and socio-economic backgrounds as well as those who have certain preferences.  You cannot introduce an activity like this without having gotten to know your group for a long period of time. And even then, you need to make a very careful judgement as to which topic you wish to provoke a discussion with, keeping the risk of a possible fall-out in mind. Therefore, as a teacher, I would wait a few months before even trying this activity out on them.

2. The environment: What is meant by environment is the school, the policies that are in place and the “unwritten” rules that you do not see on paper but that you have to be aware of. This ranges from the way teachers teach and discipline their students, to the apparel to be worn, to the mentality of both parties- meaning their views on topics deemed sensitive to the school. It is possible that there is a sense of inflexibility as to what topics should be talked about in the classroom. Sometimes conformity is the safest way to avoid confrontation, so choosing a topic and deciding whether the Devil’s Advocate is appropriate is one to be taken quite seriously.

3. The materials available for use: This is even trickier, especially if you are teaching in an American school, because of a wide array of ever-growing number of books and films that have made it to the Red List- namely those not to be used in the classroom. While it is sometimes necessary to use certain materials to cover a topic before trying to be the Devil’s Advocate, you as the teacher have to be careful as to using the materials that are approved by the school. Sometimes in order to play it safe, I go by the rule of  “When in doubt, check it out.” That means ask your colleagues if the materials you plan to use for this particular exercise is ok or not.

4. You as the teacher: There are two types of passion to be aware of while standing in front of the board presenting new topics. There is the passionate type, where the teacher loves to work with the topic and the students. Then there’s the passionate type where the teacher has an opinionated topic to enforce on the class. This is the danger of playin the Devil’s Advocate- one gets too carried away with the topic. This has been seen too many times in school and even at the university. When you force your ideas onto someone, you will certainly have a stampede on your hands when the majority opposes it forcefully. In my humble opinion, playing the Devil’s Advocate is not suitable for these types of teachers if they cannot keep their passionate opinions to themselves.

To make it short and concise, being the Devil’s Advocate in order to start a conversation on a controversial topic is possible to do, but it takes a balance of a good student-teacher relationship, a good multi-cultural environment, a good but controversial topic to discuss, a good piece of literature and/or film (if necessary) and a good enough information about the school and its sets of guidelines- written and non-written, in order to pull it off. Even if you don’t play the Devil’s Advocate and state two different arguments to a controversial theme while allowing the students in groups to discuss among themselves, you are also running the risk of having some heated debates in the staff room.  The risks are high, but the risks are even higher if you don’t try this in your classroom.

Why?

Because school is a place for personal development, allowing students to grow beyond their limits. If we are obsessed with manual learning, testing them constantly, students will become robots as adults- programmed to do what was taught in school. We should allow the students to progress at their own pace, think for themselves and allow them to be creative in their own environment, challenge what is not right and what they think is in the right, and lastly, be themselves. Activities like these should serve as thought-provoking and challenging. Not to enforce one’s opinion on another.  To to close, I would like to ask the teachers when they should play the Devil’s Advocate in the classroom and which topic is suitable for this activity. If they have done this already, what were the results and why?

Any stories, place them here or in the Files’ facebook pages.

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Genre of the Week: America is not the greatest nation on the face of the Earth any more- The Newsroom

This entry looks at not only the genre of the week, but also a Frage für das Forum on the role of the United States as its world superpower. Or is it still?

Since moving to Germany in 1999, one of the hottest small talk topics that I’ve encountered both on the streets as well as in the classroom has been the US. And being an American expatriate from Minnesota, growing up right next to Iowa, I have not been afraid to talk about any issues the people bring up at the table, such as politics, social issues, history, culture, sports and even the people living there.  And growing up during the age of Reaganomics, Bushisms and Clintongate, I have seen America from both sides of the spectrum, watching it lead efforts to defeat communism and the former Soviet satellites open the gates to freedom, while at the same time, sow the seeds of terrorism with their lack of efforts in rebuilding Afghanistan, resulting in this day of infamy known as 11 September, 2001.

Yet still, many of us still speak of the glory days that either existed prior to 9/11 or in the eyes of many, still exist but in bits and pieces. I remember when President Obama won the Presidential elections in 2008, during my first year as lecturer of English at the University of Bayreuth, there was that feeling of a divide between those who wanted to cling on to the glory days of American exceptionalism, as demonstrated by George W. Bush, and those who were aware of the problems the US was facing at home and abroad. I can remember my dad’s question of which country was the greatest nation on the face of the Earth in terms of military and economics and his fury when I responded with “China.”  I didn’t say that without a good reason, by the way.

And this takes us to this genre of the week and in particular, this video clip from the TV show, “The Newsroom,” produced in 2012. In this scene, we have a forum where the professors are taking questions about America and its role in the world- and this in the thicket of a hefty debate. And while the first two were able to answer the question about America being the land of the free and prosperous, the third one, William McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels), who always responded with the fact that he was a fan of the New York Jets American football team, he rose to the occasion, tired of all the bickering that was going on around him, and said this about America….

Now if this is not a jaw-dropper, then what is? But it lead me into providing this question for the forum, as we’ve heard a lot about America’s ever-changing role, both on the home front as well as abroad:

How do you perceive America in your eyes today, whether you are an American living abroad or at home, whether you are a German or European, and whether you are a writer, teacher, politician or have another occupation?

Where do we see America going in 20 years?

What are some items that were common in the 80s and 90s that you would like to see again?

If we say that America is still the greatest today because of all our might that we have, how can we prove it?

These are questions that need to be answered as the country is at the crossroads in terms of their policies, societal issues at home and its relations with other countries. If we choose to ignore the problems we have, we choose to ignore ourselves, and with that, we choose to ignore the consequences of our actions.

Think about it.

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Author’s Note: Check out last week’s Genre of the Week, which focuses on the biography of the daughter of Josef Stalin, as documented by Minnesota Public Radio. More here.