Although it has to be done carefully, I do think it is acceptable for a teacher to work to improve his students in ways other than direct improvement of language ability.
For instance, I think critical thinking is important, especially to students who have been through an educational or political system that discourages it. (This includes many refugees.) This can be done by giving assignments, such as debates, where more than one point of view is to be expected. Or through assignments where more than one answer to the assigned question is possible or there is no obvious answer. Again, sometimes one needs to push and clarify beforehand what is expected. For instance, I give an assignment where students are supposed to use the internet to find a newspaper article that deals with plagiarism, summarize the article in their own words, being careful not to accidentally copy sentences or phrases without quotation marks, and then give their opinion on the story discussed. I always get a few where the opinion is, more or less, “This is a good article,” and nothing more. These are the times when it's a real good idea to ask the student to see you after class, during lunch or during office hours and work one on one with them to clarify what you mean.
A goal of a good TESOL or ESL class is to increase independence of the student by enabling them to communicate better and to function better in situations where they will be using the English language. This is definitely the goal of a course for immigrant, refugees or foreign students studying in the USA. In such cases, naturally, one should address issues where American cultural expectations and laws might cause problems for your students. However, if this involves controversial or sensitive issues, then the issue needs to be addressed quietly and in as low-key a manner as possible. Not only can students become offended over some issues, but public relations problems with the outside world can arise. (I once saw a case where Americans accused an immigrant of stereotyping his own ethnic group when he stated that domestic violence was acceptable in their own culture and that people from his country need to be taught that it is not acceptable in the USA. (In fact, it was discussed on this blog.) This accusation, and the backlash against it, was not only ugly but distracted from addressing the underlying problem of encouraging safe adjustment of immigrant families to American life and working to prevent or reduce domestic violence among them.) Domestic violence, child abuse, age of consent laws, dating and courtship and driving laws are all areas where some foreign cultures have radically different norms. If you wish to aid your students with their adjustment to America, these issues need to be addressed, but they need to be addressed in a quiet, effective and tactful manner.
A good TESOL or ESL program for immigrants, refugees and foreign students should include practical advice that they might need to live in the USA .This would include their rights when dealing with landlords, police and others as well as the expectations society has for them that might be different from in their home country.
Role playing different situations can be an important part of both teaching English and providing guidance in problem-free behavior and social norms for immigrants.
For non-immigrant, ESL or TESOL classes, I think, a good class should include information on the role of English and English as a “Lingua Franca” in the world today. Although most Chinese, for instance, do vaguely know that not all foreign people speak English, they still often tend to try and speak English to foreign people when they meet them without checking to see if those foreign people know or wish to speak English. Accurate information, for instance, on how widely spoken English is in South America and Europe is often new to Chinese students of English. With this should come information on how to do business or other tasks in foreign countries. Many Asian students have spent years studying English without being taught how to actually use it.
Whenever time allows and it is socially appropriate, a teacher should try to spend some time outside of the classroom with his students. This serves several purposes. It gives them a time to ask informal unrelated questions about anything and everything. It also gives the teacher time to better get to know his students. It avoids a tendency among some teachers to overly focus on classroom problems and slip into an “Us Versus Them” mentality, instead of maintaining a healthy partnership.
When teaching, one will have problem students. At times these students can be draining and dominate one's thoughts. (At Fudan, after one has punished a student for breaking previously stated guidelines concerning plagiarism or other issues, it is not uncommon to receive several e-mails from that student begging for an exception to be made in their case. As my students at Fudan are all graduate students and 22 years of age or more, I only recall giving such an exception once. On rare cases, when I have thought that a serious cultural difference might be involved, I've asked the office secretary for her opinion. Only once did she advise me to make an exception and then I followed her advice.)
By taking the time to spend time with students who are not in trouble of any kind, you gain a much better and positive view of the students. Through knowing one's students one learns to respect them. I am often amazed at the variety and quality of work that students at Fudan do during their internships and such. Perhaps equally important, friendly social nteraction with students helps a teacher maintain proper perspective on who the students are. And the refugees and immigrants also can teach one many things. I have found my time with students from Burma (Myanmar) particularly interesting and it has inspired me to do outside study of their culture and history.
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