Monday, March 19, 2012

English Class Debates in the PRC ESL classroom

Someone asked me what I thought was the best way to select debate topics for debates in the ESL classroom. This can be tricky here in China, because, among other issues, China is not a free country and some subjects are forbidden for open discussion. And many foreigners are uncertain as to where the lines of discussion lie and don't wish to find out. (Which, of course, is why censorship chills discussion far outside of the area it restricts.)

Other times, I've found that an issue that I think is fascinating and thought-provoking and should be controversial, just does not grab the attention or emotions of my students who come from a radically different culture and background than I do. For example, here in China and surrounding nations, plastic and cosmetic surgery is quite common and the intent of such surgery is almost always to take an Asian person and make them look more Caucasian. Noses are made more sharp, tall and pointy, and eyes are made less almond shaped and given a double eyelid. To a Westerner, this is offensive and racist and should be met with outrage. However, to an Asian it's basically a non-issue. They, generally, think the results look good and do not warrant further discussion. And therefore, when I tried to focus a debate around this issue in a classroom, no one cared at all and it was a dead class. (By contrast, when I was in Taiwan, my class on debating the pros and cons of women bodybuilders, illustrated with photos of freaky, looking, steroid enhanced women who can bench press more than professional football players, met with an amazingly enthusiastic response. Almost everyone in the room wanted to say something on the issue of women bodybuilders.) But as for plastic surgery, Asians don't care. In fact, they see no offense in stating that Lucy Liu is "ugly: because her eyes are "too slanty."  But I digress.        

How exactly does one find a large quantity of topics for discussion? 

I have in the past dealt with this issue by assigning students to create a list of topics for debate and public speaking and advocacy. Just put them in small groups and have them come up with five or so things per group. Then cull and collect them. If you're in doubt, privately ask a Chinese friend or student if they'd feel comfortable talking about that subject. Some of what they feel is appropriate for class discussion surprises me. (i.e. inflation in China, which I would have thought was too controversial, housing shortages, the same) while other things I never would have thought about (i.e. Food in the student cafeterias, good or bad? what should we do with all these stray cats on campus?) i like to put all these topics in a bowl and have them pull them out.

That's my solution and it worked fine for me. All the best and please feel free to leave any comments you might have,  

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