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Connecting to students through important events

The first students I encountered after the twin towers had been destroyed were on the morning after.  I went into the private language school in Seoul I’d been working at for over a year for a 7AM class, eager to not only connect with my American colleagues, but also gauge the students’ reactions to this tragedy.  How could one go about class like any other day? Would I be met with crying students or angry students or even cheerful students? To my sadness, I was faced largely with indifference.

In Asia, the events of 9/11 occurred in late evening.  I’d been watching an historical drama on TV at the time about long dead kings, queens and concubines, all concocting convoluted plots for power and revenge. Breaking news of the first hit tower interrupted it and I watched the second plane hit live. It seemed like the special effects of a movie, moreso by the only commentary in Korean. Even spread of this news on the phone to my American colleagues didn’t really sink it in. I thought talking about it around the teacher’s table and in class would help us all really deal with its reality.

My first class the next morning either didn’t know about it since they’d gone to bed before the news struck, or like many, seemed unphased. At that time of the morning, it was difficult to introduce and talk about such a tragedy to unaffected young workers before they went to their jobs for the day. The next class at 8AM seemed to be slightly more aware, with one or two remarking what a horribly tragedy it must be for Americans, but with the majority still largely indifferent.  I struggled with what to do with my feelings since no one in my classes was interested in discussing their cause and my colleagues and I had only had 10-minute breaks between classes to support each other.  Even in successive days when the news surely had been well distributed to all, in class I rarely worked with this event as a topic.

Were my students incapable of empathy for fellow humans? No, obviously not. Did they care less because of relations between George Bush and Korea? Perhaps somewhat. Was their apathy due to the distance, both mental and physical, between Asia and North America?  Yes, I think so.  Even I couldn’t really grasp its magnitude or emotional repercussions until I visited my parents in St. Thomas, Canada later in September (I almost had an entire cabin of a plane to myself on the flight home).  As much as I wanted to my students to emotionally or sympathetically relate to me at the time, they too were limited in their capacity and willingness to let tragedy in a faraway land in.

This brings me to question how often I try to know about, let alone sympathise with, events that occur in my students’ home countries or personal lives.  In all honesty, I can confidently say I probably don’t, unless it’s major headlines.  95% of my students hail from mainland China.  I can’t say I knew anything about its history (aside from the general communism and a vague knowledge of Chairman Mao) until the Beijing Olympics.  Even after studying a history course with them and learning more of their culture, for a country populating more than 1/6 of the earth, I’m still a horse with blinders on.  The other 5%? They come from Russia, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, Iran and Turkey. I’d struggle to name one event that’s happening in any of those countries right now.  I doubt I’m alone in my ignorance.

If there is expectation on students having interest in or discussing events, both positive and tragic, that are important to us, we need to be more aware and subsequently sensitive to what matters to them as well, even if it is far away in a distant land. My pledge to my students this year is to be more aware and considerate of that, hopefully strengthening my connection to them.  You?



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Cecilia Lemos

Hi Ty,

Since all my experience is based on teaching Brazilian students in Brazil, I’ve never bee through what you mentioned. I do however make a link to different age groups – we have to be aware and stay sensitive to what matters to them in this case too.

I enjoyed reading your 9/11 tale… Very different from mine. My students couldn’t stop talking about it – that’s all we did that day in class.

Interesting reflection for those who teach learners of different cultures by @seburnt :

Vicky Loras

Hi Tyson,

You just hit upon a topic that you know I am very interested in – that of culture in learning.

Teaching in Greece for ten years, my students were only Greek. I had only had a handful of students from other countries. I made it a point though, even there and in such a context, to try to expose kids to other cultures. I know it is not the same as being in contact with the actual culture, but I saw that most of the times it helped them.

Here in Switzerland though, I have students from everywhere and I like that. They are interested in learning about each other’s cultures, ask questions and once with an adult group we each did a presentation on our countries and we all learned a great deal.

My pledge for the new school year is to continue doing this – being exposed as an educator and exposing students to other cultures. It is very important in my opinion.

As for 9/11, as with Ceci’s students also ours did not stop talking about it and some were evidently upset. I remember at the moment of the attacks, I was having a break and my mom called me to tell me to turn on the tv. Like you, I thought it was a scene from a movie. Unfortunately, it was true.

Thanks for this post, Tyson!

Connecting to students through important events

Nora Touparlaki

Hi Tyson,
As Vicky said, here in Greece, most sts are Greek ,so we don’t have the chance to hear the news or learn about different cultures at first hand. What I have noticed,though, the last year is that older sts, I mean teenagers, are willing to know what is going on around them. The economic crisis that my country is facing these years has made lots of teens first of all to start wonder about the situation, what lies beneath it, who might be responsible. They watch the news, or at least their parents, and they’re quite informed. They seem eager to know about what’s going on in different parts of the world- hope this is not another sign of their intention to immigrate:(- So, I usually have a lesson of “current affairs” with my advanced classes , eiher in the form of written articles and photos from newspapers, or even watching parts of news broadcasted by international TV networks altogether. You can’t imagine how many aspects you might listen to! I was sometimes left speechless for minutes so as to hear their arguement going. Of course, there are indifferent sts, but at least they are exposed to a different approach of learning the English language. As for the parents…at first, they thought it was a waste of time, but since the discussion and the materials used are in English, they liked the idea. I always make sure that such lessons will also help them with the listening, speaking and writing part of the exams they’re about to take by trying to present the news in different ways and asking feedback in different written forms.
On that day, 9/11, I didn’t have lessons. I vividly remember what was broadcasted on our local TV channels, and later during the school year, I incorporate the sad news, into a lesson on terrorism.
Thanks a lot for the post,

Naomi Epstein

I recently encountered what you were talking about when the tsunami hit Japan recently. I tried to talk to students about it but there had been a horrrible terrorist attack here the same day (a family with small children was murdered) and japan might have been the moon to them.
On the other hand, regarding 9/11, that had a HUGE impact. it was widely covered and nobody talked about anything else, in the classroom and outside.

Nora Touparlaki

Hi Tyson!
If only I could use authentic language from news or other sources everyday. It’s the syllabus I ‘ve got to follow designed according to the books I use each year. You see, another great difference in teaching English in Greece, is that you have to use at least 4-5 books! A student’s book, an activity one, a grammar book, one with more supplementary skills. anyway, that’s a long story too:)
I feel sad because most teens are dreaming of emigrating to another country for better living conditions, they’re frustrated with the financial state of my country, they see no future here. I wouldn’t feel that way, if Greek students dreaming of following a career in another country, making the big step, risking. I feel sad because all of them are forced to do it because my country cannot provide them a decent level of education and living anymore. As for the poor immigrants who came here just to earn their living, they’re facing the same gloomy reality.
At least, there are some of us who still hope that things will get better, sooner or later – well, I think much later. Till then, I keep on have faith in teachers and their goodwilling.

Nora Touparlaki

I’m also the Dos but Greeks are used to having too many books when it comes to learn a foreign language. It’s not a coincidence that publishing houses flourish here. I simply can’t overcome this “rule”:(
A student’s book is accompanied by a glossary, an activity book, a grammar book,a supplementary skills book, a Test one and lots more TG on digital form.(e-book,sts’CDs for extra practice and so on). I try to limit the number of books I use in each level but still the market and the competition among private schools call the opposite.On the one hand, it’s practical for us, not having to search for material or make a lot of preparation but on the other sts have all they need ready available, which means that they do not develop their critical thinking. I think that an explanation to such a situation is the way our public educational system is formed, which is based on only one book for each subject (that’s ok) but with no references to other sources and sts are supposed to learn everything by heart. So parents are frustrated and they ask for more, they feel insecure. As you can see, it’s a vicious circle!

Anybody want to weigh in on the dialogue abtt expectations 4 required texts that @NoraTouparlaki & I are having here?


Hi Ty, I remember the day of 9/11. I was having my last exam on the University and was returning back home, when my future to be husband and I heard about the Towers on the radio news. I couldn’t believe it. It was on Croatian news 24/7 for days. Now , when in class and I do 9/11 lesson or talk about New York most of my studnents know about 9/11, heard about it, even though when it happened they were very little. We even go into discussions on a higher level. This was a sad day, but there are, as you mentioned many days like that in most countries worldwide, was in mine too, while I was just a teenager. We are educators, not just simple english teachers. We always try to teach tolerance, sympathy and understaning for others, all of us would be more than happy if there were no longer days like that.

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