A Thousand Splendid PARSNIPs

We all know that ELT is a huge, profitable business. It must be. Students who want to obtain the FCE certificate, for example, must save a fortune first. Some can never afford it, so their talent finally goes up in smoke. If you think of doing the CELTA, oh, you need to take a month off work and take out a loan. The fact is that English coursebooks are the most expensive coursebooks my students buy each year. What is worse, they can't be recycled because a new edition pops up before a student can sell it. 

The new editions are supposed to be upgraded versions; something better and more up-to-date. But in the first place, they are different enough to prevent the teacher to use a mix of, say, the 2nd and the 3th edition with the same class. What they always do, however, no matter how upgraded and modernized they are, is that they avoid the PARSNIPs - topics which coursebook writers are generally supposed to stay away from. As if politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, -isms, and pork were not commonplace, everyday issues. I know, there's always the danger that the publisher may sell fewer copies if the topics are not 'harmless' enough; I suppose that alcoholics may feel offended and boycott the purchases, and those who reject the idea that the universe is controlled by one good and one evil force may refuse to buy a coursebook dealing with the topic of dualism. Thus the topics are always the same: technology, environment, family (usually including only heterosexual couples, of course), sport, hobbies, travel, etc. That's why a grown-up woman like me needs to have a dictionary always at her disposal while reading a modern novel. Too often does she come across words the coursebook writers found inappropriate or taboo when she was learning the language.

There are issues people read about and deal with on a daily basis, yet you'll never come across them in a typical coursebook. I wonder what would happen if a publisher included an excerpt from A Thousand Splendid Suns - the parts where the author Khaled Hosseini describes the tragedies Afghan people had to endure, and especially the part where he lists the rules Afghan men and women had to follow, otherwise the Talibs would cut off their hands or even execute them .... Mind you, this isn't fiction and it wasn't happening centuries ago; this was happening towards the advent of the new millennium, somewhere around the time the students I teach were born.   

I guess it's the teacher's job then to bring these issues up in class. There's no point in encouraging students to judge and stereotype, but it's damn important to raise their cultural and social awareness. Yes, the knowledge of Shakespeare's production is part of this awareness too but Hamlet is unlikely to leave a noticeable trace in the light-hearted students' minds. Sometimes it's necessary to shock to make people think. The incessant babble about British traditions and holidays is so stultifying that it turns students into zombies and teachers into nervous wrecks. The lesson based around A Thousand Splendid Suns bestseller, on the other hand, can be one of the highlights you and your students will always remember. It can be something out of the ordinary, something genuine and unhackneyed; it can incite a heated discussion or encourage students to stop and ponder. A couple of Google images of women wearing burqas (bless you, Google), projected on a large screen, can be linked to issues that really appeal to today‚Äôs teenagers and young adults, such as freedom, fashion, style, etc. Let's not underestimate our students; let's not think they are only interested in Justin Bieber's new girlfriend and Katy Perry's new hairstyle. They do care about the environment and women's rights, but the content needs to be thought-provoking as well as relevant.