I recently saw an article announcing the publishing of a free e-book called “PARSNIPS in ELT: Stepping out of the comfort zone (Vol. 1).” This book promises to help teachers and students discuss taboo and controversial issues avoided in most classes and all coursebooks. These issues – Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, Isms, and Pork – form the acronym of PARSNIPs, something I have discussed before here.
Genevieve White wrote an interesting article reviewing the “PARSNIP” book. To her, the book did not meet its claim of helping students and teachers “step out of the comfort zone.” In her view, the book falls short because it seems to be too caught up in the current trend of shocking people by not hurting their feelings, depowering controversial issues to make sure everyone everyone talks nice and no one gets offended.
After looking at the book, I have to agree with her. This book may serve as a great stepping stone or companion for those who want to dip their toes in PARSNIP-flavored water, but it really is not a book that will make students or teachers challenge anything.
My question, though, is: should a PARSNIPs book even exist? PARSNIPs lessons should deal with controversial, challenging, and complex topics. This requires several elements that coursebooks, and even resource books (such as the “Taboos and Issues” book Genevieve mentions), cannot bring to the classroom. PARSNIPS requires understanding your learners, their backgrounds, and how much you can challenge or offend them. As she writes, you don’t want to make your learners “to feel distressed or uncomfortable in what should be a pleasant environment.” There is a difference between academically challenging their opinions (aka academically offending them) and making them feel under attack.
Another important element is relevancy. I don’t think you can walk into class and say “OK, today we’re gonna learn about gay marriage.” There is nothing wrong with this topic, but unless the topic is connected to something else, such as a student experience, recent news, an interesting discuss in which is arose organically, comments students made, or even as a supplement to a coursebook unit, if it is not connected to something, then it seems like you are bringing in controversy for controversy’s sake. Controversy needs context.
One final element that I think is important is recency. As in real life, we usually discuss controversial issues when they arise, are in the media, or being talked about by everyone else. This is very much related to the context idea above. Talking about recent topics that are in the news and on everyone’s mind will make any PARSNIPs lesson more meaningful. This is also another reason why I think the idea of a PARSNIPs book is bound to fail. And one doesn’t need a book. The news media (textual and visual) is filled with relative, recent, and controversial topics. For ELLs, Newsela is a great resource for this. Newsela offers lots of news articles – from the mundane to the controversial – at a variety of different proficiency levels.
Overall, I think the attempt to bring more attention to PARSNIPs-based lessons is noble, but without recognizing these elements, a book like this is bound to fail, or at least not meet the full potential it hopes to. PARSNIPs is not a five minute lesson. It’s not a lesson in a can, a lesson for busy teachers, or a filler. PARSNIPs is responsive teaching, and responsive teaching requires no coursebooks, no resource books, and no prefabricated lessons – responsive teaching requires students, teachers, and meaningful communication.
These posts and books come at an interesting time in the world of education. Just as higher education is discussing trigger warnings, some trends in ELT seem to be pushing in the opposite direction, purposely wanting to shock students. This warrants a who different discussion which I do not feel qualified to participate in at the moment. However, it is a discussion that needs to take place because we, at least in EAP, must deal with this on a double level: How do we at the same time protect students from perceived or real traumatic issues (the trigger warning debate) while at the same time acclimating students to a society which may be radically different from their culture, religion, and traditions?