I believe in teaching language via relevant subjects. This triggers authentic communication and holds students’ interest. I believe so strongly in this that I let relevance derail my lesson plans. For instance, take this true story.
I arrived in class, lesson plan in hand. However, I first had to read the announcements, one of which was about services related to new immigration policies. Student A then interrupted with a question about this policy. Before I could answer, student B offered a strong opinion on the policy. Then student C offered a strong opposing opinion. Then B & C started debating — in English. The rest of the class looked on with interest, occasionally participating. I took one look at my lesson plan and put it aside; I hadn’t found the lesson, the lesson found me. I let B & C debate for a bit, then I started steering, giving the debate more of a language focus. I introduced some relevant language — vocabulary like “opinion” and “fact” along with ways to politely express disagreement. I then let them continue the debate, asked students for their opinions and reasons, and then had them do an in-class writing assignment about their opinions on this policy.
Class went well that day. My main contribution was to steer and get out of the way. Still, sometimes I wonder if I go too far. Here’s another true story:
I opened class with a discussion on how to pronounce and write numbers, especially large numbers and fractional ones. Then student X arrived late and upset. X had just heard of an earthquake in her country that left many dead and started talking about it. The rest of the class was interested, so I used this opportunity to introduce them to an ESL news site called News in Levels which had current event articles and videos in 3 levels of difficulty (with a definition of key terms). I provided students with the text of the article and we practiced matching the text to the audio, watching the video and then reading the text out loud. Finally, I resumed the original lesson and gave it relevance by applying it to the earthquake. I showed students how to use (and pronounce) numbers related to the earthquake (magnitude, death toll, etc…).
I was very respectful of the fact that we were talking about an awful tragedy, and the students responded favorably — including the upset student. Still, did I do the right thing? Did I trivialize a human tragedy by using it as a topic for a language class?