Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Classroom controversy

My students' "a successful person I admire" presentations are going on this week. I've written about them before here and here. It's usually one of my favorite weeks of the semester, because I get to sit back and learn more about what and who are important in the lives of my students.

Yesterday morning, though, things took a turn for the - odd? offensive? controversial? - when I found out 10 minutes before class that one of my students (a Sudanese boy) was planning to give his "a successful person I admire" presentation on none other than Bashar al-Assad. YIKES. In the very short time I had to figure out what to do, these two questions were running through my head:

1. Can I do anything about this? Yes. As the teacher, I could postpone his presentation and ask him to choose a new subject. But:

2. Should I do anything about this? Of course, this was the harder question.

To help those of you in America understand the situation, I'm trying to think of a comparable public figure that would be equally as divisive for a student to give a presentation about in the US. Maybe Robert E. Lee, but somehow more relevant to the present day? It's not at all a perfect analogy and I'm sure someone will think of a better one. Thanks in advance.

Or think of it this way. The war in Syria, led by Bashar al-Assad against his own countrymen, isn't a war that happened a long time ago, a war that's settled and done with a victor declared. This is a war that's happening right now, to these students' families and homes, and they talk about hearing gunshots and shelling in the background when they skype with their relatives there, or they held out as long as they could in their hometowns but finally moved here to the UAE, or they went back to visit last summer but their parents sent them away because when they got sick they were too scared to send them to a hospital for fear of their being kidnapped. This is very much a relevant event in my students' lives, and as the steward of the classroom, I did not know that I could stand there and let one of them talk about the figurehead of what has now been proven to be a horribly cruel regime (70,000 Syrians have been killed at last count).

So I took the advice of my boss (which I solicited immediately after finding out the subject of my student's presentation), and just before class started, I had a brief chat with the one Syrian student I have in that section. I told her what was going to happen. I told her that it made me uncomfortable, but that my main concern was for her. She was surprised at first that one of her classmates would choose that topic, and then I was surprised when she told me she was fine with it.

Her nonchalant attitude toward this sticky situation made a little more sense when hers was the first hand up during the Q&A session after the presentation - she was just saving her outrage for when it mattered. She asked the student to defend his choice of Bashar al-Assad as a successful person, which the student wasn't really able to do. Her questions really seemed to take the wind out of his sails, like maybe he'd done this just on a lark and was re-thinking his decision now that someone - a Syrian - actually had the guts to put him on the spot.

(As for his actual presentation, by the way, it was pretty innocuous. In fact, if that student had given the same presentation in, say, the early 2000s, it would have been fine. I would have agreed with it, in fact. It was all about how Bashar opened up Syria to mobile phones and the internet and seemed to be moving toward a reduction of political oppression compared to the rule of his father, possibly as a result of the time he had spent as a medical student in the UK. Smarter people than my student have said the same, but guess what? They don't say stuff like that anymore.)

So it all ended well, but the events of yesterday's class were another example of "things an MA doesn't teach you how to deal with" I can add to the list. Any thoughts on how you would have handled the situation? Think of the larger issues at work here. Should teachers keep major political conflict out of the classroom, especially if the "bad guy" is being shown as a "good guy"? Does your answer change depending on what country you're teaching in? Discuss.


Sarah Rose Evans said...

sounds fascinating/heartbreaking/horrifying. I am glad that there is no modern American equivalent. The best I can think of would be a presentation about all the perks of living in East Berlin in the seventies.

Emily said...

Wow! I think your response was perfect! I too, would have considered telling him that it probably wasn't appropriate to give a hero speach on someone like that. But, what better way to get the point across from a peer rather than a teacher? And, how nice that this girl knew before hand, so she wasn't shocked into silence.
It could have been bad. Glad it wasn't!

Liz Johnson said...

Ok, that's completely sticky. I have no idea what I would have done. I think your approach was brilliant, but I just can't imagine. I don't think there's a modern US equivalent...

I think it's really good that you let him give his presentation - he probably learned a lot from the questions, and it probably helped him step outself himself and realize that he needs to think about others and the world outside of him before forming an opinion. At least that's the idealistic result I'd like to believe happened. :)

Susanne said...

My friend in Abu Dhabi refused to let her students write about Hitler as their hero. She said 40% of them chose him, by the way.

Just this morning I watched this interview with Emilio in Damascus and was sad that he was acting like the government wasn't all that bad. Hey, if Emilio in Syria can still say that, I guess I can understand why a Sudanese boy would.

Um, not really, but, hey, Samer still has Syrian acquaintances who are pro-Bashar.

Here's the interview I watched.

Craig said...

As much as you and I find Bashar a thug, I think you have to give some leeway to the student's opinion. At least with our western sense of freedom of speech. It is possible someone could have a legitimate case, if they were Alawite and believed the party line that outside influences were fueling the rebellion. This doesn't seem to be the case with this student.

I think you handled it well to speak with the Syrian student in advance.

Loradona said...

I think your response was perfect. I'm amazed at how sometimes we educators jump to conclusions before knowing what the students were really thinking. (In your case, you were assuming the student wanted to glorify something horrible, when really he was just mostly ignorant.)

I remember once early in my teaching career, a student asked me where I went to church. In about 2 seconds, my brain rattled off all of the things I could say, if I could say I was Mormon, what he would repeat to his parents, if I would get in trouble for talking about religion in a public school... So many pitfalls there! Instead, I said, "I go to church in Beaverton." And the kid said, "Okay. I go to church in McMinnville."

I had assumed that he was asking for all sorts of detail, when really he literally wanted a geographic answer, not a philosophic answer.

Aaanyway, that's a long answer to say that sometimes we over think things. And the more we approach our students in asking them questions, we can understand them and get to the bottom of their choices and behaviors.


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