When there is a tragic event in the world teachers often feel the need to address it in some way in classroom time. Finding a way to do this appropriately and sensitively can sometimes be hard. Help is here.

  • Just talk

    The most obvious and immediate thing that students may want to do is discuss issues drawn from the events. Discussion often needs to be on the learners’ agenda rather than the teacher’s i.e. saying what they need to say. Ask one question, say at the start of a lesson, to see if students want to talk about it or not (and if they don’t, move on to other things). Avoid over-direction. While it is helpful to offer correction and support in order to allow students to express what they want to say, be careful not to exploit events purely as a springboard for language work. The focus must stay on meaning not on the language used to express it.
  • Just read

    Your students may sometimes (or often) wonder why English is useful to them. But when there is a serious international event there is suddenly a natural reason to want to find out views and opinions from around the world. Teachers can provide material by selecting newspapers, magazines or websites to offer to students (e.g. with a focus on stories of survival and rebuilding) and perhaps suggest tasks such as “Find out ways that the community in … is rebuilding”. Learners could research separately for 15 minutes and then report back and discuss together. As with speaking work, beware of allowing specific exercises, comprehension questions or language points to become the central focus rather than a focus on information, ideas and feelings.
  • In the immediate aftermath

    Straight after an event there may be opportunities for students to help directly by, say, putting on a play or sketch-show with proceeds going to the good cause. Stages of such a project are often

    (a) decision making (what to do, how to do it, when, where, who etc)
    (b) preparation
    (c) doing the project itself
    (d) reporting back and drawing conclusions. Other projects might involve going into the local community collecting money for charities or publishing a magazine (e.g. a collection of stories).
  • Longer term

    While a lot of our classroom work can seem focussed on imaginary coursebook characters, generalised topics and pernickety bits of grammar we also need to ensure that our teaching doesn’t only stay at that level but engages with the real world. While we must be wary of exploiting incidents simply to extract spurious teaching aims, there is also the potential to make the English your students are learning more immediate and real to them. Significant tragedies affect teacher and students and give a chance to take stock of our own lives and perhaps to question assumptions and certainties. Making such discussion and questioning part of classroom time has the potential for changing the entire character of a course and can lead to significant and surprising learning for students and teacher.