Scratch beneath the surface ...

Published on 15th April, 2010 in Global Bloggers by Leah Kaplan

German Emigration Center BremerhavenWhen a student and I reviewed the first part of unit 3, ‘Friends and Family’ in Global elementary, which focuses on family and traditions in Scotland, a little comment in one of the listening exercises about the Scots scattered around the world got us talking about Italy’s own past as a country of emigrants. It always amazes me when a little ‘side note’ can be the impetus for a deep and moving discussion. This student is the only child of parents who emigrated from a small city near Naples to Northern Italy. This student is the result of that dream emigrants have when they leave their home: he has broken with the hardships of his family’s past and in just three generations, made the jump from farmer grandfather to engineer grandson. Many of my students, both of Southern and Northern Italian origin, have made the same upwardly mobile jump. But as we discuss this generational change, I often hear notes of nostalgia and envy when they talk about the clean air and their grandparents’ difficult but satisfying life. Their own memories of riding on the tractor and picking herbs and vegetables for dinner often mingle with the sense of guilt that their own children may never experience that feeling.

We often, inadvertently or purposefully, in language class bring up or stumble upon topics of both personal and societal importance that most of our students wouldn’t have the possibility to discuss due to the constraints of their busy lives. For far too many people, the moment they get their diploma – be it middle school, high school or university – signals the end of their exploration of the bigger picture. From that moment on, the high-speed train of work, family and fatigue takes over. My job is to teach English, but for me it just isn’t possible to separate teaching English from teaching and learning about life. Even a seemingly simple subject, such as family, can bring up topics that students may not have the chance to reflect on, such as the path their family’s history has taken in the past 50 years or the worrying population implosion in Italy that has made being an only child the norm.

One of the most difficult tasks we face as teachers of adult students is convincing them that learning a language goes beyond subject, verb and complement. It requires delving into the depths of the cultures that created it and using it to understand how different world views are reflected in language. You have to learn to see with different eyes to speak a language. Sometimes however, as we are exploring the language on the surface level, something happens and our students submerge into the exciting waters of The Bigger Questions. Often as they explore someone else’s culture they see more clearly their own. In this case, we as teachers can have the rare privilege of witnessing and guiding our students as they examine their own cultures and histories. It’s not an everyday occurrence, but whenever I have a lesson like this one, where my student is forced to truly think below the surface of a simple question or examine a seemingly innocent little comment, I feel that my job has been done.

Photo credit: Bjorn Giesenbaeur. Creative Commons Licence


  • Thanks Leah for such a moving post, and so true. I agree completely that this is the best part of the lesson, where something else emerges and it takes on a life of its own. It takes courage and skill for a teacher to allow that to happen. I’m glad you have both.

    Lindsay Clandfield on 15 April, 2010
  • Thank you Leah, this is very interesting view…I have been thinking about the same topic for a long time…and agree with you.Luba

    Luba on 18 April, 2010
  • Right on Leah!

    It sure takes time and the right one too! And worth the effort…to delve into that past, not too distant past, which all of a sudden seems so close at heart! Cheers,

    Irwin on 6 May, 2010