April 2020
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ENVISIONING A DIVERSIFIED ELT CURRICULUM IN THE POSTMODERN ERA

Keith M. Graham and Yunkyeong Choi, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas, USA


Keith M. Graham


Yunkyeong Choi

Introduction


Today’s world is filled with tension. Newspapers tell of suicide because of sexual orientation, ethnic and religious genocide, and racial violence. Though many voices are suggesting that “diversity is one of our greatest strengths to be celebrated” (Slattery, 2012, p. 149), it seems that rather than celebrating, the world is eradicating it. The evidence is clear; something needs to change, and we believe change can begin with the English language teaching (ELT) curriculum and the literature we bring into our classrooms. In the paragraphs that follow, we will propose a model for a postmodern diversity curriculum and the challenges and opportunities for implementation.

Postmodern Diversity Framework

Our postmodern diversity framework is based on the work of Slattery (2012). The framework is made of five dimensions that we believe educators at all levels should include in their curriculum: religion, gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity (Figure 1). Beginning with the first dimension, religion, it is no secret that many curriculums do one of two things—either try to eliminate religion from the curriculum altogether or teach one religion exclusively. We approach religion from the perspective that learning religions can be a conduit for a deeper understanding of one’s self and the world around them. While we believe religions, as a single subject, can help students learn about themselves, integration of all religions into other school subjects allows for a richer understanding of the world. For example, a history teacher could have students speak about historical events from the perspective of various religious groups.



Figure 1. Five dimensions of the postmodern diversity framework

Gender and sexuality are two topics also often avoided in K-12 schools, and this suppression is causing suffering (Slattery, 2012). First, it is important to understand that gender is a psychological trait and sex is a biological one (Newman, 2018). As such, various combinations beyond the traditional heterosexual male and female exist. Additionally, there are many misunderstandings in society about the interrelationship between gender roles, sexual behavior, and sexual orientation due to common interchangeable uses of these terms, which often remain unchallenged and undiscussed (see Slattery 2012 for a full discussion of these concepts). These misunderstandings have grave consequences for our students and communities. “There remains intense pressure on people to conform to traditional norms...Some find it easier just to go along with the expectations rather than fight for alternative preferences or desires” (Slattery, 2012, p. 158). To make educational environments more inclusive of the wide range of genders and sexual orientations of students, literature featuring these diverse groups should be incorporated into the curriculum. A good resource for literature with characters of diverse genders and sexualities are the lists provided by Common Sense Media (2019) and the Anti-Defamation League (2019).

Race and ethnicity are perennial issues in our world and are arguably the topics which get discussed more often in schools than the other dimensions listed above. However, we believe two things remain missing from conversations about race and ethnicity in classrooms. First, the discussion is often about “others” rather than self. Slattery (2012) tells us, “racial [and ethnic] issues in the postmodern curriculum emphasize investigations of the self and conceptions of the self in relation to the other” (p. 174). We must understand our own race and ethnicity before we can understand others. Second, as Kubota and Lin (2006) note, “TESOL has not sufficiently addressed the idea of race and related concepts” (p. 471), and the authors call for more discussion of race, both in ELT research and classroom practices.

Challenges

While we believe including the dimensions of religion, gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity in the curriculum and literature we use can help bring powerful change to the world, we also recognize that implementation brings many challenges. Below we examine some potential challenges first by looking at what current ELT materials offer on these topics and then turning toward challenges for teachers and schools through the lens of the South Korean context, where the second author has worked as an English teacher. This focus on one context serves to highlight the challenges that exist in implementing a postmodern curriculum.

Current ELT Materials

We chose one of the most widely-used ELT materials around the world, Oxford Bookworms Library, and analyzed some of its titles using the postmodern diversity framework. We will present an analysis of level four (intermediate level) for this example. In level four, out of a total of 30 graded readers we found that only five of them address issues of race and ethnicity. For example, there were two texts related to race (i.e., Gandhi and Nelson Mandela) and three books on ethnicity (i.e., A Time of Waiting: Stories from Around the World, The Price of Peace: Stories from Africa, and Land of my Childhood: Stories from South Asia). However, we found no books addressing issues of religion, gender, or sexuality. The stories in other levels were very similar with very few books addressing aspects of postmodern diversity. Rather, there were quite a few books which reflected traditional Western images, particularly those of typical Western middle-class society and stereotypical gender roles. From this, we can conclude that there seems to be a gap between our postmodern diversity curriculum and our current ELT materials.

Local Challenges from the South Korean Perspective

As many teachers would agree, there are clearly some challenges beyond materials for implementing a postmodern ELT curriculum internationally. Based on the second author’s experience, these challenges of implementing a postmodern curriculum is particularly true in South Korea. First of all, religion is a topic that is considered a private matter in South Korea and not something that should be discussed in school settings. As some may know, South Korea has a test and content-focused school curriculum. Subjects that are directly related to the college entrance exam (e.g., math, English, language arts) make up the most important part of the curriculum and other subjects (e.g., music, arts) tend to be considered as trivial. As a result, there is rarely time for robust discussions on issues that are outside of the curriculum such as religion.

In addition, the number of people who identify with a religion has been continuously decreasing, particularly among young adults. According to a survey conducted in 2017 by the National Council of Churches in Korea, only 46.6% of Korean adults reported having a religion, and among the population aged between 20 to 29, only 30.7% were reported to have a religion (Yu, 2018). Due to these changes, it seems like it is particularly difficult for teachers to address issues of religion in their classrooms.

Next, gender and sexuality issues are considered as taboo topics in South Korea. Sexual diversity is not accepted culturally, and conversations on homosexuality, transgender, or intersex are not accepted in schools. As these issues are not properly addressed in the school curriculum and students are not educated on these topics, many students are unaware of the fact that there are diverse gender populations beyond the male/female dichotomy and people with different sexual orientations. Furthermore, many often end up finding inappropriate or biased information from the media or Internet, leading to misinformed views on gender and sexual diversity.

Finally, South Korea is an ethnically and racially homogeneous country so people believe that discrimination due to race or ethnicity is not an issue. When they think of racial or ethnic discrimination, they think about racial discrimination in the U.S. or issues of European colonialism around the world and believe it is a topic of the past. However, it is a real issue in South Korea that often goes unnoticed. For example, there are many foreign workers from developing countries and the number has been increasing continuously. In 2017, there were 1.28 million adult immigrants (over 15 years old) in Korea and most of them were foreign workers (0.9 million) (Korea National Statistics Office, 2017). Many of these foreign workers work long hours and receive pay below the minimum wage due to employers taking advantage of workers’ lack of Korean-language proficiency and misunderstandings about labor laws, which is clearly an act of discrimination against people with different racial and ethnic background. These workers are faced with discrimination not only in their workplaces, but also in their everyday lives. Moreover, children from these multicultural families have a hard time adjusting to their school, and the schools are failing to incorporate these issues in their curriculum. We believe that most of this discrimination seems to be caused by the lack of properly addressing these issues in school curricula, where students, both South Korean and expat, are not educated on them. Critically examining curricula from a postmodern perspective and implementing changes to instruction for South Korean students that are inclusive of all postmodern dimensions may lead to the raising of student awareness about diversity issues within their communities.

Opportunities for Implementation

Given the great challenges discussed, a radical change in the curriculum toward one inclusive of postmodern diversity may seem unfathomable. However, we feel the ELT community, more than any other field of education, has a unique opportunity to implement a postmodern diversity curriculum around the world. The opportunity begins with all ELT teachers becoming educated on the dimensions of postmodern diversity. Teachers must recognize that the modern categories of religion, gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity do not fit this postmodern world and do not represent many of our students. In addition, teachers need to also recognize biases created by modern notions and learn to love and defend all people. Reading texts on incorporating diverse curricula, such as Slattery (2012), or taking courses informed by critical race, gender, or queer theory will help raise teachers’ awareness of diverse populations and issues of systemic inequality. Once we have educated ourselves, the next step is to educate our colleagues as it is important that we approach postmodern diversity together as one educational community.

Once the ELT community is informed, we can then begin to educate our students. We believe the best way to engage students in these conversations is through literature. However, as seen above, our typical ELT materials fall short, so teachers will need to look beyond typical curriculum sources. There are many books that address the five dimensions of postmodern diversity. One book addressing sex and gender is Alex as Well (Brugman, 2013), a story of an intersex person searching for an identity. The Name Jar (Choi, 2001) is a great book for addressing race and ethnicity, telling the story of a Korean girl struggling with her Korean name in the United States. The Anti-Defamation League (2019) is a great resource for finding books that can be made accessible for language learners through teacher support and can inform students on postmodern diversity issues. We also hope that as more classrooms teach postmodern diversity, ELT publishers will be encouraged to produce materials more inclusive of each of the dimensions of the postmodern diversity framework.

Conclusion

We have a rare opportunity as a world network of ELT teachers, not limited by any borders, to make worldwide change. The ELT curriculum can truly be the catalyst for change that eliminates the tensions of the world. While the ideas of this article may seem dangerous to some, we would like readers to keep in mind the words of Michel Foucault, “everything is dangerous, nothing is innocent” (Foucault, 1980, p. 33). Ignoring these ideas may be as dangerous as reading them. With that in mind, we challenge the ELT community to begin including postmodern diversity issues in your language teaching curriculum.

References

Anti-Defamation League. (2019). Books matter: Children’s literature. Retrieved from https://www.adl.org/education-and-resources/resources-for-educators-parents-families/childrens-literature

Brugman, A. (2013). Alex as well. New York: Henry Holt.

Choi, Y. (2001). The name jar. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Common Sense Media. (2019). LGBTQ books. Retrieved from https://www.commonsensemedia.org/lists/lgbtq-books

Foucault, M. (1980). Truth and power. In C. Gordon (Ed.), Power/Knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings (pp. 1972–1977). New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

Korea National Statistical Office. (2017). Foreign worker employment rate [Data file]. Retrieved from http://www.kostat.go.kr/portal/korea/kor_nw/2/3/4/index.board?bmode=read&bSeq=&aSeq=365286&pageNo=1&rowNum=10&navCount=10&currPg=&sTarget=title&sTxt=

Kubota, R., & Lin, A. (2006). Race and TESOL: Introduction to concepts and theories. TESOL Quarterly, 40(3), 471-493.

Newman, T. (2018). Sex and gender: What is the difference? Medical News Today. Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/232363.php

Yu, J. (2018, January). Decrease in Korean population with a religion. The Korea Times. Retrieved from http://www.koreatimes.com/article/1096127


Keith M. Graham is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction. He holds a master’s degree in education from Sam Houston State University. His research interest is international English teaching, particularly English Medium Instruction and Content and Language Integrated Learning.


Yunkyeong Choi is a Ph.D. student in Curriculum and Instruction with a specialization in English as a Second Language. She holds a master’s degree in English Education from Hanyang University in Korea. Her research interests include task-based language teaching (TBLT), particularly how TBLT could be used to promote L2 learners’ pragmatic development.

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