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How relevant is PARSNIP in this day and age?

The (in)famous acronym PARSNIP has been a staple in ELT for many years. For those who don’t know, PARSNIP refers to taboo issues that shouldn’t be addressed in the classroom, namely: politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, –isms, and… pork. This has been a somewhat flexible rule in the industry, in the classroom, and in materials for a long time. Many argue that referring to these issues is counterproductive. In this article, I will try to go over a few reasons why I believe this should not be the case, especially nowadays.

Black Lives Matter, domestic violence, gun violence, climate change, identity politics and issues, religious intolerance, fake news, drag queen show bans, animal rights, veganism: have you been able to watch or read the news and not see any of these issues in the past, let’s say, five years? I know I haven’t, and I do believe everyone has been constantly exposed to all or some of these issues. Now, if you haven’t been able to live without being bombarded by all these issues, how can you expect that these issues haven’t also affected our students (to different degrees, surely)? A preventive restriction against these and other topics means you are simply patronizing your learners and what they know, want to learn, and can do with language.

Obviously, courses geared towards the teaching of functional language (e.g. a course for waiters to know how to interact with customers), exam practice, ESP, and a few other types of classes shouldn’t really focus on controversial issues unless they can help with the target language/skills. Here, the main focus is when dealing with general English courses, where the main aim is to help learners communicate in a myriad of contexts and topics. Aren’t we teaching learners so that they can communicate as effectively in English as they would do in real life in their mother tongue? If, in real life, they talk about politics, prejudice, or drug legalization, how/why can we deprive them of bringing these issues to the classroom?

In the current EFL classroom, language that should be “meaningful to the learner supports the learning process. Learning activities are consequently selected according to how well they engage the learner in meaningful and authentic language use” (Richards & Rodgers, 1986:161). It could be argued that teachers make the language relevant to learners. This is true to some extent, because schools still have syllabi focused on pre-chosen language items and content, so teachers need, more often than not, to follow the syllabi provided by the school. On the other hand, there is nothing better than devising lessons that will really engage learners by talking about whatever really appeals to them. These are the lessons that are really memorable.

Critical pedagogy in ELT often reminds us that language learning is “locally situated, personal, socio-historical, and political” (Harland & Jeyaraj, 2016:3), and materials often offer an idealized version of the American and British cultures and they usually don’t consider the local realities of learners (Harland & Jeyaraj, 2016). (NB: course-books and materials are invaluable tools for us, teachers, we simply cannot be limited by them).

The thought that learners will enter a classroom and ignore all they know, all that is going on with them and in the world is, to me, simply silly. The likelihood of learners being way more engaged talking about last week’s political scandal than the top 10 places to travel is really high. By being more engaged, language will be more meaningful and its use will be more authentic, working with emergent language will be more effective, and the experience will be altogether more memorable.

It has been argued that teachers who bring PARSNIP-related issues to the classroom are simply trying to indoctrinate students. It is likely to be true in some (very few, actually) instances, but even so it is not a reason to blindly follow the concepts of PARSNIP. Bringing students’ realities to the classroom is fundamental so that real learning can take place. Ignoring the existence of issues of relevance to students is another manner of keeping the colonial paradigm alive and thriving (Grilli, 2020). It is high time we acknowledged that many of the standards and beliefs of most foreign language learning methods do not fit our classroom lives. Being sa Brazilian educator, I can’t let go of the thinking that learning should be aimed at emancipation and freedom. Limiting what we, teachers and learners, can talk about is another tool of the banking model of education (Freire, 1970). In other words, it doesn’t really matter how many pair/group work tasks you throw at students: if you don’t allow them to address issues that are important to their lives, you will be delivering teacher-centered lessons which do not foster emancipation, freedom, and critical thinking.

Thinking of practical matters, it is clear that this does not mean that anything goes in the classroom: no, we must know our students well enough so as not to cause uncomfortable situations. For example, referring to a piece of news that triggers some type of trauma in our learners. Yet, this should address the issue of knowing our students well enough to prepare good and effective lessons. We are never able to know everything there is to know about our learners, but we can do a good job in knowing them well enough not to, at least in a general way, cause them any type of discomfort in the lessons. This brings about the issue of preventive restrictions: we may decide not to tackle a given topic in the classroom, but this should not happen before we know the reason why we are doing so, and not simply to follow some guidelines whose aims are not clear.

One might say that ignoring PARSNIP guidelines is likely to cause conflict among students in the classroom. Not only do I agree that it is true, but I also say: bring it on! As teachers who are preparing learners to better communicate in the real world in English, we must know that conflicts are inevitable sometimes. Teaching both language and communicative strategies on how to express yourself during conflicts, to my mind, is a great opportunity teachers of English have. Isn’t this our job? Helping learners to cope with countless communication contexts, including conflicts, is part of what we (should) do. It is a context which is relevant and meaningful to learners. In no way am I saying we should incentivize learners to argue, but it may happen as it does in real life. This is a great way of going about teaching different communication strategies and outcomes, including the importance of self-regulation, choice of vocabulary, intonation, pragmatics, and emphatic language. A few of my best lessons have happened due to heated debates almost leaning into real arguments among students. We have to know how to deal with conflict, and not limit what our learners say. There may be conflicts in any classroom just like in real life, and this is authentic language in use, not using emphatic structures to give your opinion on architecture.

Summing up, we should not start a lesson or a course from the principle that a current and relevant topic is a no-go zone just because some (frankly, outdated) guidelines say so. Knowing our students is how we decide what can or cannot be addressed in the classroom.

Finally, what are your thoughts on this issue? Do you find it necessary to avoid certain topics at all times in the classroom? If so, what topics and why? Do you think conflicts can add to our learners’ experience or do you feel that they should never have to face any type of conflict in the classroom? What if a certain topic is important to your student(s) and you find it taboo: should we never tackle such a topic?

About author

Bruno Sousa has worked with ELT since 2010 as a teacher, trainer, and materials designer. He holds the full DELTA, Celta, Train the Trainer, and CPE (C2, Proficiency). His main interests, currently, revolve around multilingualism, ideology in ELT, and teacher training. He has had articles published both in Brazil and abroad.
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