In a piece on representation/non-representation of Gays and Lesbians in TEFL textbooks we drew attention to an awful lesson “Gay Rights for Penguins” hosted on breakingnewsenglish.com. We did, however, also suggest that another lesson hosted on the site, concerning a film about Alexander the Great, might make an interesting lesson. It is hopefully clear, therefore, that we bear no personal malice to the website or its owner/principal author, Sean Banville. Indeed, Sean appears a remarkably dynamic and intelligent individual dedicated to making other teachers’ lives easier. We would like to make this abundantly clear before raising questions about another piece surfacing on one of Sean’s websites. We do this not to attack Sean but to raise issues generally about lesson content and planning for all teachers.
Red Squirrels and Racism.
For those of us on the left, we have long been suspicious of newspaper reports on the “native” red squirrel and its demise in the face of the “non-native” grey squirrel. Indeed, this whole scenario has been and is being used by the far right as a metaphor for its fight to save the British way of life. For example, the fascist website, Nationalism in our Time of Need (link not provided for obvious reasons) claims:
Like the red squirrel was over-run by non indigenous grays, we could become isolated in small pockets and face extinction. Vote BNP. Stop the Invasion.
(There is an accompanying picture of a red squirrel, holding a gun, ready to keep the “invaders” at bay).
This far right ideology feeds off recycled racism in the national media which churns out this unchallenged ideological bile. One example of this is the Daily Mail’s reporting of “A mutant black Squirrel” which was rightly criticised for its racist “science” reporting.
What is unfortunate is that Sean’s newsenglish.com participates in this recycling of myth without questioning its scientific basis or providing alternative points of view. So, for example, in its piece “Prince Charles wants to Fight Squirrels”, it argues, along with the simple-minded parasite and would-be king, that the red squirrel is native and that it is “important to protect Britain’s animals”. The author wants to see grey squirrels disappear but can’t kill them him or herself. What the author doesn’t do is counter pose the position of the RSPCA, which argues that culling grey squirrels is ethically dubious and a waste of time.
Indeed, it is nonsense to ascribe nationalities to Animals. Animals live in habitats and not countries. Is the Polar bear a native of America by virtue of America’s rule over Alaska? Are Alsatian dogs an example of a huge slave trade taking them from their “homeland” to be slaves abroad. This racist slippage into “native” and Britain’s animals” (I suppose migrating birds have dual nationality) only serves to disguise the real reason for the decline of the red squirrel, the destruction of the habitat in which they thrive. The grey squirrel thrives in mixed and deciduous woodland whilst the red squirrel needs coniferous woodlands. A combination of climate change and destruction of millions of acres of woodland by humans for agriculture, housing and industrial purposes, has robbed the red squirrel of the habitat in which it thrives. Couple this with a greater adaptability on the part of the grey squirrel to the environment and an immunity (after itself surviving this virus) to an illness, SQPV, currently attacking the red squirrel and we get an idea of the real reason for the relative success of the grey squirrel.
The key to saving the red squirrel, therefore, lies in tough decisions to rescue and conserve the woodlands in which they thrive, woodlands which are not profitable to the farmers and forestry companies which along with Prince Charles, promote the culling of the grey squirrel (the same groups who once tried to hunt the red squirrel out of existence). It may also mean helping to develop a vaccine to help red squirrels in their fight against SQVP.
Unpicking the Truth.
Here at Marxist TEFL we make a distinction between propaganda and education. We believe lessons should be interesting and thought-provoking, we don’t believe in simply doing gap-fills of “The Communist Manifesto”. Students should be encouraged to look critically, to go beneath the surface of events and how they are presented in official media.
What should never be done is simply repeat lies and distortion. This is helping to bury students in ideological non-sense, to develop ill-informed views on the world. When Sean says in an interview with teflogue:
“The biggest challenge in creating a lesson is to find a news story that will interest as many people as possible, will make people talk, and is conducive to readily creating communicative exercises. There aren’t really any stories I avoid – except where I am in danger of repeating my themes – there are only so many lessons you can do on Iraq and Afghanistan. Once global warming has been done, I generally wait six months before approaching it again. I like controversial topics as this is what really gets students talking. I enjoy making a lesson or activity that I then really want to use in the classroom – this makes creating the lessons a little more fun.”
We would ask him to reconsider what he thinks is controversial and exactly what is being communicated in these communicative lessons of his.