Immigrant Squirrels, Ideology and Lesson Planning.

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 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 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.



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7 responses to “Immigrant Squirrels, Ideology and Lesson Planning.

  1. I’m amazed that no one else has commented on this… it really is a great piece. I absolutely agree that we must encourage our students to question EVERYTHING, including the teacher…

    “Who wrote it?” and “Why?” are the two questions that should come up every time. The internet has been both a blessing and a curse in this regard, of course. Alternative points of view can get noticed now, but it is harder to be sure of the authors’ intentions. At least if you get your information from The Sun, The Daily Mail or The Telegraph you can filter it through your knowledge of the editoral direction and prejudices of the paper.

    • marxistelf

      Thanks Darren,
      Your comments are much appreciated. It was a little dispiriting to have so little interest in what we felt was a very good piece. Maybe, it’s because the industry is so obsessed with technique rather than content, this was beautifully parodied in the now sadly defunct, that such issues are overlooked. Teachers are trained “to engage the interest of the student” they are not asked to take a critical stance towards the material (neither in preliminary training nor in the Diploma). Ironically, teachers are encouraged to “train students” in reading for gist and context (thinking about who wrote the text, who for and for what purposes). It is a pity trainers don’t go the obvious step further and ask trainee teachers to approach potential sources of material in the same manner as they ask their students to approach reading.
      Again, many thanks Darren for your comment.

  2. Pingback: the lives of teachers » Blog Archive » responsible racism – a guide for teachers

  3. I’m linking to this on my own blog (far less visited than yours). Hope you don’t mind. Love to hear what you have to say on the topic of racism.

  4. marxistelf

    Thanks for the link Darren. Nice article and very useful checklist for teachers. We have left a “reply” (more a question) to your piece.

  5. Pingback: Pirates of Somali « Marxist TEFL Group

  6. Alan McGinn

    Link not provided for obvious reason? Don’t you trust people to see the website and draw their own conclusions?

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