A few years ago, I asked my students to do oral presentations about the geography of their native countries as a speaking test for LINC level 6-7. It seemed like a good idea, one that was more focused on English rather than research. The students prepared their PowerPoint presentations and when the presentation day finally arrived, the first up was Aisha from Pakistan.
She showed us several slides of Pakistan, pausing on the last one that clearly outlined the territory of the country. As Aisha explained the boundaries and its position relative to other countries, another student, Aryo, who was in the back row, jumped to his feet and pointed at the bottom border and said, “That’s wrong, that’s in Afghanistan!” I was still looking at the slide when he rushed up to the slide and traced the boundary he was referring to with his finger. “This is in Afghanistan, not Pakistan!” He kept repeating ever more loudly and stabbing his finger on the slide. I didn’t know it then, but there was a disputed border between the two countries where both were claiming the same land.
Aisha whirled toward Aryo and started yelling at him about the dividing lines. Other students quickly joined in, and soon I was in the middle of a raucous shouting match. Some students agreed with Pakistan’s version of geography, others agreed with Afghanistan’s version and a few had no idea about the dispute. I could feel the level of anger rising in the room. I moved quickly among the students asking people to remain calm and to stop discussing it as it was an issue that couldn’t be resolved in Canada.
Slowly, the wave of anger started to subside, but the students were still glaring at each other, and some subtle gestures revealed their underlying feelings. Luckily for me, it was close to lunch time so I dismissed the class. Everyone got forty-five minutes to cool off, but after lunch Aisha would still need to finish her presentation and the next scheduled presenter was Aryo, the student from Afghanistan. I spent the next forty-five minutes trying to plan what I would do.
When the students came back to class, I read them the riot act. “We will not be discussing the border anymore,” I said, flapping my arms like a music conductor. The students, now sitting in groups by their country of origin, grumbled. I walked between the two groups throughout the presentations, to establish a physical presence between the students, and by the time the class was over, everyone, including myself, was in a bad mood.
Have you experienced student’s fighting in your class? How did you handle it? If not, what would you have done in this situation?