What about those Unexpected Fights?

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?

I was born in Scarborough General Hospital, so working in Scarborough is perfect for me because my students think I am 100% Canadian if there is such a thing. I have worked as a LINC teacher since 2008. First, as a supply teacher then later I found a job at Polycultural Immigrant Community Services. I like working with newcomers, and I love the English language so its been a pleasant journey. I hope it continues for many years to come.


5 thoughts on “What about those Unexpected Fights?”

  1. Thanks for sharing that story, and kudos to you for the way you handled it. If that happened to me, I think I would follow by example, and do what you did.

    1. Lol! I was quite shocked. I had no idea there was a disputed border in that part of the world.

  2. Issues like this are recurrent in many classrooms and in different forms where people are from different backgrounds and when their culture, status, and reasons for migration are different. Some students who are teachers in their country of origin may challenge their instructors’ methods; then you have the issues like the one you experienced. If we are not careful, our classrooms can become spaces of competing national identities and contested group identities. People forget why they chose Canada or what it will mean to be Canadian. These dividing forces can be challenging to navigate! You write your students are advance CLB, yet they still sit by national groups and don’t seem to have gained cross-cultural competence…yet. Is cross-cultural competence even a topic in CLB? One way to deal with these complexities is either to avoid topics that are sensitive in nature (as the ones not discussed in “small talk”) or have students devise rules for oral presentation topics and content, audience behaviour, and feedback protocols. Another idea would be for students to get-to-know each other from the start of the term: find out their cultural markers: differences and similarities—the latter focusing on living in Canada, dealing with diversity, and respect. I congratulate you for quickly calming the waters. I hope you and your students came to a peaceful resolution . My question would be: Did they gain cross-cultural competence from this? If so, then great. If not, then what’s next? TESLOntario has an archive webinar closely related to this topic: “Communication Competency at Work – More Than Just Language” with Tuula Lindholm. The recording is available in Tutela.ca (TESL Ontario Group). You might find it helpful. I know I did. Cheers!

  3. Thank you, Cecilia, for your thoughtful remarks. You make a great point when you ask if cultural competence is ever raised in CLB. I personally haven’t seen it in the CLB documents and it should be added as we become increasingly multicultural.
    It’s also a good idea to have the students work out their own rubric for presentations that include feedback protocols. I hadn’t considered that. I will try it next time. I can’t help but wonder if mediation skills should be part of the training for TESL instructors.

  4. A very interesting article, Stacey. The thing I noticed about your story is that we often don’t know what will trigger political or cultural tension in our classes. In my class the question of whether Taiwan is a part of mainland China has caused tension. I tend to avoid such issues, but like in your example, I don’t always know where the pressure points are.

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