The burka issue

Exploring current news & views

This procedure is standard good practice: take an issue that is hot in the news, and set out to explore it with the students, using the internet. What variety of techniques can we use to get the most out of the idea?

To start with, it must be good practice to avoid using just the internet - if it used to be an axiom that good language lessons had a balanced use of the 4 Skills of Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, then now we have to seek a balance between : onscreen and offscreen reading, online and real-life listening, paper writing and screen writing, screen-chat and real-chat, searching and researching, preparing (onscreen & offscreen) and presenting (onscreen & offscreen) ... to mention but a few!

This page takes an issue which I had used in class at least a year ago, in a mainly paper way, and which I have now expanded to explore some of the techniques mentioned above.

The initial hook

In the summer of 2009, the French Government, prompted by President Sarkozy, began canvassing the idea of a ban on the use of the burka in France. How exactly this ban would function, whom it would affect, and what consequences it would have, all rapidly became a matter of international discussion.

This kind of topic is naturally suitable for the IB English B classroom - it has an international dimension, referring to one particular country yet could apply directly in many different societies; it raises questions about the interaction of cultures evident in the contemporary world; it raises questions of how far one culture understands another; and touches on serious issues of human rights in conflict. All of this will stimulate discussion, thus practising language, and encouraging serious intellectual reflection on the part of our students.

Teaching the topic

The increasing availabilty of the internet in the classroom does not actually change the professional view of good practice in teaching : you introduce a topic, research and develop it, discuss it, and then aim to produce something based on the previous phases. In other words:

  • Introduction
  • Research & Development
  • Discussion
  • Production

The following suggestions for how to use this material in class follow that fundamental structure.

Introducing the issue

Step 1 ... After simply stating the basic background facts of the French government's legislation, it is best to define terms : to what does the word 'burka' refer', and how is it used, both generally and in this debate?

Step 2 ... Show this gallery of images, which demonstrates that the burka is merely one of a range of different head-coverings used by muslim women. Click on each image to see it full-size.

Step 3 ... After the students have understood the range of different head-coverings involved, open an initial discussion about their reactions to the issue so far.

Reviewing the arguments ... Once we have established that there are different types of head-coverings, and that these have different implications, we should look in more detail at the different sides of the argument.


  Dress & Culture - quote-field of attitudes to the burka issue

Step 4 ... Give out the handout. You can direct the students attention either to the list, or to the quote field versions. First of all, deal with the first of the guiding questions, asking for two quotations. In small classes, this could be an individual task; in large classes, do it in small groups.

Give time for preparation - then ask for feedback on which quotes have been selected. Run a discussion on this basis.

Researching the issue  

If the issue catches the students' interest, then let us take the lesson into more depth. The next obvious step would be to search the internet - the phase of internet-researching ... or intersearching ... or netresearching ... or, dammit, googling (which I don't like, because Google should be only the first, superficial phase).

My Google start (" The burka issue in France " ) threw up this page ...

BBC World Service : 'World Have Your Say' blog ... Is the Burqa a men's issue

... and here's a screen-cut of what it looks like. My annotations show where there are Links (see below)

Making use of the page

Here are three standard techniques for unfolding or opening up an internet page :

  • analysing the main text
  • using the 'Comments' section
  • following links from the main text

In the case of this particular page :-

analysing main text ... not that useful here, since the text is short and clear - its intention is simply to launch the questions at the bottom

using 'Comments' ... more promising: as I write this, there are 105 comments, and many are competent expressions of intelligent points of view. Possible procedures:-

Teacher Selection : you pick half a dozen useful comments, and give out on paper

Individual Student Scan : students are given time (in class? for homework?) to scan through the Comments, to choose three or four that interest them personally ... then have to give short presentation, referring to their choice(s), and explaining why

Small Group Searches : divide the 105 into sections, and allocate each section to one small group - then same procedure as for Individual (above) OR with larger sections, each group must scan for a particular type of comment (e.g. * 'allow the burka' ... 'forbid the burka' ... intelligent comments ... stupid comments ...)

following links ... the screen-cut (above) shows where the three links are in the original page - follow those links, and then the links within the links. Thus, for example :-

"forced to wear" takes you to a Daily Telegraph page ... EITHER get the students to sumarise the (short) news article OR follow the links in the panel at the left (below), looking for something more stimulating ...

> 'Burka ban...' - fascinating personal account by a Sudanese woman about her experiences wearing, and not wearing, the abaya and the niqab - she ends up quite in favour of the idea ("Initially an ugly burden, the abaya and niqab became a comfort and, eventually, a delight."), and certainly in favour of the freedom to choose. Excellent, stimulating material.

> 'Woman in Sudan faces...' - news report + video with good clear summary (unfortunately, no pause button available, so difficult to exploit fully for listening comprehension)

> 'Woman in Sudan flogged...' - earlier interview with same woman (always note date !)

> 'Muslim leaders ...' - extensive report of reactions ... much use of interesting quotation ... contrasting views ...

... and so on ...


Discussing the issue

A full-scale class discussion will work more successfully after a well-conducted research stage. Students will be informed about (some of) the facts, will have been exposed to a range of views on what is, after all, not a simple issue, and should have in front of them a variety of notes and references to act as support material.

Three options should be considered in deciding how to run the discussion : should you choose ...

a formal debate? with a motion (but which motion, exactly?), the students divided into Pro & Con, and disciplined rules of discourse ...?

a free-for-all discussion? with no Pro/Con, Black/White positions, but a brief to examine the complex conflicts of interests and principles?

now or later? to have the debate straight away? (the material is fresh in students' minds ... although, they might have got bored with it) - or return to the topic in a few days time? (when students will have had time to think the issue over)

Producing / Writing up

Instead of a debate, one might choose to ask the students to write about their ideas individually. Using which text type? ...

formal essay - surveying the arguments for and against

personal polemic - expressing their own personal judgements about the issue

a journalistic article - perhaps using the 'Burka Ban...' article as source material for an imagine interview with the author?

a speech - for the debate which you've decided not to hold?

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