Investigating Social Issues Through Literature

Sybil MarcusA Guest Post by Sybil Marcus
Sybil Marcus has lived and worked on four continents.  She taught ESL at the University of California at Berkeley Extension and at the Summer English Language Studies on the Berkeley campus.  She has presented at conferences in Canada, the United States, and Mexico. For 15 years, she ran a PCI workshop for TESOL on integrating literature into language studies. She has also run workshops internationally for the U.S. State Department on Using Literature for Critical Thinking and Using Literature for Conflict Resolution. She is a coauthor with Daniel Berman of the A World of Fiction series, which uses literature to teach integrated language and critical thinking skills to ESL/EFL students at the high-intermediate to advanced levels.

In one of my favorite classes, we explore social issues through a literary lens. Literature is perfect for this because good writers tend to avoid dogmatic positions. They show rather than tell, which helps students get a nuanced view of a complicated subject.

Constructing a Social Issues Course

I usually try to cover four broad topics in an 8-week course. This gives us enough time to explore each one in depth. It’s not difficult to decide on topics. You only have to look at current news headlines such as those on immigration, war, the changing face of marriage, technology, culture clashes, and race.

As always, it’s important to choose stories of sufficient substance to conduct an in-depth examination of an issue.

My lessons look something like this:

  1. Students read the story for homework.
  1. In class, we discuss the issues raised in the text. I add a factual dimension with supplemental material about the topic, and, if possible, we watch a film clip as well.
  1. We conduct a debate in which I arbitrarily assign each pair of students a pro or con position. Students often end up having to formulate an argument that’s opposite to their own opinion. On one occasion, a student who was a Catholic priest from Korea was assigned to argue in favor of abortion. He told me afterward, he hadn’t had such fun since seminary school!
  1. As a wrap-up writing assignment, I have students pick a story that resonates personally and explain why. Students can give remarkably thoughtful replies. For example, after reading and discussing “Disappearing,” by Monica Wood (1988)—a story in which the narrator struggles with distressing family issues and eating disorders—my student Li Ling wrote:

When I read the story, my heart was touched by the main character.  I could understand her very well because I am a little bit overweight and I think it is unfair that society has stricter standard on women’s appearance and body image than men’s.  Why do women have to be evaluated by men’s viewpoint which is just like an X-ray examination? … I truly believe that everyone has a need to be needed, to be noticed, to be cared, and to be loved, so I felt very sorry for the main character when I read the part in which she thought she was invisible…

Dealing With Controversial Subjects

When tackling social issues, you can’t avoid difficult subjects. Over the years, I’ve taught stories exploring religion, gender, and race discrimination; spousal abuse; and euthanasia, among others.

It’s natural for teachers to be anxious about introducing these subjects in class. But once we start self-censoring, where does it end?  Should we omit a story about addiction because one of our students may be an alcoholic, or leave out a story about adultery because another student’s religious code might forbid it?

Actually, most of the time, I’ve found that my students are grateful for an opportunity to think and talk about a subject that’s taboo at home. The trick is to make the environment safe for expressing honest opinions. Therefore, I lay down some ground rules:

  • Students have to respect each other’s point of view. There can’t be any eye-rolling or snide comments if they don’t agree with a particular viewpoint.
  • There can’t be any interruptions.
  • Everyone has to try to keep an open mind.

I’m delighted to say that my students usually rise magnificently to the occasion.  There are often vigorous cross-cultural discussions in which different points of view are expressed and minds are sometimes changed.

Occasionally, students express misgivings about a sensitive topic. When that happens, I remind them that they’ve chosen to come to the United States to study. I stress that it helps to learn about the target language culture rather than cocoon themselves against the hot-button issues of the day. They don’t have to agree with a certain point of view, but they should be aware of the issues that are being fiercely debated in their host country.

I want to stress that I’m not saying that anything goes. We all draw lines about what’s appropriate. I choose not to teach stories that are sexually explicit or ones with vulgar language—and of course your lines may be different from mine.  The trick is to draw them sparingly.

I’d like to end with a short excerpt from a story that powerfully embodies a social topic, one which is on the front pages of the world’s newspapers today. It’s a chapter titled “Geraldo No Last Name” from The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros (1984), and it exemplifies how a writer can show with empathy and scalpel-like economy the experience of illegal immigrants. The character Geraldo has been killed in an accident. His anonymity is poignantly expressed in the title, as well as in these concluding lines:

They never saw the kitchenettes.  They never knew about the two-room flats and sleeping rooms he rented, the weekly money orders sent home, the currency exchange.  How could they?

His name was Geraldo.  And his home is in another country.  The ones he left behind are far away, will wonder, shrug, remember.  Geraldo – he went north … we never heard from him again.

What’s Next?

In my final guest blog next month, I’ll be discussing how to use literature for conflict resolution.

I’d be very interested to hear how you tackle sensitive issues in class.  Please add a note in the comments section.


Wood, M. (1988). “Disappearing.” Kent, OH: Kent State University Press.

Cisneros, S. (1984). “Geraldo no last name.” In The house on Mango Street (pp. 65–66). New York, NY: Vintage Books.

from TESOL Blog


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