ESL classes are often at their most talkative when faced with a moral dilemma.
Whether the class is monolingual or multi-national, exercises which pose ethical quandaries tend to give accessible opportunities to shy students, bring out cultural viewpoints and personal opinions, cement classroom relationships and help build a rapport, and offer an engaging context for language production. A real favorite of mine – and of many other ESL teachers – has been the exercise I’ve called ‘The Bridge’; you may have come across it. It is readily adaptable for different levels and class sizes, and never fails to generate noisy but light-hearted debate.
Follow These 7 Simple Steps:
The initial narrative is perhaps best delivered as a listening exercise. I draw a simple map on the board, of a village consisting of small mud huts, through the middle of which flows a river which can be crossed only by a bridge in the center of the village. Adding some palm trees, weather or other village features all helps create the atmosphere. Students might brainstorm the kind of things one might find in a village in the developing world – a well, a store, a road, some small businesses etc – and then the teacher tells the story which will give rise to our dilemma. Students should either take notes or just listen carefully.
A young couple live on the west bank of the river. The Husband (our first character) is working away from home, as there are few jobs in the village. The Woman (our second character) is a caring wife, but like anyone, she becomes lonely and depressed while her husband is away. Besides, even when he’s around, he doesn’t seem as interested in her as he used to be. Paint the picture of a decent, moral person who is subject to needs and desires, not a heartless gold-digger or a callous cheater.
So, one night she travels across the bridge to spend some time with a man she recently met; let’s call him The Lover (our third character). They develop a relationship about which the woman feels guilty, but she is more fulfilled and finds herself smiling more often, just through being considered attractive by someone. This carries on for a few weeks, without the husband’s knowledge. (You might add that there is a relaxed cultural attitude to relationships outside of marriage; conversely, there might be strict social conventions against this.)
Very early one morning, The Woman wakes up in The Lover’s house to the sound of gunfire and explosions. A brutal civil war has begun and the village is suddenly host to hundreds of soldiers, some of whom have been tasked with closing the bridge. The woman panics; her husband is due home soon, and if she is missing, he will become suspicious. She races to the bridge but finds it blocked by armed men, one of whom is The Soldier (our fourth character) who refuse to let her across.
She wonders if bribery might work. The Woman asks The Lover for some money to bribe the soldiers, but he refuses, inviting her to leave her husband permanently and move in with him. (We’re not sure how serious this offer is, but certainly The Lover is being short-sighted and selfish). The Woman refuses, insisting that her marriage still means a great deal to her. Instead, she visits an old school friend in another part of the village. She explains what has happened, but The Friend (our fifth character) is disappointed that she has cheated, and refuses to help her with bribery money.
She returns to the bridge, desperate to get across, and upon being refused again, she dashes across, taking her life in her hands. As per his orders, The Soldier raises his rifle and shoots her. The Woman falls dead on the bridge.
Who is responsible for the death of The Woman?
A pair discussion works best here. Ask the students to rank the five characters by level of responsibility (#1 is the most responsible and #5 is the least). This will take time, and is the first opportunity to bring out the language of persuasion and compromise:
- Isn’t it true that The Husband is blameless in all of this?
- Wouldn’t you agree that The Soldier was just doing his job?
- You have to admit that The Friend was extremely unhelpful at a dangerous moment.
Open up the debate to compare each pair’s list. Are there significant differences? Why has this happened? Investigate with some quick questions, establishing general and individual opinions.
A Little More Detail
At this stage, if you’d like to complicate the students’ decision-making process, include extra information:
- The woman has never done anything like this before; she is a religious woman and feels intense regret and self-loathing about what she has done. She still loves her husband very much.
- The Husband has a girlfriend of his own – this is one of the reasons he chose to work away from the village.
- The Lover has had many affairs with married ladies, has seen the problems this can cause, and simply doesn’t care. He’s in it for the fun; the rest is The Woman’s problem.
- The Friend was engaged to The Woman a few years ago, but she chose The Husband instead. He is jealous and resentful, having only just recovered from a broken heart.
- The Soldier has been celebrating the easy victory and is extremely drunk.
These extra details will require further debate, and the pair’s lists will probably change. What differences are there between the first list and the second?
The beauty of ‘The Bridge’ is its flexibility. Possible extension exercises are many and varied, and could include:
- A court case in which each student is assigned a character role. They must prepare to defend themselves under cross-examination, and to incriminate the others so that, in the final analysis, their character is judged to bear less responsibility.
- The Diary of the Woman/Husband/Soldier etc. Students write journal entries for the days before, during and after this crisis, from the point of view of one of the characters.
- Police Report. A description of events from the point of view of the authorities.
- Talk Show interview. Each character is interviewed to get their view on what happened. The audience might then vote for who they believe is the most responsible.
- Drama. Students write scripts for short scenes from the story – The Woman’s argument with The Friend, or The Husband’s reaction on arriving home, for example.
- Op-Ed Pieces. Students write opinion articles in defense of one or more characters, or accusing one of being the most responsible.
- What If? Practice conditional forms by wondering how the story might have ended differently if The Husband had returned a day early, or The Friend had given The Woman some money, or The Soldier had not been drunk, etc.
For larger groups, consider adding:
- The Colonel. As The Soldier’s boss, this officer is responsible for closing the bridge. He might be green and inexperienced, or might have poorly communicated his orders, or could be a slow-witted megalomaniac, as you prefer.
- The Boatman. An alternative to crossing the bridge. This character is usually greedy and unhelpful, demanding unreasonable payment for ferrying The Woman across.
- The Sister. Observing all of this, and perhaps getting involved, is The Woman’s sister. She interferes in the story in whichever way most equalizes the levels of responsibility of the characters.
I have enjoyed this exercise on so many occasions, and with classes of almost every level.
I hope that it proves as successful in your classroom.