Let’s start with some food for thought from one of the wisest people alive in the world today:
“Whenever possible, be kind.
It is always possible.”
Perhaps more than anyone, the Dalai Lama can comment sagely on the virtues of kindness and compassion. I find these to be among the most important and valuable of human traits, but I also find that these topics aren’t well covered in the standard ESL textbooks. Many of my students are teenagers, people who inarguably have a strong interest in one kind of love or another, but I like to teach about and discuss love and compassion in the ESL context by taking a broader approach.
9 Ideas for Teaching Love, Kindness and Compassion for ESL Classes
Time for Love
Why now, in particular? Well, a glance at the news will give us all the reasons we need to give love and compassion renewed focus. We live in a fraught, complex world where tensions and animosities define both geopolitics and the societal situations at home. It’s hard to think of a time in human history where love wasn’t relevant and important, but right now seems like the perfect moment to discuss what love means, how we relate to our feelings about others, and conversely, how hatred forms and spreads.
Just as humanity faces some of its most serious crises, our general capacity for emotional intelligence (EQ) seems to be on the wane. It’s hard to learn to love others and think of them before ourselves, but our contemporary society emphasizes personal success and happiness, the emancipation and full realization of the self, far more than any indebtedness to society as a whole. Personally, I feel that debt very keenly, as I’m a generally happy person surrounded by others who are less fortunate. These are ideas I bring to my students, along with an invitation to consider their own attitudes.
Begin at Home
It’s a cliché these days, but most ESL topics can open with a look at the situation in the students’ home countries. I tend to do this through quick questions to the class (which require an answer much more than just a show of hands) or questionnaires which the students ask each other. When compiling these, I tend to make a separate interview forms for ‘Student A’ and ‘Student B’, so the same questions aren’t been overly repeated. Example questions could include:
- Are public displays of affection acceptable in your country?
- Can couples live together before being married?
- In your language, does the love for family have the same word as love for a romantic partner?
- If someone is taken ill in the street, for example, will onlookers rush to help?
- If we asked a thousand people from your country whether their own future, or their country’s future, was more important, what response might we get?
Students from multi-lingual, multi-cultural classes gain a great deal simply from listening to each other describe the culture from back home. This can break down barriers, provoke questions (and often not a little confusion), and assist in that lengthy process of persuading our students that all of the world’s cultures are equally valid, whatever practices they have and wherever they come from.
Ask for examples of customs or practices relating to engagement and marriage, and see how similar they are across the class. Are there notable examples of compassionate sacrifice? Your Chinese students might bring up the famed (if rather apocryphal) example of Lei Feng, while other countries have their historical martyrs, or those who were noted for helping the poor. Elicit examples of billionaires who have given extensively to charity (the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, etc).
Getting Down to It
In previous posts, I’ve talked about the contentious issue of whether ESL teachers have a certain moral responsibility to educate foreign students in cultural practices, tolerance, the dangers of racism, and similar themes. In a debate setting, I might remain on the fence about this, but in the classroom, I can rarely restrain myself from dropping a piece of information, an idea, an image or an example which will make my students stop and think.
Here’s an example, and it’s a mighty tricky one: why do we love some people more than others? Obviously, our family and friends are at the top of our list, but beyond them, our capacity for love and compassion might seem curtailed or tentative. Can we muster the same love for a boat full of desperate migrants, or poor villagers recovering from the latest earthquake? Is this the same love we might feel for a sibling, or a new romantic partner? How can we help each other to find that compassion, even for those we’ve never met, and for whom our society might appear to care little?
Ayn Rand and Earning Love
I posit an idea to my students: some believe that love should be earned through our behavior (like respect, in some ways) and that it should never be given to those who have not deserved it. This is Ayn Rand’s view, and however you feel about her peculiarly individualistic, objectivist mindset, such barriers are not uncommon. My students tend to respond that we all deserve love from the moment of birth, though I’ve heard contrasting arguments, too. Does a murderer deserve love? Or a habitual thief, or a drug addict? And if that love is withdrawn, what effects might that have?
I include plenty of time in my lesson plans for pairwork and groupwork discussion on topics like this. Something gnarly or complex almost invariably comes up, and my students can become very talkative and animated on these personal topics, where individual views and prejudices tend to be aired, for good and for ill. During these pairwork discussions, I step back and simply monitor the class; if there’s a serious error or a factual mistake, I quickly fix it before stepping back again. It’s important to give your students this time and space to develop a fully-fledged conversation, just as a native speaker might.
In just the same way as beginning by discussing your students’ own lives is a little clichéd (but successful), then ending the topic with a debate is another well-worn path, but one that’s entirely worth trying. Possible topics include:
- This house believes that it is impossible to love everyone.
- This house believes that love should be earned, not automatically given.
- This house believes that traditional, romantic love is an outdated concept in 2016.
- This house believes that we should seek genetic medical treatments to render love and compassion strong and inherent human qualities.
- This house believes that compassion for others is weakness (Ayn Rand would have voted ‘Aye’ on this one, but how do your students handle such a sensitive topic?)
It’s time for a full disclosure: I have a daily meditation practice within which I practice Metta, the Buddhist traditional focus on developing loving-kindness and compassion. I actually include examples of the virtues of compassion in most of my classes, often in subtle ways, and it has become part of my expectations for my students’ in-class behavior. We have class rules which encourage listening to others patiently rather than interrupting, and which remind my students that all viewpoints are to be taken seriously, and none derided. Discussing compassion and love in a single class (or a set of them) is a good way to focus your students’ minds on their own behavior, beliefs and attitudes, but a long-term, low-key reminder of these precepts is just as valuable.
Love takes practice, like a language, and I believe that the two can be fostered alongside each other. I’ve met students who are remarkably stubborn about the importance of helping others, who believe in strict, unyielding self-reliance and autonomy, and who reject the idea of social welfare, for example.
I simply ask them what kind of world in which they’re prefer to live: one in which we’re constantly undermining and scheming against each other, or one in which we could depend on our friends and colleagues (and yes, even strangers) to help us when we most need it. My students have learned a great deal from contemplating and discussing the different forms of love, and from considering the virtues of compassion, and I can’t recommend these topics highly enough.
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