Every week I put my students in pairs in all my classes based solely on their native language. I explain to them in the very beginning that this is not a dating service, and that they cannot ask to have someone in particular to be their partner. It’s just the roll of the dice. There are many benefits to this partnering in my opinion. This avoids students being left out if I were to ask students to pair up. Each student has someone at the beginning of the week that s/he can work with for the whole week. They know that the following week they will have someone else. This also avoids the situation where students come into an ESL class and don’t utter one word in two hours.
But there are the downsides too. I announced the assigned pairs some years ago, and I had a star Chinese water polo champion come up to me after class telling me he couldn’t work with the partner he had been assigned. I asked why. He said he could never work with a Japanese student. Again I asked why. He said, “Because of World War II.” This reason was new to me. It had never happened before. I had had the Israeli woman and Palestinian man both from Jerusalem who didn’t like each other until they started dating each other. I had the student with very bad breath who no one wanted to work with. That is when I started handing out mints to anyone who wanted some for him/herself or his/her partner. But World War II hadn’t come up.
I asked the water polo student if he really thought the young Japanese woman he was paired with was responsible for World War II. (I had read The Rape of Nanking and even went to hear the author speak in San Francisco. It was horrific what happened in China during World War II.) However, are the children and grandchildren of that generation responsible for the “sins of their fathers”? My Chinese student didn’t want to answer my question concerning the responsibility of his Japanese partner. And yet, I thought that if he could work with this student for one week, he might gain a new experience that could change his perspective.
I told him that there were many national reasons students might have for not wanting to work with each other since countries in the past or even in the present have done or are doing terrible things to each other, but while everyone is sitting in a classroom together and trying to learn English, is it really the right time to bring in our animosities with us? I repeated my policy of working together with a partner for just one week, and that they couldn’t choose their partners. He didn’t like the idea, and I wish I could say that he and his partner lived happily ever after at least for a week. But that wasn’t the case. He reluctantly worked with the Japanese woman for the week. He did the bare minimum that he had to but nothing else. He liked to stare out the open door so that he didn’t have to interact with his partner.
This class had a number of Japanese and Chinese students in it, and they were inevitably going to be matched with each other. No other student seemed to have any problem with this, but this one champion water polo playing student seemed to. I didn’t know what to do. I started to not want to pair him up with anyone, but I decided against it. I paired him up with a non-Japanese student for the next week, and following week he had another Japanese woman as his partner. I observed him to see if he was ignoring this student as well, but he seemed to treat the Japanese woman as he had the non-Japanese student, which meant in a cordial and friendly way. It resolved itself more or less. After that incident, I started to wonder how many other students felt the same way as my Chinese student had about some partner s/he disliked for some national or religious reason and never said a word. Most ESL students are too polite to mention such a thing, but (I may be wrong here) I think that many students don’t even think in those terms.