I am not a typical teacher. I don’t plan to define what typical is, but I stand by my claim. I have participated in educational programming for almost two decades in programs that include writing centers, learning centers, volunteer community ESL programs, and prison composition courses. I have taught both college and university courses in composition and ESL, introductory linguistics for mainstream students as well as ESL “content-based-instruction.” I also instruct tutor training courses. I have taught in live, hybrid and online delivery models. From this variety, I have learned flexibility and responsiveness for a multitude of instructional contexts. I exercise a student-centered, positive, and collaborative learning space where I coax students through phases of content and context complexity.
I find myself leaning toward the science of learning in the classroom and balancing context-embedded language experiences with directly addressing language theory; this comes as a sum of ideas from learning theorists: Bloom, Piaget, Vygotsky, Freire; and language theorists: Krashen, Chomsky, Cummins, and VanPatten. Though I use my linguistics training and do not hide its influence, (why would I hide what I love?) the students do not experience it as cerebral tedium. My teaching style is responsive, flexible and playfully intuitive.
My classroom is a student-centered environment where co-learners experience emotional contagion— a subtle combination of trust and mimicry, described by theorists in cognitive science and psychology. The process requires me to “tell one on myself,” to model honest reflection. I share my own interests, inviting them to do the same, to keep the topics interesting so that the language practiced is genuine and engaging. I reflect on my weaknesses as a student, learner, reader, writer, and researcher. Again, I invite reciprocation. It is playful. I let students challenge the role of teacher (to a point).
Recently, a linguistics student challenged me to read Nineteen Eighty Four (is it shameful that I hadn’t?) She assigned me the reading and a discussion day. She has docked me 10% for being late, but the game continues. Counter intuitively, this “play” is an exact application of the science of learning.
My classroom is a laboratory where I refine my teaching formula and then teach students to exercise power over their own learning/acquisition process. In class students learn metacognitive strategies: they toy with taxonomies, learning styles, study habits, critical thinking, and their idiomatic biology of learning. In an ESL classroom, students need responsive methods that individualize their learning and expose them to communicative opportunities in a safe environment. Responsiveness means experimentation and reflection.
I keep myself responsive by journaling on experience and research because “teachable moments” arise unexpectedly. Recently, I began seeing an ELL nursing student in a tutoring context for reading. In our first five minutes, she appeared tense and inflexible. When I began a typical conversation to inquire about her strategies for reading she chastised me, “I am Japanese and a nurse. I have to be strict so I don’t kill anyone. I don’t have time for strategies. I have to just read.”
I agree that no one should die. To help her read, though, I needed to engage her humor so that she would relax. I also knew I would have to model strategies, like paraphrasing, to prove that they work. After a few weeks, she is rephrasing difficult vocabulary like “titrate from 7 stools” into humorously memorable ones like “count the bacteria in the poo poo.” She laughs, asks questions about my reading strategies and reads more efficiently. Her praise is as direct as her rejection was, “You are good. You know how to help me.”
I am interested in the cognitive aspects of learning and technologies to support it. I maintain my connection to my field by teaching linguistics and tutoring ESL, reading and writing as well as in projects like Academic Literacy where I design an ESL curriculum and tutor training. On occasion, when I need to refresh my own motivation, I reflect on one exquisite student evaluation from my linguistics course, “This was a difficult class. We were taught well.”
I can imagine no greater praise.
Image credit (left) Student photographer, Tyler Webster