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Thoughts on the Teaching Experience

1)Attending to the Learner

It was extremely gratifying, upon my arrival in the class being run by Dora, to discover the vitality and enthusiasm which the students retained for the subject of English language learning. I have been quite cognizant, during the coursework leading up to the Practicum, of the ongoing commentary on support for the learner, maintenance of their self-esteem, and the efficacy of engaged minds when learning the intricacies of a second (or third) language.

The only language-learning experience I have academically was through the Albertan public-school system, wherein first we watched a television show which presented rote learning (“ecouté et repeatér”), and then in middle school the disengaging verbs and permutations with which we were to explain our needs when travelling abroad (“Je pouvez, nous pouvons”). The end result of these years of learning is a piecemeal cereal-box understanding which breaks down rapidly in conversation, and collapses completely when looking at a page of French text.

Yet, here were engaged, enthused young adults from China, Japan, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Korea laughing with each other, chatting (sometimes laboriously, but chatting nonetheless) about things they’d seen or done, and sometimes even breaking into song! Clearly, rote learning was not boring these students to death. Of course, they probably had personal motives to support this engagement, which I would learn about later.

The teacher’s approach is one that I would most happily emulate, and can only hope to create amongst groups of strangers in the future: direct contact with each student, engaging with their immediate presence, and often discussing previous or future situations as one would do with any peer or acquaintance. The classroom appears not to be a competitive ring, wherein the Teacher attempts to force the Students to do her bidding, but rather a place of collaboration. The impression of working towards a mutual goal is strengthened by the Teacher’s (and hopefully my own) empathy for the challenges the Student faces.

Vocabulary may be difficult, but the class is formulated as a mutually supportive area, where Students can assist other Students with problems that crop up, and are continually encouraged (and provoked) to discuss the matters at hand with each other. there was Pair Work and Group Work happening in the first class I attended, and it happened regularly afterwards, creating many opportunities for the Students to speak and listen (as the class is titled).

I must admit that I initially thought the Teacher’s strong personality would overwhelm and subdue the Students’ voices and interactions, based on classes I have attended myself in the past: it can be much more interesting to see what the Teacher is going to do, rather than interrupt and participate.

However, the Pair and Group Work that was so regularly catalyzed had clearly been established early on, and by the time I began observing the class all the Teacher needed to do was ask them to begin working in one or the other of these formats, and the Students began to orchestrate their discussions and produce results.

The question this apparent ease presented was, how does the Teacher know if they’re really doing the needed work? And the answer which was not first obvious was by listening to the Groups/Pairs in general while speaking with specific class members during the activities.

2Teaching Strategies

One of the benefits of TSL109.016’s timing was that I have had an MA (Environmental Design) student to tutor during the length of Dora’s class. My student presented me with several challenges which paralleled, and some of which contradicted, his peers in the ESL class.

It was not until I began to run him through some of the vocabulary quizzes, which the Teacher had formatted as a two-person interaction, that I began to discriminate some of the issues my own student faced. The double-blind nature of the TSL109.016 quiz forced the Student to pronounce something unfamiliar, and for their partner to try and transcribe what they were hearing. This proved, with my own student, to clarify his mispronunciation of many different sounds, and upon repetition in later sessions we could make reference to the correct sounds as we determined when reviewing the words the first time, the second time, and even the third time (on occasion).

The conversational approach, forgoing formality for engagement, is a format which I have found useful in general application as an interviewer and freelance writer. I appreciated the ease which this atmosphere created in discussions interactions, which seems to me to be the whole point of a communicative course like English as a Second Language. Were this class about English for Academic Purposes, the environment might require more formality to achieve it’s goals, but with Speaking & Listening the learning centre is clearly more receptive while comfort levels are high. It also meant that the programming could be adjusted to deal with new situations as they arose, whether it be a discussion of a student’s new boots, and how they were acquired,

I wondered at first, given my own spontaneous disposition, if the Teacher would encourage enough organization in my own approach to give me the tools for greatest benefit, but I have discovered that it is the general direction of the coursework that forms the spine for each class, not a small series of checkboxes to tick off. At first, I didn’t even refer to the textbook during observation, as it’s application appeared to be rather amorphous. After looking more closely at the supplemental information available in the Teacher’s Manual, however, I discovered that the Teacher had been applying this optional material based on the Students’ abilities, and her own sense of what would challenge them. This was an insight that surprised me, having been in enough schools to recognize most pedagogies, if not be able to actually name them.

3Learner Motivation

One of the benefits of facing an ESL class with a visual limitation is the requirement that Students talk to me for interactional purposes. I cannot be assumed to see heads nodding, hand gestures, or other minor physical communications as go on within most group settings. With every student I teach, singularly or in a group setting, I begin by bringing this issue to the forefront of our interaction, to prevent misunderstanding, miscommunication, or simple neglect.

In some situations such an admission/discussion might prove useless or worse, but I’ve generally found that when people are encountered as individuals, they are very caring and accepting of the differing needs that I present them with. And it requires a greater awareness of communicative strategies, used by both the Student and myself. The Student’s motivation for communication becomes much more basic to a speaking/listening class if they have to express themselves verbally, and listen to instructions as much as read them.

Motivations in this particular class lend themselves to making the entire process easier. The Students are generally in Canada for less than a year, sometimes only a few months, or travelling back and forth to their home country to work or school, trying to gain as much ability as they can while here. The students I have tutored in my own business, from Saudi Arabia and China, have generally been most interested in improving their ability to interact normally while in English-speaking countries: integrative.

The Students in 109.016 were less clear about their reasons, but given the tenor of the conversations in which they engaged, and the extracurricular questions they asked of the Teacher or I, their motivations again seemed to be a cultural participation more than the mechanical needs of a job or a course. While the Japanese girls often discussed foods they all would make or music tastes they shared, chattering in normally cheerful tones (even when describing a long-distance breakup with a boy back home), the young men (from China, Korea, Saudi Arabia and Brazil) interacted in a similar manner, with each other and the above-mentioned women. The atmosphere of the classroom was more like the kitchen of a youth hostel than a classroom with a formal curriculum. Some of this is undoubtedly the result of the Teacher’s bon-vivre, but a fair bit of that element came from the Students themselves.

More than one Student has come to Canada multiple times in their language efforts, and one of these, a Japanese girl, mentioned that she loved Canada and it seems unlikely that she is here simply to learn English. The Brazilian man also said he’s been here before, and will likely return, and he did mention a desire to improve his pronunciation even further, but for what reason was never clarified.

While one or two of the male students, and occasionally one of the female students (who were almost all Japanese) occasionally liked to engage the attention of the class,  the sole Korean man and in general the Japanese students tended to wait for a question to draw them specifically out. Certain members of both genders enjoyed participating at the board, drawing, writing or demonstrating something for the benefit of the rest, and the Teacher made particular mention of her use of these Students’ energies in a manner that kept them engaged (which was more difficult for them when simply sitting and listening).

4The Learner as Cultural Being

The most exhilarating part of any class was when the Students would start to address the cultural differences in which they swam, like salmon upriver: whether it was the Chinese man staying home on the weekend to “drink liquor, watch t.v., eat strawberries, and enjoy capitalist society”; or the Japanese man saying he thought Canadians had pets because “they have big, empty, lonely houses” to fill; or the Koreans (male and female) agreeing that body modification for beauty was suitable for both men and women (while noting that normally it was the female citizen who would displayed beauty because it is the male who responds to such manipulations, and how that is the opposite of what occurs in most wildlife). Nearly all of these Students are clearly comfortable addressing the concepts of societal differences, and once engaged in the conversation of such, were very enthused and involved.

Alternatively, to try and divest the language of Canada from the cultural vestments it wears would be to deprive it of much of its beauty and charm. When the class was discussing the ramifications of a small girl being chased around a farmyard by a large gander, and the reactions of those who come to her rescue, the language is indelibly etched into the scene (‘screaming bloody murder’, ‘Granny’, washday, ‘your goose is cooked’).  Whether it’s the Teacher describing correcting spell-check programs with American dictionaries imbedded in them, or my discussion of the origins of the Occupy movement in a Vancouver magazine, which is then presented for a anti-consumptionist discussion, the culture is both affected by, and an

affecter of, the language, and cannot be properly separated.

5The Language of Feedback to Error

Much of the more definitive feedback that occurred in this class was instrumental and interactive: pronunciation required frequent commentary, with Students emulating the Teacher’s production and repeating it to modify their own production. Whether it was vowels delineated on the board  and then described/demonstrated to the class with their subsequent imitation, or intonation patterns being described within the parameters of positive or negative utterances, or discussions (and demonstrations) of mnemonics for producing subtle vowel differences, these feedbacks were intended to get the Students practicing the methods of making the sounds while in the safety of the group utterance. Rarely did the Teacher draw a Student out into the spotlight to address a specific issue with the nature of a sound, except for one or two instances where a more confident Student was used to demonstrate a specific difficulty. Even so, the convivial camaraderie of the classroom generally prevented these instances from becoming a spotlight on one’s inabilities.

The Teacher almost never said ‘No,” or that something was ‘Incorrect,’, instead preferring to produce the corrected sound for the Student’s repetition, and usually again including the whole class in the repetition, reinforcing the communal support and moving quickly away from any judgmental focus on an individual’s error. I’m sure this approach added to the positive attitude the Students possessed, and I attempted to emulate this in my responses to Students’ answers, asking the class if they agreed with an answer, or scaffolding around responses that needed correction for the whole class’ benefit.

When I first arrived, the Teacher occasionally had to stop the more extroverted Students from answering when she spoke to the less effusive ones, but as the class continued I noticed their patience growing, allowing the other Students the quiet to produce the needed material, which they usually knew as well as the other, less reserved ones. On one occasion a moderately comfortable Student launched into a highly specific definition of a very general, simple phrase, and it was necessary to agree that what he said was accurate, but much more difficult in meaning that the simple use of the word in that sentence. He seemed to respond to the correction, though it was a strange situation to be in in that class. I suppose that he understood the idea, but was placing it in the wrong context, which is probably a common occurrence.

More extended feedback interactions tended to happen one-on-one, or when speaking to pairs or groups. As mentioned, the extended corrections were not generally done in front of the whole class, and while this could prove difficult in a larger class, where things might need to be addressed as they occur because of time constraints, such seemed not to be the case here.

Finally, the Students’ willingness to thoughtfully reply to questions and ideas which came up during class discussion seems like the best indication of a successful feedback loop. If the channel remains open, even when the learner is uncertain or, on occasion, has no idea how to respond, then the Teacher’s interaction seems definitely constructive. Learners, of course, do not simply acquire a fact or behaviour and move on, but instead must deal with conscious and unconscious filters, which hopefully the Teacher is cognizant of, and can therefore bypass. By the end of the TSL109.016 experience, Students were admitting immediately when they did not know how to respond, and while they did not frequently ask for assistance from the Teacher, they did get help from their peers, which strikes me as perhaps more important. Part of this is likely related to the ongoing interactions the Teacher would engage during the class, which might prevent a Student from wanting to interrupt with a question of their own. One Japanese girl stood next to me for several minutes with my coffee, waiting for me to stop speaking with Dora, not remembering that I did not even see her there because of my peripheral vision issues. The same reticence probably affects her classroom participation, though she is quite willing to interact in one-on-one situations (which is how she ended up going to get me coffee).

I can only hope the experience was as positive and helpful for the Students as it was for me.

TSL 109.116 by Carey Rutherford: Thoughts on the Teaching Experience