Why do I teach ESL?
I teach because it is both challenging and rewarding. It gives me the opportunity to be innovative and creative while interacting with students from all over the world. Specifically, I teach ESL because I am continually inspired by the potential that English language classrooms have to be models of mutual respect across cultural, political, and religious boundaries. “It’s a lot harder to hate up close” couldn’t better describe a language learning classroom. All of the unlikely relationships I have seen form have had the commonality of being present in classrooms that were filled with empathy and passion, all aided by teachers who were socially aware. It is this potential that motivated me to initially enter the field of ESL pedagogy.
How do I teach?
I hold the firm belief that as an English language educator it is my responsibility to be consciously aware of the theory behind what I teach and stay informed of the latest research and materials. With respect to second language acquisition theory, my teaching philosophy is based on a blend of pedagogies to accommodate diverse learning styles, drawing heavily from critical language, communicative, and project-based pedagogical approaches to language acquisition. However, student-centered learning is at the forefront of all of my classes. Notable facets of my philosophy include:
- Learners’ background knowledge
- Relevant social context
- Student creativity
- Relationships (student–student; student–teacher; teacher–class)
- Technological adaptation
Learners’ background knowledge.
I begin each class with the belief that all students arrive with pre-existing knowledge (experiential or linguistic) which aids in their learning process. Every student who enters my classroom brings with them their own diverse set of experiences with regards to cultural content, ranging from those who know the ins and outs of world news, US history, and American pop culture to those who have never heard of slavery or The Beatles. These differing gaps in knowledge have solidified my belief that there is no “one-size fits all” way to teach language; I respect who my students are right now when they enter my classroom and personalize instruction to meet individual needs. In an attempt to ascertain and exploit students’ pre-existing knowledge, I survey all students to determine their knowledge of language, personality type, personal learning-styles, motivations, technological/social media expertise, and personal experience in order to develop their English abilities more efficiently. For instance, at the intermediate level, students are often just beginning to grasp the complexities of reading in English, and “reading for pleasure” assignments often turn into uninspired book reports—even when students self-select texts. Instead, I use information from their surveys to help students select books on topics that they already know something about (often buying or bringing in my own). This enables them to read books that otherwise might have been too difficult without having contextual knowledge, also increasing student motivation to read.
Situating learning in relevant social contexts.
While I firmly believe in teaching students the fundamentals of English, I also believe that it is important to instruct them in the appropriate use of language in different contexts. Thus, I always dedicate time to explaining different spoken and written genres while emphasizing their academic importance. To do this, I often utilize corpora, specifically the Corpus of Contemporary American English and the Michigan Corpus of Contemporary English. Expanding upon the traditional notion of genre, I also believe it is important to instruct students on “taboo” language (e.g., political correctness, swearing) and complex topics (e.g., tattoos, US drone policies, race, stereotypes) that require deeper levels of thinking both required and expected in academic courses. Traditionally, ESL materials focus on positive, light-hearted topics that don’t expose students to the language realities—or complexities—which they will encounter when interacting with college-aged peers. For this reason, I implement scaffolded academic conversations (pair, group, and whole class) throughout all levels to aid in the learning process. This incorporation of authentic English cultivates more actively engaged students. Students construct knowledge when it is relevant to them, and when they can identify a real purpose. I always try to connect the dots between the content and language skills I teach, emphasizing to my classes that what they are learning is important outside the four walls of our classroom. In addition to making learning relevant, I consciously design projects and activities that provide students with an audience, giving students context and purpose. Poster presentations are an example of this type of project, requiring students to interview someone from an academic department or organization that they are interested in (helping acclimate them to their new campus) and then create a poster to showcase the acquired information to their peers and invited guests.
Despite being one of the most important tools we as humans possess, I believe creativity is an underutilized tool in academic English classrooms. I emphasize to my students that risk-taking with language is a must—for both learners and fluent users. Taking chances and language risks leads to more learning opportunities. Activities I use to foster creativity in the classroom often revolve around some sort of role-play. Stepping into a role often sheds student insecurities, because now “they are someone else.”As an example activity from a reading course, I have had students step into the role of one of the characters from a novel or short story we are reading and create a social media page or cell phone profile for that character. Students have to infer about likes and dislikes of the character, providing rationale and concrete evidence from the text. The most creative language usually comes from “comments” or “texts” back-and-forth between characters where I am able to get a glimpse of students’ humor and personalities often not seen during class discussions. In addition to role-play, I have created podcast projects in which students develop their own episode based on a central question that interests them. They are required to do research, interview relevant persons, incorporate music and sound effects, and publish their podcast to the web for others to hear. This assignment gives students the ability to be creative while simultaneously showcasing their language abilities due to the fact that a podcast’s success relies on the speaker’s ability to convey emotion and ideas solely through voice.
It is my responsibility to create an environment conducive to learning. I consider the teacher–student relationship to be more of a partnership than a hierarchy; we are working together to accomplish something. My expectations for students are high, but always attainable. I serve not only as a facilitator and expert, but also as a friend and adviser, helping students understand the nuances of American culture, and further, American academic culture. For students to feel comfortable inquiring about cultural knowledge, a level of trust and mutual respect must exist. Equally important, is the need to foster the relationships that students have with one another in order to build a community of learners. This is best done by building a shared purpose. Perhaps one of my most successful strategies at building student relationships is organizing an event or dinner during week one and two of a session in order to get students out into the community. This provides them a space to learn more about one another outside the confines of the classroom. By doing this, typically in the weeks that follow, students continue to meet outside of class (without me) and form a close cohort based on shared experiences and purpose—they are in this together. In the classroom, these student relationships act as an extrinsic motivator, allowing for more critical discussions and increased student engagement; students support one another and want to see their classmates succeed. Even semesters later after they have matriculated into the university, I see former students who were in ELC classes together meeting with one another on a daily basis. This is something that I take great pride in because it is these relationships that have the capability build empathy, break down walls of misinformation, and promote cross-cultural understanding.
That technology permeates every facet of our lives is an unavoidable reality and has a place in the language learning classroom; however, its implementation should always make a point of putting pedagogy at the forefront of the lesson. I only use technology when it adds significant value to learning, though I do find that more often than not, it does. Our students are already engulfed in technology on a day-to-day basis, so why not take advantage of this reality. In my classrooms, I have used technology for authentic exposure to the target language, for out-of-class collaboration and interaction between students, student assignments (e.g., podcasts, screencasts), feedback, and to manage and organize learning (e.g. course management systems, Google apps, discussion boards). I have found that the use of classroom technology results in students being more engaged and motivated. students often post useful websites and interesting articles for their classmates to use or read without any instruction to do so. I believe having platforms outside of the classroom promotes learner autonomy, motivating learners to produce more language than they might have done otherwise. Simply put, technology allows me to be a better instructor, and students learn more.
While I always ask students to reflect upon what they have learned, I also continually self-reflect to improve my own teaching. Teaching is itself a learning activity, and teachers do not grow if they are unwilling to interrogate their own practices. Incorporating consistent self-reflection has allowed me to feel more confident that I am progressing as an instructor while also adapting to students’ suggestions, needs, and concerns. At the end of each session, I aggregate data acquired from instructor evaluations so that I am able to both quantitatively and qualitatively examine my teaching effectiveness. From this practice, I have been able recognize weaknesses and make adjustments, such as realizing that students wanted a physical handout to support a lesson. In addition to reading formal student evaluations, I annotate lesson plans and activities to note what worked, didn’t work, or could be added—often gaining insight from students and colleagues. Further, I keep a GoogleDoc teaching journal for longer notes and ideas. An additional form of self-reflection comes from my own end-of-the-semester surveys that students are asked to complete, which allows for more detailed, course-specific feedback on topics, activities, and assessments they liked best. Examining the learning process of students has become a central element of my self-examination. It is because of my willingness to reflect on the learning process, often trying to see the class through my students’ eyes, that I get to know my students—know how they learn, know what type of feedback they need, know when to step in and help, and know when to move aside. I often emphasize to my students that they are also teachers because through them, I am perpetually learning myself.