Saturday, March 24, 2012

Cultural and Interpersonal Factors in the Classroom

I mentioned previously that teaching English as a second or other language is a
unique field in several ways. Another aspect of this uniqueness is that the instructor is
supposed to instill the ability to perform an action, that action being socially appropriate
English speech, in a socially appropriate manner. This requires confidence on the part of the
speaker. Therefore it is the role of the teacher to help instill this confidence.

          To the best of my knowledge, instilling confidence is not an issue normally addressed
by teachers in fields such as history or mathematics, for instance. At times, as a person who
encourages students to perform actions confidently that they were previously unable to
perform, an instructor of ESL or TESOL is more of a “coach” than a typical classroom
teacher. And we can learn from coaches and other instructors of physical techniques like
martial arts or dance.

           For instance, although I have not done so in depth, I have encouraged students to
practice visualization to improve their confidence in both public and conversational spoken
English use. (This actually is a topic I hope to explore through further research in the future.)

          This study of visualization techniques originated in research into how emergency responders,
such as firefighters and police officers, are trained to perform complex techniques under
great stress.

           I try to push my students to do a little more by the end of my class than they thought
they were capable of at the beginning. For instance, all my speaking and writing classes at
Fudan include a segment on public speaking, an area where foreign professors in other
fields have told me their Chinese students lag behind their European or North American
peers. At first the students are quite nervous about speaking English in front of their
classmates, but, by the end of the course, after they've done it a few times, they are much
more confident. Many students have told me that the public speaking was one of the best
parts of my class. (Which actually touches on an unrelated side issue, a good class,
especially a required class where the students don't all wish to be there, should include some
beneficial activities that the students could not do outside of the classroom setting. In other
words, a good class should utilize the classroom setting and the presence of a teacher and
peer-students in ways so that the student can not complain that they could do the activities
easier and faster on their own at home, doubly so if attendance is required. Fortunately, this
is relatively easy to do in language teaching.)

         On the other hand, a good teacher recognizes that students are individuals and some
have different strengths and weaknesses. For instance, although I expect all students to
speak in front of the class, and have never had any really complain, I have been known to
very quietly slide some students, those students who show signs of what may be a serious
anxiety order or stuttering, ahead in the queue so that they do not have as much time to
worry before their turn to speak arrives.

          Similarly, we have the paradoxical need to increase a student's confidence in their
English while simultaneously correcting errors and providing feedback when mistakes are
done. I make no secret of the fact that I do not consider myself the smartest person in the
classroom. Nor do I pretend to know every single English word. I make it quite clear that the
English language is a living, growing, changing, multi-faceted thing and that I will never have
complete mastery over all of it and neither will they. Nor do I deny that there are accents and
dialects of English, including English spoken as a foreign language, that I find difficult to
understand. I make it clear that when Americans, native English speakers, start a course in a
new subject, be that subject first aid, gardening or cooking, learning new terminology and
new vocabulary is a normal part of the process. Similarly, at Fudan I use an activity where all
students must bring in an English language article from an academic journal in their field.
They then use the article to practice making proper quotations and citations. I make it very
clear to the students that although I have two master's degrees and read voraciously, I still
cannot make heads or tails out of some of the articles they bring in. Examples of some pieces
that I cannot understand might be highly technical pieces from peer reviewed research
journals in the fields of management, finance, molecular biology and chemical engineering
among others.

           In teaching refugees, especially, one must be quite aware that just because a person
has a deficit in one area does not indicate diminished intelligence elsewhere. The example
that often comes to mind when I say this is a refugee woman I knew who was able to use her
intelligence to manipulate much of the refugee center staff to do what she wished, but who I
later discovered had no idea how to change a light bulb in a lamp. (Due to poverty and lack
of electricity in many refugee camps, many refugees do not know how to change light bulbs
in lamps. Often this can easily be detected by looking at their lamps and discovering broken
light bulbs stuck in the sockets. The broken glass comes from people trying to yank out the
bulbs, instead of twisting and unscrewing them. When I asked this person if she could
change light bulbs, she just looked at me and said, “Do I look like an electrical expert?”)

         Ideally homework should be of the sort where students who do it can see that by doing
the homework they are improving their ability to meet the goals and expectations of the class.
I have noted a clear correlation in many cases between poor performance on the final and
not doing homework. In fact, one important purpose of homework is to catch students who
have problems so they can be corrected before the final exam comes. For this reason, I do
not allow homework that is more than two weeks late. (At Fudan, some students request to
do all of their homework at the end of the course. I know of one case, fortunately, not in my
class, where a student began turning in all her homework after her final exam. This
emphasizes the need to make expectations clear, particularly when dealing with people from
multiple cultures. )

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