GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Posts Tagged ‘ESL’

Being Creative in a Safe Space

In Vistas from Venus on 2010/04/09 at 09:00

Last night, Mizoni, one of the  Japanese students in my Pronunciation class, stuck out her freshly painted bright red toenails, and wiggled her toes, chanting “Red Sox! Red Sox!” as she pointed to her bare feet.    I chuckled, but then got worried; this was an ESL class. Maybe she didn’t know the word for toe nails!  Wanting to fulfill my teaching responsibilities, I launched into a vocabulary lesson on toes, toe nails, nail polish, socks, and baseball.

My sense of responsibility to teach spills over into my administrative role as well.  The time has finally come when I am  no longer the youngest person in the room at my many weekly meetings.  Younger women are looking to me for leadership and advice.  I want to deliver.

I was recently assigned a mentor and I met with her over tea this morning.  I have been reflecting with her on my strengths and weaknesses, trying to figure out what I want to achieve in  my work life, and what skills I need to develop to get there.  She assured me that she doesn’t have the answers either, but that she could provide a safe place for me to talk about it, which is really all that I am looking for. For me, having an opportunity to discuss these things with a colleague is extremely valuable. Although academia is about learning, on the administrative side, we are expected to just figure things out. There seems to be an illusion that our work lives are more collaborative than those of the faculty. In reality, problem-solving is usually a solitary activity. People are often hesitant to take the risk of openly brain-storming in public. A mentoring relationship provides a safer space for sharing ideas and sparking creativity.

Being a mentor is making a commitment to someone in a caring way.  A mentor prepares her protégés for changes that are about to come.  She helps them understand change and provokes discussion about how to adapt to the changes when they do come.  A mentor demonstrates the skills she has learned.  A mentor asks questions, like “What have you learned from this experience?” and “How useful was it?”  Mentors help protégés realize their potential.  They also demonstrate that personal credibility is as essential to success as skills are, perhaps even more so.

In many ways, mentoring is like teaching.  I established a teaching persona to demonstrate my credibility as a leader of the class.  I create a safe space for students to take risks.  I provoke students to reflect on their experience.  I enjoy their humor and their unique personalities.

After her meeting with me this morning, my mentor was going off to have a manicure and pedicure with another young woman that she works with.  I wonder if she chose Red Sox red.

Meg Palladino

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The Emergence of Spring

In Vistas from Venus on 2010/04/02 at 09:00

Live each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.

Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862)

It finally stopped raining, and the sun will come out today, bringing the warmth of spring. On my way to work this morning, I noticed the bright yellow daffodils, and the deep purple crocuses. It is a fresh new day.

In accordance with the Japanese academic calendar, I am preparing to teach a new course that begins next week, another fresh start. The thing I love about teaching is the cycles. The course ends, and the work is complete. The course begins: a new slate. It is very satisfying. Teaching feels very organic. When I am in the classroom,I respond to the things around me: the questions students ask, the material we are working on, the wonder of the ladybug that crawls across the chalkboard. My stress is around getting grades in on time, and my success is measured by the lessons my students have learned, demonstrated as I correct their final papers.

The rhythm of my role as an administrator is dictated by a fiscal year calendar. The stress comes from the pressures to meet revenue and enrollment targets. In September, we are planning for July. In July, we are thinking about January. In January, we are anticipating September. My thoughts are always in the wrong season. Some projects have no end. Administration can also be satisfying, but the pleasure of seeing a successful program is so delayed that by the time the students arrive, their programs are set up, and I have moved on to the next task.

Like the ladybug crawling across the chalkboard, there are always surprises. We make three-year and five-year plans, never really knowing what will happen. In international education, you can never predict Swine-flu, a global financial crisis, or 9-11. We plan now for what we think will happen then, always tweaking along the way.

On my way to work this morning, I stopped to buy some things to prepare for my new class. Influenced by the spring, I bought a purple folder, to remind me of the crocuses, and a yellow folder, the color of the daffodils. I am looking forward to meeting my new students next week.

Meg Palladino

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Compromise: An agreement between two men to do what both agree is wrong.

In Vistas from Venus on 2010/03/19 at 09:00

I started my first professional teaching job at the age of 22. I taught English as a Second Language at a private language school. I was armed with a Master’s degree, a three-month teaching practicum, and some informal teaching experience. In other words, I was completely unprepared.

My students were wealthy international students who came to the US for one or two months to study English while exploring the city and American culture. They went to a lot of clubs and enjoyed freedom that they would not have at home. Many of them were about my age; some were considerably older.
I taught an older doctor from Egypt who was very serious about his grammar studies. I had a Bulgarian judo master with a stutter. I taught a teenager from Mexico who wore black lipstick, and a young German woman who wanted to practice swearing-in English, and couldn’t understand why I was upset when she swore in class. During the world cup, I had a group of Brazilian students who came to class dressed in their national flag, and skipped class for several days to watch soccer in a Brazilian bar. I had one class that had only four students: Maria, Jose, Jesus and a priest. We all attended the priest’s first mass in English. (I was so proud!) I learned something about teaching from each of these students.

The student that made the biggest impact on me was a young Russian student. He was fun-loving, rebellious, self-important and stubborn. He challenged me in class constantly. During the first exam in my class, he blatantly cheated. He looked directly at me, smiled, looked at his neighbor’s paper, copied the answer, looked back at me, and then at his neighbor’s paper, copied another answer. It was a direct challenge, and I had no idea what to do.

After a night of tossing and turning, I went to the class the next day with the exams. I told the whole class that someone in the class had cheated, and I threw away all of the exams. I gave them a second test. They all quietly took the second exam. My Russian student did not cheat this time. His attitude changed; he had a new respect for me.

Teachers have expectations about the students in their classes, and their motivations for taking the course. Likewise, students have their own expectations from their classes and teachers. Both must meet in the middle.

Note: The title is a quote by Lord Edward Cecil

Meg Palladino

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The Daughters at the String Shop

In Vistas from Venus on 2010/03/12 at 09:00

There are two daughters at the string shop in Osaka
The oldest daughter is sixteen years old and the youngest daughter is fourteen years old.
Japanese samurai kill their enemies with arrows.
The Japanese daughters at the string shop kill men with their eyes.

This poem is used to teach Japanese students how to write a proper essay. Japanese essay style is made up of the “ki” (introduction), “sho” (development), “ten” (turning point), and the “ketsu” (conclusion).

The cultural nature of writing makes teaching and evaluating it very difficult and learning to write in a new culture is one of the most difficult things about learning a new language. In some cultures, you only give main ideas and let the readers supply details. Other cultures will only give small details and let the reader decide the main idea. Other cultures take a long time building up the relationship between the writer and the reader before coming to the main point. In the Japanese style, the “ten” is used to get the reader’s attention. American style is to give big ideas up front, provide the details and examples, and to repeat them again and again; the reader has few responsibilities.

On a daily basis, I confront careful decision-making about student writing, trying to decide what is good enough writing for a student to be successful in an American academic classroom. Expecting international students to write perfectly, with no accent, is unrealistic. I look for writing that has meaningful ideas that are clearly expressed. I don’t want to struggle to understand what the student is trying to say. Grammatical errors that don’t interfere with meaning are unimportant.

Every summer, I grow tomatoes in containers on my back porch. I take special pains to get good, organic seeds, and tend to them very carefully, feeding them and watering them. I am so excited when I see the first green tomatoes. My dog gets excited too. He has a special talent for choosing them at his perfect moment of ripeness, ripping them off the vine, and eating them the day before I want to pick them. His estimate of the perfect tomato is one day off from mine.

Every fall, students write their essays for their classes. They take special pains to choose the perfect words, and correct all of the grammar. They think they are ready when they have checked them for spelling and grammar. One teacher looks at organization and tries to perfect the grammar. I look for clear meaning. Both are good enough.

Meg Palladino

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When Entering the Village, Obey the Village

In Vistas from Venus on 2010/02/26 at 09:00

Every fall, I teach a course at a Japanese women’s university.  These young women come to the US from their University in Tokyo to study English and American culture.  When I step on to the campus, it is like stepping into a different world.

Each one of the students seems to have the same haircut: long hair with long bangs, a few streaks of lighter blonde breaking up the black.   They are all wearing colorful Crocs on their feet, sweat pants and hoodies.   They are all 19 years old, and they seem to have similar names: Yuka, Yoko, Yuki, Yukari, Yukiko, Yukako, Yuriko, Keiko and Reiko, Mio and Miho.

They appear cheerful, shy and polite.  It takes a long time for their personalities to emerge, and for me to know them without a name tag, or if they change seats in the classroom.

Each student is perfectly punctual, and everyone has done her homework.  They giggle together quietly, or sing songs until I close the door.  A hush descends on the class that is difficult to lift.  For 90 minutes, I talk and they listen. I ask them questions, and I have to fish for answers.  Unless I call on students by name, my questions will be met with silence.  They want to be called on.  They never volunteer to speak.

In this environment, my usual casual, communicative teaching style doesn’t work.  If I ask the students to work in groups, they speak Japanese.  If we try to have a conversation, it consists of me asking questions, and them answering the questions.  I become a lecturing, drill and kill, round-robin instructor.  I feel like I am doing a terrible job, and not connecting with my students at all.

But at the end of the semester, they are sad that the class is over. I finally know their names, and I know that Yuka has a pet turtle and Yoko likes snowboarding; Reiko loves reading, while Keiko is a fantastic singer.  They know about my family, how I spent my weekends, and the last movie I saw in the theater.  We have a party with cake, and everyone takes pictures.  The students cry, and tell me how much they loved my class.  I get high evaluations on my teaching, and I realize that I am going to miss them.

To teach is also to learn.  Even though we are in America, I am in their territory.  I am the Outsider.   I need to change to meet their expectations, or I will not be successful here. Teaching these students has taught me to dig a little deeper and look for more subtle differences than those that I would find in my other classrooms.

Meg Palladino

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I’m a Phoebe. What are you?: The Six Personalities of Americans

In Vistas from Venus on 2010/02/19 at 09:00

On the first day of class, I always try to do an ice breaker.  One of my favorites is to ask students to tell us about their name.   Why was this name chosen?  What does it mean?  Often this exercise helps me remember students’ names and helps me learn a little more about them.

In my nearly 15 years of teaching English as a Second Language at the University level, I have put a lot of thought into how I present myself.  With a wide array of students from different cultures in every classroom, I always want to be sure that I am not too alienating to any of the students, so that I can build relationships with them.  Creating this trust between us helps them invest more in the class material.  In addition to trusting me, the students need to learn to trust one other.   Creating the culture of the multinational classroom is a negotiation among all of our cultures.

As students get to know each other and get to know me, each student tries to create a frame of reference for our characters that they can relate to.  Inevitably, students ask me my zodiac sign (Pisces), my Chinese zodiac (Rabbit), and even my blood type (I am not sure, but my Japanese students suspect that I am an AB, because I can be outgoing yet shy, trustworthy and somewhat responsible).  By knowing these things about me, students feel that they “know” me and can get on to the business of learning.

Once, on the first day of class, one of my Chinese students announced that he would be comfortable in the US because he already knew about the Six Personalities of Americans.  I have never heard of this one before.  My student went on to explain his theory that all Americans fit into one of the six personalities of “Friends” characters.  There is the Rachel type: spoiled, image-conscious and fashionable.  The Monica type is an obsessive, bossy, neat-freak.  The Phoebe types are naive, straightforward and artistic.  Joey types are simple-minded, sensitive and promiscuous, while Chandlers are funny and loyal friends.  The final type is Ross, a good-natured, nerdy and socially awkward character.  According to my student (who identified himself as a “Chandler”), I am a Phoebe.

This student had clearly been studying the  English language and American culture through American TV shows.  I was surprised when , all of the other students in the class latched on to this idea.  Not all of them knew about blood types and zodiac signs, but all of them had seen episodes of “Friends.”   This TV show created the cultural bridge that connected the students, and helped create a safe space for students to take risks.

It’s important that those of us working with international students seize the cross-cultural opportunities that present themselves.  My best planned icebreaker was nowhere near as effective as “Chandler’s” approach to understanding Americans. The best classroom moments are those when our students teach us how to make those safe spaces.

Next time you are in a meeting that has gone on for too long, try categorizing the attendees into the Six Personalities of Americans. Not everyone may fit into one of the personalities, but you will enjoy yourself in the process and you will have learned a lesson from my international student.