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Fall 2005

NYU Strike Can't Stop NYSTESOL

New Profile: James Asher

New Profile: Mary Giles

In Memory of Nadia Shahin

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ESL MiniConference Online!

“WATCHING YOU IS LIKE THE FUNNY OPERA!”: Memories from the ESL Classroom
Achievement Profile Interview with Mary Giles

Mary Giles, on the Mass Ave. Bridge

1. What is your main ESL activity now?

Now? Giving public talks about culture, using lessons learned in the ESL classroom. (Also pondering my next job, probably in some smaller town in some other part of the country.) Outside work, all day long I watch culture change and develop: on the subway, in the grocery store, at gas stations. Just for fun, I write a little culture newsletter, about how we are all doing our best to navigate our way along.

2. How did you start your ESL related career?

I was majoring in Russian, and wanted to teach English in Russia. I studied TESL at the University of Kansas while working at the Applied English Center, learning from other teachers and certainly from my mentors, Betty Soppelsa and Chuck Seibel.

3. What are some of the language/culture backgrounds with which you are most familiar?

1. Russian social values instilled by (and also despite) the Soviet system of education and socialization.
2. The effect of afflictions and trauma, and how recovery can deepen people’s awareness, sensitivity, and creative communication style.

4. (reversing 4 and 5) What do you see as the most important issues facing the ESL/EFL language teaching profession today?

Life issues which affect classroom learning.

5. If you had to give three pieces of advice to a new teacher working with English language learners, what would these be?

Advice? Oh my... “Don’t do what I did”? I made so many mistakes in intercultural classrooms. That’s why I left ESL and went into culture work; I mean, it’s hard to know now: Did anyone really learn their pluperfect from me? But, looking back, it’s the mistakes and especially their lessons that remain with me, because they accidentally worked out well.

(And by the way, if anyone reading this was a student of mine, you are so welcome to email me and share your own stories and let me know how you are doing!)

For example, a good rule would be, “Don’t give away your undergarments as a gift.” I wouldn’t try doing that today. But, one time an older Indonesian gentleman, very small and frail-looking, came to class on a terrible Kansas winter day with a wind chill well below zero. He didn’t own proper winter clothes. The building was freezing. He was shivering and dazed. There was no coffee machine on the premises; I was afraid to send him back across campus to his dorm. So I ran to the Ladies’ room, changed out of my Army-Navy waffle-weave thermals, wrapped them in a bag, beckoned the student out to the hall, and said “You go put these on right now!” For all I know, this dignified Muslim gentleman threw them in the wastebasket; we never mentioned the incident again. But he reappeared five minutes later with a gracious bow and a smile and spent the rest of the class looking much healthier. So, who knows.

In another class I had the habit of prancing around while writing at the blackboard; just hopping from foot to foot. Finally at the end of the year I realized something. “Oh no! Guys! I keep accidentally showing the sole of my shoe when writing up here. Please, I apologize. It was never meant as an insult.” One student replied “Never mind, Miss Mary. We all understand that you don’t know what you are doing. Watching you is like the funny opera.”

In a Grammar class, I made some mild observation about their upcoming standardized “Michigan” test. Well! These sweet students suddenly exploded with anger about the pressure they felt to perform on that test. I tried to start the class. Nothing doing! They were mad and they were going to tell me all about it! And there was not a thing I could do but listen for the whole hour. I felt so embarrassed at losing control of that Grammar period. Next day I came to class with a pretty glass bowl of water with some pine needles and a flower in it, and I set it in the middle of the room and put the chairs in a circle. The students trooped in, all contrite and apologetic. “Miss, we are sorry about our complaining storm. Maybe you should bring your complaint umbrella!” Then they saw the bowl and said “Oh! Miso soup?” I said “No, this is our worry bowl. From now on, at the start of class we will take our Michigan worries and with deep breathing we will transfer this stress into the water before starting class.” They said “Teacher! You did not bring a big enough bowl.” But then they all snapped into Zen state for the next 3 minutes, like angels, and then they tucked right in to their Grammar every day after that.

The biggest mistake was on March 12, 1982. (Yes, it was that memorable.) The dorms were closing for Spring Break. I was alarmed about the welfare of my 30 students. Where would they go? So I gave out invitations to a dinner party at my house with a map, and my address and phone number. Students could come at any time, and if they needed a place to stay they could camp on my floor. I insisted that I didn’t want them wandering the streets without shelter, and they should CALL me if they were lost. The students all took the invitations happily, nodding with eagerness at the prospect. So, I whipped up endless amounts of lasagna and Challah bread for 30 and invited some AEC colleagues, and…… No students showed up. Zero. NO students could read my map?? I stayed beside the phone, running out to the street every five minutes. I dialed up every one of them over and over. No answer. I called their dorms. I called Campus Information to ask whether students in distress had called there. Sitting in my home surrounded by cooling pasta, I pictured my frightened lonely students, wandering the dark streets with poor pluperfect skills. Robb Scott lingered with the other teachers, organizing a dishwashing detail under the flimsy pretext of scrubbing casserole pans, really to keep me from climbing the walls. Once they all left, from sheer stress I ended up with an asthma attack and spent the rest of the night bracing myself upright on the limb of a walnut tree out front. Back in class again a few days later, the students smiled politely but had not a word to say about their Break or my party. Finally a teacher go-between (I don’t remember who; probably Mr. Kitchen Patrol) intervened and let me know what had happened. 1. My students had assumed that my overnight shelter camp-out was a Light-Behavior Party, something they had been warned about as an American norm; out of kindly feelings for me, they were careful to look as if they had every intention of attending when in fact they’d all agreed to pretend they were lost. 2. A kindly Christian group had placed them all with wonderful host families in Kansas City well in advance, and they’d been touring the Plaza and enjoying a beautiful church service and hearty meal while I was at home sleeping in a tree. In some way, through yet another teacher go-between or the same one, they understood that I’d meant no harm. After that they were actually able to joke heartily with me, about the night they all got hopelessly lost finding a house 4 blocks from campus.

The following two incidents have been an incredible source of consolation over the years.

One student utilized my Advanced Writing class as a refreshing naptime in the back row. I finally asked him privately, “Excuse me, would you prefer a less boring teacher?” He said “No, you are just the right teacher because you let me sleep.” So, in a huffy miff, I went to some wiser instructors and said “What is going on here?” One of them quietly clued me in: this young man had somehow survived searing tribulations, keeping his mind and soul intact without a word of complaint or self-pity. After that my annoyance turned to awe. Hoping to at least keep him in the class, I invested serious prayer in this young man, entrusting his obviously capable guardian angel to get him through the Michigan test with or without me. In class the student began to listen with interest, and to offer unusually profound insights in our discussions. On the last day of class he came to me and said “So, what did you teach this semester? Can you summarize it for me now?” We looked through the book and he said “Oh, is that all? Okay.” He then told me his remarkable story. A few days later he passed his test very well. Afterwards he said (but much more eloquently) “From now on, if you ever need help, my house is your house and my friends are your friends.”

Another student was so shy that she could not speak in class. The class was Intensive Russian I Drill, and half the grade was repeating a 10-line dialogue every Monday. She was a good student, but simply could not get up in front of people and recite. Finally as the drill instructor I had to tell her that she was going to fail my recitation class. She was in such distress at this news that (still in silence) she began wringing her hands; but the gestures seemed strikingly delicate and complex. Under emotional duress, she had actually begun thinking in American Sign Language; her fingers were automatically forming traces of her thoughts. She confided that she was studying ASL as a hearing student at the local university for the Deaf community! Suddenly, the same light bulb occurred to both of us: why not sign the dialogues in ASL instead of speaking them in Russian? What did we have to lose? She was so comfortable in the Deaf community that we thought it might actually help her connect with the Russian as well. It worked! The following Monday, she got up and Signed her dialogue with grace and flair. The class oohed and ahhed with wonder. We were enchanted, seeing dialogues about black bread and cucumbers in the Lenin Corner transformed into such poetry, and seeing that our introverted colleague was really an expressive star. In a flash she taught herself the dialogues in ASL, then linked them with Russian, and had no more trouble speaking while Signing in drill class. (Because of her inspiration I took an ASL class myself, and only arthritis forced me to give it up with great reluctance.) A long time later I was walking through town, and suddenly was greeted by this formerly shy student. Now she was rushing down the street laughing and conversing in great sweeping gestures with a happy group of friends. She introduced me, and dramatized for them the story of our Russian class. Her friends oohed and ahhed with admiration. Finally they all rushed on their way. But she stopped on the corner and looked back at me, a symbol of her old life, and with a radiant smile spelled in the air “Goodbye! I love you, Goodbye!”

Note: Mary Giles is Staff Assistant, National Resource Center for Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies (NRC REECAS)

She is also an imaginative writer and artist.
Below please enjoy an original drawing by Mary Giles.
The piece is called "Pineapple."

Pineapple, by Mary Giles, 2005

And Mary Giles has also provided a scanned image of another of her recent drawings, of St. Luke's and St. Margaret's Church in Allston.

St. Luke's and St. Margaret's Church in  Allston, by Mary Giles, 2005


Below is another work, completed during July and August of 2006, as Mary Giles' rendition of St. Spiridon's Orthodox Cathedral in Seattle!.

St. Spiridon's Orthodox Cathedral in Seattle, by Mary Giles, 2006

Interview by Robb Scott

2005 ESL MiniConference Online