Professor Peter Casagrande taught me many important things. As a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Kansas, my writing was sloppy and my character was in flux when I heard of Prof. Casagrande's "Grammar and Composition" course and decided to take it. On the first day of class, he said that he did not believe that young people were as lazy as everybody said they were, but instead that he thought they just wanted somebody to challenge them. "In this class, I will challenge you to work," he said, "and if you don't want to work, I have ways of making you work." For reasons I still do not completely understand, those words were like music to my ears.
We wrote--and re-wrote--essay after essay following a rigid classical argument form derived from Aristotilean logic, and maintained notecards with any errors we made, categorized by type of error and logged with the corrections. The strict essay format was new to many of us, and fitting what I had to say within the constraints of the eight different parts of the classical essay did not come naturally. Early in the semester, Prof. Casagrande went over the following poem to help us gain an appreciation of why these rhetorical limitations were valuable.
Nuns Fret Not
by William Wordsworth
Nuns fret not at their convent's narrow room;
And Hermits are contented with their cells;
And Students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the Weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; Bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-Fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth, the prison, into which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence to me,
In sundry moods, 'twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet's scanty plot of ground:
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.
There are many analogies that can be drawn for teachers of English to speakers of other languages: the solitary time on task that it takes to provide useful feedback on student compositions; the value of a tightly planned classroom lesson; the role of narrowly defined successes in the achievement of significant progress.
Anyone who has been in the ESL/EFL profession for a number of years, across a range of settings including overseas teaching assignments, will acknowledge that there are extremes in everything from staffing to curricula, learning environments, and motivational factors. At one location, you may have every imaginable form of instructional technology; at another, you're developing a cough from all the chalk dust. Sometimes, there is a sense of friendly comradery with your colleagues and administrators; at other times, things are more serious and regimented. Whatever the cultural backgrounds of your students, you may experience a level of inspirational rapport with one group; with another, abysmal dissonance and a sense of failure.
William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge wrote the book "Lyrical Ballads," breaking open the traditions of poetry in English, especially the limitations of rhyme and meter. That is why it is so interesting to realize that Wordsworth actually found it necessary at times to retreat into the narrow focus and formulaic stanzas of the English sonnet, to feed his spirit.
Teachers at times will need a similarly restrictive option; and so will students. The important thing to keep in mind is that Wordsworth is referring to a mode of being that is chosen by us; not for us. By the same token, a reading of this poem can give an ESL/EFL teacher an appreciation of different cultural traditions that our students and their families have also chosen, and an understanding that what looks to one observer to be a limitation or restriction may, in fact, be liberating to the person who has chosen that way of being.
As teachers, it is our role to be the most objective observers of our instructional interactions with students, while at the same time we are striving to maintain enough subjectivity to communicate our interest and optimism so that there is a current or trend towards the goals that we have set or participated in setting or acknowledged and accepted.
This positive current is like a breeze or a gentle wave that promotes learning and appeals to the needs and interests of our students. It also influences our relationships with our fellow teachers and other staff members in the organization. But this is not merely a selfless approach to teaching.
In her book, "The Heart Speaks," Dr. Mimi Guarneri explains how a person's internal emotional environment affects his or her health.
"By measuring heart-rate variability, researchers have been able to analyze how the heart and nervous system respond to stress and emotions. Negative emotions such as rage and frustration lead to increased disorder in the autonomic nervous system and in the heart's rhythm--a chaotic HRV pattern adversely affects the whole body. But positive feelings, such as appreciation and love, produce heart-rhythm coherence, inner harmony, and increased health. Since the heart is the most powerful oscillator in the body, the rhythm set by the heart is capable of entraining other organs to oscillate in synchronicity." (Guarneri,2006, p. 168)
By embracing the occasional limitations in our chosen profession as cross-cultural educators, and using such situations to "find brief solace" from the "weight of too much liberty," today's ESL/EFL teachers can make a positive difference in any environment, and strengthen ourselves for future opportunities to "soar."
Article by Robb Scott, Ed.D.
2012 ESL MiniConference Online
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