1. What are your main activities these
days and in what ways have your ESL experiences
inspired or led to these activities?
As you know, I retired in December 2006 from teaching--15 years of ESL
in the ELP (English Language Program), 10 before that in the KSU Department of English as a
graduate student and teacher of composition (including one section for
international students), introductory literature classes (including
children's literature, short story, and fiction). When I retired, I
it was just the right time, at (what I felt, at least) the top of my
game, still in good mental and bodily health.
My main activities these
days are only peripherally affected by ESL, e.g. I attended an open
meeting at the town library last month, where the issue was how to
arrive at a budget for the coming fiscal year, at a time where the
town--and the state, for that matter--are millions of dollars in the
hole. The town library has been the venue for an ESL program for some
time. Its only paid worker is the coordinator; there are many
volunteers who tutor immmigrants (almost exclusively) one-on-one. The
room was full, SRO. The budget items were materials, salaries, hours,
benefits, etc. Almost 100% of the attendees had come to the meeting to
argue for continuing the ESL program (Miss Pioneer Valley! as well as
many foreign students, some with their ESL-student parents). People
were saying they'd be willing to go without some new books, to live
with shorter hours, without some magazine subscriptions, if only the
library board would restore the $27,000 they were planning to cut to
meet a 1% budget target. As a result of this passionate display, the
board decided to cut the summer ESL program but keep the rest, at least
for the next year.
I've sat in on a few of the library board's meetings, almost all of
about budgeting. There is going to be a vote May 1 on whether to pass a
budget override in order to fund things like police, firefighters,
schools--all public services. If it doesn't pass, school classes will
get bigger, some teachers will lose their jobs, the library will
suffer. Even if it passes, there will be some painful cuts.
If it does pass, the funds (as things are set up) will come mostly from
property taxes, which means some people, especially retired and
elderly, won't be able to afford to live here. So you can see, I'm
learning about living in Amherst, Massachusetts. People here tend to
bring up local politics even on first meeting. A couple of weeks ago, I
met with 150 other citizens in the high school cafeteria to hear from
various committees trying to put together a long-term plan for the town
that will minimize sprawl while encouraging certain kinds of
development. Volunteers spend hours and hours working on basically 7
committees; each committee head reported to the assembly on the
committee's objectives. Attendees were polled on priorities and asked
I've also sat in on some of the 5-member select board meetings, which
also include the town manager and often the finance officer. It's a
pretty small town but with 5 colleges within 10 miles, so there are
many highly educated and civic-minded people who take citizenship and
participatory government very seriously.
2. What are some of your most treasured
and what are some of your most difficult
memories associated with the work you have
done in ESL or language and culture teaching
and learning in general?
I treasure the friendships of longer or shorter duration that grow out
of the teacher-student relationships. When I could, I had students come
to my house, usually as a class, sometimes as more than one class,
sometimes in smaller groups (e.g. I taught a cooking class in my
kitchen several times--also at the International Student Center
kitchen). I think it's important and gratifying all around for students
to get to know American life by seeing teachers as ordinary people. I
was always proud to have students at my house. I also took students to
the prairie and the zoo a couple of times. In the classroom, there's
plenty of time for drilling and cramming. I also enjoyed teaching
special extra classes (this was when we offered a broad range of
electives--singing, calligraphy, movies [one teacher even typed out the
dialogue for a scene from Glory], etc., as well as classroom visits) in
literature (some poetry, some short stories), calligraphy, cooking. At
one time we also offered (and may now, too) a spouse class, usually
consisting of women only but including the occasional man. These were
much more free-form and varied than our curriculum of reading, writing,
The activities had to be adjusted depending on the makeup of the class,
but almost invariably this class was a joy to teach, and the students
took a deep interest in one another, in many cases continuing their
friendships beyond the class. I loved to see this happen.
Difficult memories are of deadness in the classroom. I was told and
told others with this complaint that it was chemistry, chance.
Sometimes no matter how much energy I tried to bring to the classroom,
it didn't arc to the students. Sometimes they didn't gel as a class.
Sometimes there were lazy or even insolent students who impeded
learning. Every teacher has suffered with this, I'm sure. Even now I
wouldn't know how to sweeten this kind of situation; I would, as I did
in the past, soldier on and hope for a better group the next semester.
3. If you could go back to the moment when
you decided to get involved in ESL or language
and culture teaching or learning, would you
make the same choices?
When my children were small and my husband was just starting up the
salary ladder as an instructor, we ran out of money. Just at that time,
a friend offered me a teaching job--ESL for army wives and some
immigrants at the Adult Learning Center, then located in Northview at
the Strong School. The catch was that I had to drive the school bus,
too (which turned out to be the department's stepchild--no power brakes
or steering, among other defects). Sometimes I took my kids along when
they had days off from school. I had never taught before, so I winged
it. When I started back to (graduate) school 3 years later, I was given
an international section of composition because of the ALC experience.
It was my favorite class, usually. I also taught ESL in summers at KSU
before the ELP became a separate and year-round department. Would I
make the same choices? Initially, of course! I needed a job, and the
ALC job fit my schedule as a mother of young children; ditto the summer
ESL at KSU.
There was a time when I had to choose whether to stay on at the ELP or
return to the English department on a provisional basis: this was
during a year when the regular children's literature teacher was on
sabbatical and might or might not return. I was told I might get the
job permanently if she didn't return, but that I'd be expected to teach
3 big (required by the education department) classes each semester
*and* publish. I felt I couldn't do both--teaching and writing--well,
that I'd be sacrificing one for the other no matter how I chose. So I
decided to stay on at the ELP. But somewhere I regret not getting back
to the literature teaching. That is what I was trained for; that was
what made me feel most alive. On the other hand, as a trade-off, I got
to teach people from exotic places, from whom I could learn a
lot--people who in general were more motivated and serious than the
average American kids I'd taught before.
4. What would you like to say about today's
global context and what a person can do to
have a lasting, positive effect on human society?
I'm not much of a joiner (League of Women Voters, committees of any
kind). I tend to get impatient or else feel incompetent in groups. So
my mode is just to try to be cheerful and kind with one person at a
time, to pay attention, be responsive to, one person at a time.
5. Who are the people you would include if
you drew a concept map or word web to show
the associations, influences, and context
in which you have developed your sense of
yourself as an ESL or multicultural professional?
Enid Cocke made graduate school sound so delicious that I decided to
quit being children's librarian at the Manhattan Public Library and go
back to school. She also influenced my decision to apply for the ELP
job when I finished graduate school. For the rest, what became my
full-time teaching job put me in contact with interesting colleagues,
interesting students. I learned from them all. I think what I wrote
above explains some more about my development as a teacher of ESL.
6. What is your advice for future ESL teachers?
Relax. Teach in your own style. Students are just as lost as you are
therefore forgiving. You can't know everything about handling a class.
In a way students are like babies, who accept and adapt to new
experiences. And as a (new) teacher, you're also a baby. Forgive
yourself. Enjoy yourself.
Interview by Robb Scott
2007 ESL MiniConference Online
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