Nothing More… Nothing Less…

 

Hi. My name is Cecilia, and I am a non-native English speaker.

 

 

 

 

I decided to start this post with this line because that is how I’ve felt for a long time about my “non-nativeness” : As if I were admitting to a flaw. When I studied English I was always ecstatic when my teacher happened to be a native speaker. As I began my career as an English teacher in Recife (Pernambuco, Brazil – where I was born and raised) I frequently felt less of a teacher when I compared myself to NESTs. I thought: “It’s their language, there’s no way I can beat that!”. So I worked hard at trying to achieve the mythical “native-like-fluency”. I listened to the radio, I sang songs, I repeated chunks of language to exhaustion, I watched TV in English (to pick up slang, reductions, intonation, etc)… And sometimes I thought I had gotten there, when a native speaker – usually not a teacher – would compliment on my English, say they’d never say I wasn’t a native. That made me proud. But then another native speaker would burst my bubble by saying tat I spoke English very well, but they could tell I was a foreigner. And that crushed me. Was it unattainable?

 

 

As the years passed and I became a more confident teacher, I started to realize I didn’t have to be a NEST to be a good teacher.  Being a Portuguese native-speaker didn’t make me a Portuguese teacher - I have never taught Portuguese nor have any plans of ever doing so – I don’t think I know it well enough for that. And thinking like that has never made me question my fluency as a Portuguese speaker. So why should I feel any different when it came to English? I finally came to the conclusion I shouldn’t. And that’s where I am today.

 

 

The Dogme Blog Challenge (week 6) focuses on the NEST – NNEST debate and how it relates to teaching in the dogme approach. When it comes to teaching unplugged, am I at a disadvantage because I am a NNEST? I don’t think so. I believe what matters here is not whether I was born (or raised) in an English speaking country, but rather my linguistic competence – and that is certainly not directly related to where I was born. I agree with Luke (Meddings) and Scott (Thornbury) when they say that due to frequent snap decisions commom in unplugged lessons ,choosing/changing paths within the lesson, it is sometimes difficult for a NNEST. However, it can be equally challenging to NESTs. Knowing how to speak a language, being a native speaker doesn’t automatically grant you knowledge of your language – really knowing it – enough to explain. I recall an episode in which a fellow teacher, a NEST, recently hired in the institution I worked (and just as recently a resident in Brazil), came up to me asking what the third conditional was. The topic (Grammar McNuggets, I know!) was listed in his group’s syllabus and he had no idea what it was. I gave him an example of a sentence using it and he still didn’t know it. I had to teach him. My intention in telling this passage is not one of saying my (then) co-worker didn’t have what it takes to be a teacher, or that he was not an educated speaker of his own language or even that he spoke his own language incorrectly. If you ask me pretty much any question about Portuguese grammar I won’t be able to answer it, because I don’t have the technical knowledge.  No. I wanted to illustrate my position regarding the issue raised by Karenne’s challenge. As far as language goes, being an effective teacher – whether in an unplugged setting or not – is not about being (or not) a NEST.

 

 

With that out of the way, let’s focus on the other questionings at hand. For the English learner, is it the same thing having a NEST or a NNEST as a teacher? Of course not. NESTs have broader, authentic and deeper understanding of cultural aspects of his homeland – an English speaking nation. And no one can stay oblivious to the role culture plays when learning a language. He most likely has a broader range of slang, unusual vocabulary (“teacher, how do you call the little ring on top of a soda can?”). He has one of the accents the student might find when he finds himself in an English speaking country. On the other hand, the NNEST was once an English learner himself, so he understands students’ difficulties better, he may be better at predicting which wrong linguistic assumptions the learner will make, and prepare for it – be ready when it happens. If the NNEST teaches in the country he was born in he also has a better grasp at the cultural aspects and peculiarities of the students. The same way a NEST can use the culture and curiosities from his country to motivate students to use the target language, the NNEST can also use his (and possibly the students’ ) own culture to create activities, discussions and projects to motivate students’ involvement, participation and learning . Knowledge of the home culture enables the teacher to better perceive “teaching moments”, the student emergent topics and interests. It enables the teacher to know how to use something the student mentioned that is greatly related to the country’s culture and make it into a lesson, or the means of teaching a communicative function, vocabulary…. take your pick!

 

 

Another question asked in this week’s challenge was  “Is language teaching about creating perfect models of expression?”. As far as I see, language teaching these days is about helping the learners find and create their own tools/strategies and develop skills to efficiently communicate. And communication is not about perfect models of expression. It’s about individual expression and having that expression be properly understood by the receiver. We’re past the notion that to be properly understood people have to have flawless prosody and native-like pronunciation / accent. When learning and especially using a language, the learner/speaker has to do it in a way he is understood – even if it is evident he/she is not a native speaker. The teacher has to pay attention and work in a way to detect and (hopefully) help students fix any deviations on the way the student uses the language that may hinder communication. With that under control we have a fluent English speaker – even if an imperfect one by some people’s standards. Not by mine. I take extreme pride when a student comes to me and tells me how he/she was able to travel to an English speaking country and walk around, order food, talk to people on the streets, in stores… with their heavy accent and sometimes L1 dependent vocabulary. :-)

 

 

 So, is there such a thing as a more suitable kind of teacher in a language classroom – NEST or NNEST? In my opinion, the answer to this is a resounding “NO!” We each bring something different to the classroom – and that should be acknowledged. More than that, I believe that should be celebrated and used for the benefit of the learners. Ideally, learners would have the chance of having both kinds of teachers, cherishing the unique features each bring to class. I wish students would see this. I know many do, but I have to admit it stills hurts a little when I come across a student who, before even having a lesson with me (or any other NNEST teacher for that matter), says he/she is only interested in having a NEST teacher. 

 

 

Because in the end of the day, my name is Cecilia and I am a Non-Native English Teacher. Nothing more… but nothing less. What is wrong about that?

  

Here are some other bloggers/educators views on this issue:

NESTs vs NNESTs – What is the Big Difference? by Henrick Oprea

Are Native Speaker Models So Important? by Richard (@nutrich on Twitter)

 

Showing Our Voices In a Real Conversation (Dogme Blog Challenge #5)

“Providing space for the learner’s voice means accepting that learner’s beliefs, knowledge, experiences, concerns and desires are valid content in the language learning classroom.”

 ~Luke Meddings & Scott Thornbury, Teaching Unplugged, Delta Teacher Development Series, 2009

 

 

This week’s Dogme Blog Challenge (week 5) is about voices. What does it mean to have a voice? How can we provide space for the learner’s voice in the language classroom? Is the student’s voice different in L1 and L2? Is my voice (as a non-NEST) the same in English and in Portuguese? It is the perfect follow up to last week’s materials light challenge , to which there were some very interesting and thought provoking posts in response. While tweeting/talking about some of the posts and the reflections that emerged from them with Dave Dodgson (@DaveDodgson) we had the idea of doing a joint response for the next post. When Karenne (Sylvester) put up this challenge and we saw it was all about voices we just knew what we wanted to do… a conversation. Especially because there were some great posts from challenge 4 shaped as conversations (Willy Cardoso’s  “A Boring Pub Conversation“, followed by David Deubel’s whispered ” A Boring Library Conversation” – where I learned the KISS (Keep it Student Simple) – Neither of them boring at all, I can assure you!).

 

 

We considered many ways of doing it, but settled on using Wetoku and have a real conversation – or as real as possible when one of us is in Turkey and the other in Brazil. We thought it would be the perfect way to show our voices - metaphorically and literally speaking. And this is what came from it:

 

(Note: Extra credit to Dave who, as every great teacher, did his research and even found out about two pubs in Recife (where I live) – Downtown and Uisqueria da Praça – to suggest as places we could’ve had a pub conversation!)

 

 

 
 
 

 

 

I hope our conversation was able to convey our thoughts on the issues raised by the challenge clearly. I had a lot of fun doing it, discussing an interesting issue, reflecting on the proposed questions… Despite our very different circumstances (Dave is a NEST working in Turkey, at a regular school, with 10-year-old students while I am a non-NEST teaching English in Brazil, at a language school and my students’ages range from 12 to 40) it’s fascinating to find out how similar our views (and many times our teaching practices) are. It serves to show me how teachers are teachers, it doesn’t matter where they are from or where they are. And the same can be said about the students!

 

 Thanks for a great idea and an even better conversation Dave. :-) It was great hearing your voice! ;-) And you can check Dave’s post in our joint venture here in his Reflections of a Teacher and Learner. I recommend it!

 

 

Here are the other posts in response to Dogme Blog Challenge #5:

  • Mike Harrison’s guest post on here, Objects in the Rear View Mirror
  • Paul Braddock’s Barefoot Teaching Challenge/Poll
  • Paul Braddock’s Response to challenge 5
  • David Warr It’s all about them 
  • Diarmuid Fogarty You only sing when you’re winning 
  • Candy von Ost What is talking for anymore? 
  • Leahn Stanhope Can you hear me?
  • David Warr’s Language Garden
  • Sabrina de Vita’s Unheard Voices
  • Willy Cardoso’s Voices
  • 

    Light Coke and Learning? – Dogme Challenge #4

     

    “Dogme is about teaching materials light”

      

    That was the quote for Karenne Sylvester’s Dogme Challenge #4. And I wondered how I could respond to that…

          

    A light drink... helps me with a (hopefully) light analogy

                 

      

    So I decided to bring it to something that’s close to me… coke. My beverage of choice, the one I am addicted to is light (actually zero) coke. So, as I try to draw the analogy, what is light coke, how is it different from regular coke? Well, one of the reasons why people might drink light coke is because they may get the same taste without the calories. The calories from a can of coke are empty calories - they give you nothing but themselves, no nutrition whatsoever. So, with that in mind, could we say that going materials light is teaching the same content – trying to help the students reach the intended learning - without burying them in empty activities? What would these empty activities be? Empty of what? Of teaching capability? I don’t think so, after all I learned English through those pseudo-empty activities of drilling and fill-in-the-blanks grammar. They must work, because I dare say I’ve learned ;-). No… I think the word ‘d use here would not be empty but rather lacking – lacking relevance. Relevance to the students. Let me expand that thought…

     

    The world we live in today has changed greatly and in many ways. But regarding learning, the most meaningful of those changes has to do with information, the way it is produced and distributed. Information is available everywhere and it’s ever changing, dynamic. Access to it today is more democratic than we could’ve ever had imagined 20 years ago. And the ways it is presented are incredible: videos, interactive applications, podcasts, instant exchanges…. and the list grows longer (and more imaginative) each day – it’s hard to keep up! Our students of today use that information, access it, interact with it…learn from it. So can we (should we?) comform to our old ways? Taking to class materials that aim at interesting all kinds of students – the “one-size-fits-all“? What is interesting and relevant to a student may not have the same relevance to the one sitting beside him. With the advent of technology and the broadening of sources of information we have also become more diverse in a sense – with more to choose from it’s easier to do that.

                                                      

    David Ausubel says that significant learning takes place when new information is acquired through by the learner’s deliberate effort to connect the new information with concepts or relevant propositions preexistent in his cognitive structure. (Ausubel et al., 1978). For Ausubel, the main issue in the learning process is for it to be meaningful, that what is intended to be learned by the student needs to make sense to him. And this happens when the new information is anchored in the relevant concepts the student already has in his cognitive structure. When we can’t connect what is being taught to something familiar to the student what takes place is the “rote learning” – or mechanical learning. In other words, the student has to relate to what we are teaching, to what we use to teach the language, or else we won’t really achieve true learning. Learning in which the student will not only repeat language structures that have been “fed” to him, but rather assimilate them and use them in the contexts he’ll find himself in.

                                  

    And how does all of this relate to teaching materials light? As I see it, materials light means not relying and basing our whole lesson on what has been done, on activities we have used, preexisting models. It means going to class with ears, eyes and mind open to see the students’ needs and interests. To use that as a mean of presenting and working with the target language. Am I saying we should forget all the activities we’ve developed, the coursebooks we’ve been using? Not at all! We can’t turn our backs to them. But we have to be willing to adapt and change them, to take what is there and shape it in a way as to come closer to the learners’ relevant concepts. If the world we live in today is marked by dynamism, so should our teaching.

                                        

    And on a final note… As with everything else, too much of anything is bad for you. Too much light coke will load your body with an excess of chemicals. Balance and good sense are always the key. :-)

     

    Other Posts on dogme Challenge #4:

    Scaffolding, Maps and Possible Routes

    This post is my response to the Dogme Blog Challenge #3 (“The Scaffolding”) proposed by Karenne Sylvester. You can read my previous Dogme Challenge posts here (for #1) or here (for #2). Here’s the quote for this week’s challenge:

     

    “The teacher’s primary function, apart from promoting the kind of classroom dynamic conducive to a dialogic and emergent pedagogy, is to optimize language learning affordances, by directing attention to features of the emergent language; learning can be mediated through talk, especially talk that is shaped and supported (i.e. scaffolded) by the teacher. “

    ~ Luke Meddings & Scott Thornbury, Teaching Unplugged, Delta Teacher Development Series, 2009.

    Which of these two is the teacher? Which is the student?

    The term “scaffolding” was first used refering to learning by a cognitive psychologist, Jerome Bruner, in the 50’s. He used it to describe how children learn and develop language with the help of their parents. How parents naturally help children find the ways to communicate orally when they’re struggling with it. Scaffolding is a temporary arrangement – the scaffold is there only until the child is able to successfully communicate what he/she wanted on his/her own.

    When we bring the concept to the classroom, scaffolding means that teachers should not “spoon-feed” their students, but rather give them just what is necessary for the student to reach the desired communication (by the student) effectively, on his/her own. The learner has to be in charge and responsible for his/her own learning – not only about what to learn (the emergent learning), or the how to do it, but for the learning process itself. We’re way past the time of  teachers as almighty possessors of all knowledge who kindly give the knowledge to their students. As I mentioned in a previous post, teaches these days are more of facilitators, guides in the learner’s path to assimilating a new language (or at least we should be).

     

     

     
     

    When I think about the role of teachers today I see us as the ones who have a map in our hands, a map to get to effectively using English (in my case) to communicate. Of course the way there has many possible stops (functions), and a wide choice of roads to get to the same place. The teacher is the one who chooses what he believes is the best road for each student (or group of students). Some routes are more fun, some are faster than others; just as some students are in a hurry to get to their final destination and others prefer to take their time and enjoy the view.  The teacher then points the student in the right direction for the road, show the road, and may even give a few steps along the learner on the road chosen but ultimately lets him/her go on alone – after he sees the path. The teacher’s job then is to keep an eye (from a distance) on the learner, just to make sure he/she doesn’t get lost along the way, and to stay at an arm’s length for when the learner wants to go somewhere else.

     
     

     

    Where is Present Perfectville again?

     

    So, I think I understand scaffolding language learning. But how do I do it? There are many ways.

    • Doing an activity with a text that has the desired language in it and work with it in a way the student notices it, by asking questions that will direct the student there.
    • Doing some vocabulary work prior to an activity where the learners will most likely need that vocabulary to properly express themselves.  
    • Providing models of intended language before expecting students to do it (sometimes without actually teliing them that ).
    • Giving learners positive feedback at every new step they take (self-confidence is a must for real learning).

     

    I could go on and on. And maybe I got it all wrong, and that’s not what scaffolding is about. And I would love to hear how you scaffold! :-)

     

    For more great posts on the Dogme Blog Challenge #3, you should read:

    Mike Harrison’s “How do you scaffold?”

    David Warr’s “For those who know…”

    Nick Jaworski’s “Dogme in the mind of a Teacher”

    Henrick Oprea’s “Scaffolding”

    Sabrina de Vita’s “Dogme with Young Learners”

    Nature Emerges…naturally. Does learning?

    This post is my response to Karenne Sylvester’s second Dogme Blog Challenge: It’s Emergent?. The first challenge was about Co-construction of Learning, and you can read my response to it here.

    Nature emerges... naturally. Does learning?

     

    

    I’ve been struggling with writing this post for some days now. I know very little about Dogme, and there’s been so much discussion on the topic in the past few weeks! (If you haven’t seen it, a good – maybe intimidating – and informative start would be Jeremy Harmer’s latest post with the 190 comments – as I write this – that it ensued). So what could I possibly add to it?

    The only thing I can offer are my musings. How I relate to all that I read about it, how I can relate my experience as a teacher – and a learner – to it. And as I do that I wonder… does my learning about dogme become emergent? What is emergent learning after all? Well, I think I know what learning is (let us hope, for the sake of my students ;-)), so I will focus on emergent. Many definitions for it can be found, and so I did (after a quick search on the web and dictionaries). But the ones that caught my attention were coming into view or notice” , coming into existence, esp. with political independence” – political independence…hmmm… interesting… – , arising casually or unexpectedlyand finally, the pièce de résistance: “Evolution”. When I put those definitions together with learning, what do I get?

     

    Learning that was not planned for by the teacher; that begins in the student, because he wants to learn about something. The wanting is key here. Wanting brings motivation into the picture. And there is no denying at the role motivation plays in effective learning. Can I say that the political independence on the second definition refers to the student’s independence from the teacher? I believe I can. In this case, emergent learning arises from the student independently of the teacher’s agenda. What is the role of the teacher in this whole independence scenario? The one of a facilitator. The teacher then is the one who identifies/sees this emerging (possibility of) learning and uses it, guides the student into accomplishing that learning. Now, I really like this, because it resonates what I believe to be the role of a good teacher these days: a facilitator, one who knows the way to learning better, more ways to get there (to adjust to each student’s peculiarities). Definitely not one who possesses all knowledge and will “feed it” to the student. So, and please correct me if I’m wrong, emergent learning is taking into consideration the student’s needs and interests and transform them into teaching opportunities, so that learning becomes more meaningful – therefore more motivating and effective – for the learner. Using the learner’s own input to help them evolve in the use of the language being taught (and here is the evolution part!). Does that sound about right? I’m going to go along and say it does.

      

    Having solved that riddle, another one pops up: does learning emerge naturally? I believe it does. If the desire for learning something is there and the student finds the appropriate tools for it, learning will come naturally. These tools may exist already but it  may also be crafted by the teacher and/or the student. Now, is dogme = emergent learning? From where I stand (several steps behind so many people I’ve read recently) it proposes a much more student emergent learning, where the teacher is driven by the student’s interests, not bound by pre-determined, one-size-fits-all syllabus. My question here is: how really feasible is this? I can see it easily enough in 1:1 lessons, in smaller homogeneous groups of people with same interests and objectives, for students who are motivated. But when you think about large classes, with student with a wide array of interests, ages, professions, etc… , teenage students who have no idea of why they are in your classroom (other than being put there by their parents)…Well, I’m not so sure.

      

     
     
     
     

     “If learners are supplied with optimal conditions for language use, and are motivated to take advantage of these opportunities, their inherent learning capacities will be activated, and language – rather than being acquired – will emerge.”

     

     

     

     
     
     
    This is the quote Karenne posted as the core of this second challenge. When I teach, this is what I aim to do (as most of the teachers I know do too): provide optimal conditions for learning to take place, motivate students to do it, activate their inherent learning capabilities. Yes, I believe all humans have an inherent capacity to learn, but not all have that capacity for the specific learning of languages. The capacity is there for communicating, but verbal language (which is the one we refer to) is not the only means of communicating effectively, and I have come across some students who worked hard, tried different approaches, different languages and still couldn’t assimilate language enough to be effective communicators (they usually do poorly on their mother tongue as well). On the other hand I’ve had students who seem to smoothly sail through the learning of a new language. I remember one particular student who came to me in a rather fluent group. After talking to him in the end of the first class I found out it was the first time he was studying English (in a formal setting). that everything he knew he had picked up by playing RPG games online, listening to music and reading about games and his favorite bands online (hail to the internet!). Self-made. A perfect example of emergent learning? Probably. We have to admit learners like this are out there, but they’re hardly your average student – more like the exceptions, really.

     

     

     

    Using the students’ input, interests and activating those inherent capabilities certainly make for more interactive, motivating and effective learning. Knowing which button to press for those inherent capabilities to become activated is the one million dollar question… But we try and experiment and discover one button at a time. And each button is a victory. I live for those small (?!?) victories.

    

    

    

    Easy??? I don't think so.

     

    Other posts on the Dogme Blog Challenge #2 you might enjoy reading:

    Mike Harrison’s – Sometimes a Prop is Really the Best Thing

    Sabrina’s – Fear of the Unknown!

    Willy C. Cardoso – Dogme Challenge #2 – Emergence