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)

 

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:

Dogme Blog Challenge #1 – Interactivity and Co-construction – My Take on It

 

This post is part of a challenge proposed by Karenne Sylvester on her blog . She proposed that every Thursday, for 10 weeks we blog in response to questions she’ll put up, in an attempt to take a deeper look at Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings’  Teaching Unplugged approach. The question posted for this first challenge was:

Materials-mediated teaching is the ‘scenic’ route to learning, 

but the direct route 

is located in the interactivity between teachers and learners, and between the learners themselves.

Learning is a social and dialogic process, 

where knowledge is co-constructed 
rather than transmitted or imported 

from teacher/coursebook to learner.

What does that mean to you?

 

I’d like to start this post by saying that I am still learning about dogme and unplugged teaching, I am still trying to grasp the concept. All I know for certain now is that it interests me, it’s sparked something within my teaching beliefs and practices. I have ordered the book and hopefully it will be here by the end of this month (it had a 60-day estimated delivery). So what you’ll read here are much more thoughts and questionings, perceptions and feelings I have from the little I know about it. I hadn’t even heard of it until I joined twitter and started reading my PLN’s blogs. so here it goes:

A “Scenic Route” can be defined as “a road or path designed to take one past a pleasant view or nice scenery; the long way round, a deliberately slow path” (definition by en.wiktionary.org/wiki)

 

When relating that to teaching I am bothered a bit. First by the deliberately on it – are Coursebooks deliberately slow? I don’t think so. Learning takes time, it takes exposing the student to a new thing repeatedly, provide him with opportunities to experiment and use the language he’s been presented to. The other thing that bothers me is the pleasant view reference. Do we, as teachers, see the coursebooks we use as pleasant? Coursebooks, their effectiveness, how we should use them, whether they’re evil or not has been the topic of numerous discussions (it was an #ELTChat topic), blog posts, tweets etc… I haven’t made up my mind yet.  Right now I think they’re not all bad – but basing your teaching solely on one handicaps you, restricts you. Because they’re pretty much a “one-size-fits-all” thing – and I don’t know about you but I am yet to come across a group of students who learn the same way, have the same level or motivation or share the exact same interests. Diversity is the word.

 

And when we restrict our teaching, we smother creativity, spontaneity. We miss opportunities of meaningful teaching given by our students when they demonstrate interest for something that is not on the coursebook’s agenda that day. The school where I teach adopts coursebooks (as all schools I know do) and teachers are expected to cover it thoroughly. We don’t necessarily follow the order proposed by the book – we have established benchmarks and paths that we see as more adequate to our students, changing the order and adding extra material where we found necessary. And teachers have flexibility to add / create activities to the classes they teach, as they see fit. And so the teachers have been doing – so I have been doing, ever since I started teaching, almost 17 years ago.

 

My first “face-to-face” encounter with unplugged teaching came as a response to a challenge (A challenge to teachers: Trying upside down and inside out) proposed by Jason Renshaw on his blog. (Note: As you may have noticed by now I have a problem declining challenges ;-) – Go figure!). I taught a whole class without planning – and then wrote a guest post on it in Ceri Jone’s blog. Suffice  to say it was one of the best, most successful (and greatly enjoyed by the students) lessons I’ve ever taught. So that just added to my interest and curiosity to learn more about it. There was a lot of interaction, mostly student/student, a lot of students learning from each other. But that was not all. There was also teacher/student interaction, and there was no interaction (individual work). So in a way, my (so I think) perfect example of unplugged teaching disagrees with the quote posted for today’s challenge. There was learning that came from no interaction, individually constructed, by the student.

 

As a student, I’ve always been able to draw learning and knowledge from books alone. I do know that not all students do that, but there are those who do. And here is that word again: diversity. If we have student diversity, why not teaching diversity? why do we have to completely deny one thing in order to adopt another one? What tells us we can’t do both: coursebooks and unplugged lessons? Enough about that…

 

 

On a final (and more personal, free thinking interpretation) note, I’d like to make an analogy as to learning being a “social and dialogic process where knowledge is co-constructed. I love cooking. And I am able to follow the instructions on a recipe and produce something good to eat. But I’ve always prefered learning a recipe by watching someone do it, having someone who knows the recipe and has done it before prepare it together with me. When I learn a new recipe by doing it together I can ask questions, I see how it’s done from up-close, I smell it, I put my hands in it… I owe it. And I learn it. By doing. Co-constructing a dish.

 

Co-constructing learning, be it with another student, be it with your teacher is much more effective, faster and so much more enjoyable. Coursebook or unplugged, this is always true. Don’t you think?

 

And if you’re ever in São Paulo I highly recommend paying a visit to “L´Entrecôte de Ma Tante” where you can have some of that chocolate mousse ;-)!