Three Concepts for My Success Teaching ESL
In this essay I will discuss three truisms that have made teaching English to adult immigrants successful for me. The truisms are that 1) Knowledge is Socially Distributed, 2) Behavioral Objectives (B.F. Skinner) are powerful tools to teach ESL, and 3) The Development of Student Self-Concept leads to language and personal growth.
Knowledge is socially distributed. I was a graduate student at the University of Houston when I first was introduced to this idea. I borrow it from an excellent mentor and friend, Dr. Silvia Pena. It seems so obvious yet so easy to overlook. As the occasion permits I present this idea to my students. We have examined how learning a language cannot be done in a vacuum. When we were children we learned to communicate from our adult models. We trained our hearing to know the meaning of certain sounds in the setting used. We repeated and were rewarded for correctly using the language.
I ask my students to keep a diary of the interactions that they have with others so that they can quantify the social network where they are using their first AND English languages. They are able to comprehend the value of increasing interactions with English speakers to enlarge their sphere of social contact and use of English. Here’s a quick example of its application in my class. Each student must teach the class [and me] how to do the work they do. It is done in English by the student and the rest of the class must come up with questions about the work. We’re learning about tee-shirt printing, landscaping, landfills etc. and using English. A second example is from request for help with letters – scams - that students receive. I turn this into a whole class “ teachable moment.” Other students share scams that they have had to deal with and the knowledge of how to deal with these goes on and on.
Use Behavioral Objectives. In the early 70’s I had to good fortune of meeting B. F. Skinner. His logical, observable and quantifiable approach has been a tool I use in many ways. My students enter the class and “Drop Everything And Read.” It’s become automatic, observable and useful to the students. They also know that the objectives written on the board will need to be demonstrated before they leave. I call it the ticket out first tool.
For example, if we are conjugating a verb in the present progressive, the student must say the verb in that tense and use it in a sentence to leave before the others. They know they’ll have to teach the class a skill we are learning. So they know what is expected, when and how to show it. I suggest that they use written objectives for their own weekly, monthly, annual and ten-year goal setting. I let them know that it is the map they will use to avoid continuously circling the metropolitan traffic loops.
Building student self-concept. We all feel good when others commend us. That’s true of our students too. In my class we have a rule that I CAN’T or No Puedo…is not allowed. I often hear a new student being told by the class that, “you can’t say – NO PUEDO” in this class. We’ll help you. A fantastic example of this is a recent project with student teachers from the University of Texas and Fuente. I explained the idea to the student teachers and they ran with it. The student teachers helped the students in groups of two or three. They were able to expand the writing and presentations of my students’ work presentations and songs. We compared negative baggage across cultures recently. My Mexican student was explaining to Guatemalan and Ethiopian students how women are looked down upon. Seems it was the same for the others and for most persons that are lower on the economic and educational ladder. Our discussions lead to ways to counter this. The students tallied the number of times they personally said negative things about themselves for one week. It hit home. We don’t allow negative talk in class and many are using my example of not using the words, I Should. You either do or don’t do something. That includes using English in formal and informal settings.
When our classes first start meeting I begin with a demonstration of body language. I walk in hunched and head downcast. Then I walk with the shoulders and head up-right and make eye contact. The students are able to tell me which of the two demonstrates confidence and a positive image.
Conclusion. I’ve been fortunate to have retired from years of doing educational research and public middle school teaching. I believe that I have acquired a vast storehouse of knowledge because of the social interaction. Knowledge is socially distributed. The use of behavioral objectives in educational and personal realms has given me much comfort. I made a map and adjusted as needed. It leads me to yet more interesting adventures. I feel that I am worth doing good things for myself and others. A positive mental image is a vehicle for learning, sharing our knowledge and appreciating this good earth.
Tomas Rodriguez is currently an ESL teacher with Fuente Learning Center in Austin. He is a graduate of the University of Houston with a M.Ed. and Administration Certicication. His early educational work was in research of Follow Through Programs and Bilingual Education programs in Los Angeles and Philadelphia. He was a Ford Fellow with the Department of Education in Washington D.C.
Tomas taught science for ESL Middle Schools in Austin ISD prior to retirement. He has been an ESL teacher trainer/ESL adult ESL professor for the past four years with Fuente School.