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Think Tank

This Month's Think Tank Panel

December 2005

Topic: Sharing Our Stories

Jennifer Bassett

O Best Beloved, a Parable for ELT Storytellers

ONCE UPON A TIME, a long, long time ago, on a small damp island off the north-west coast of Europe, there was a young woman who decided to become an English language teacher. We will call her Cinder- teller. That was not her real name, O Best Beloved, but that is what we will call her.

So Cinder-teller did a training course, and she went to live on an island in Greece, where the sun shone all day long, and the sea sparkled with silver light, and the dolphins played in the clear water. But Cinder-teller soon found that she did not see much of the sunshine or the sparkling sea, because teaching was much harder work than she had realised. She taught her lessons during the day, and during the night she studied hard at her books. And she learnt many things, O Best Beloved.

“In a classroom, Cinder-teller knew when her students were bored, because they fell asleep or sent text messages to their friends.”

She learnt that language is like a river ­ swift and sinuous and ever-moving. She learnt that students on the river of language can go upstream, which is hard work pushing against the current, and they can also go downstream, and travel easily with the current. And it is good to travel both ways, because the view of the countryside on the riverbanks is equally beautiful, whether you go upstream or downstream.

Cinder-teller carried on teaching, and then teacher training, and on one of those training courses there was a tall, dark, handsome man called Mr Rochester ­ Reader, I married him . . .

And so the years went by. Then Cinder-teller began to write teaching materials for students. She wrote course books and grammar books, and finally she came back to her first love ­ stories.

But when she began storytelling for learners, she found that writing stories was much harder work than she had realised. For writing, O Best Beloved, is, as we know, just as interactive as speaking although ­ in the words of the Wise Wizard Widdowson ­ there is no immediate reciprocal negotiation of meaning, no joint management of the interaction as there is in a conversation. In a classroom, Cinder-teller knew when her students were bored, because they fell asleep or sent text messages to their friends. When they didn't understand something, their faces went blank or they sent text messages to their friends. When they were amused, they laughed ­ or sent text messages to their friends.

But Cinder-teller could not see the students' faces when she wrote stories, and she wanted very much to enact a discourse by proxy, so to speak, because meaning is always negotiable. It is not inscribed in the language itself, and texts do not signal their own significance.

So Cinder-teller invented some imaginary readers to sit with her as she wrote. And they were three students, one from Patagonia, one from Kazakhstan, and one from Okinawa. There were three of them, O Best Beloved, because three is a magic number and there are always three of everything in the best stories.

And they were a great help to Cinder-teller, always looking over her shoulder, and reminding her about cultural norms and telling her to avoid unilateral idiomaticity.

The student from Patagonia would say things like . . .

"The character in this story in London is talking about August weather, but here in August we have freezing cold winds and snow in the mountains ­ is that what you mean by August weather?"

The student from Kazakhstan would say . . .

"This story set in Europe keeps mentioning the War. Which war? Here in central Asia," she said, "we have a war to the west of us, and a war to the south of us. There are wars all around us. Which war do you mean?"

And then the student from Okinawa said . . .

But he didn't say anything that day, because he had better things to do ­ he was down on the beach.

So Cinder-teller knew she had to try harder. She listened, and learned, and the more she learned, the more she knew how little she had learned, and how writing stories is the same as travelling on the river of language. You must stay afloat, you must watch the current, you must not turn your boat around in mid- stream ­ or you will fall overboard and be drowned.

For in the words of the Wise Wizard Wilga Rivers, "All writers are blinded by the knowledge of their own intentions."

So Cinder-teller knew that she must never stop learning. And for every story that she wrote, she listened all the time to the shadowy voices of the readers in her mind.

And for all we know, O Best Beloved, she is still there now, writing stories in a little room, and listening to the opinions and arguments and advice from the students from Patagonia, Kazakhstan, and Okinawa.

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Kumiko Torikai

It was the first day of the new semester in 1997. I introduced myself to a first year English class in the economics department, and started to call roll. The list of names I was given from the office was all written in Kanji and in the Japanese way, with family name first. I started to call each name, without thinking, in the usual English way, first name first and family name last, reversing the Japanese order. Everybody answered in English, either “Yes” or “Present, ” until I called the name of one student. Let’s say his name was Masao Suzuki. I called out loudly, “Masao Suzuki,” expecting a “Yes”. However, there was no answer. I called again, a little louder, “Masao Suzuki.” Nobody answered. So I said, “Hummm…Masao seems to be absent…,” and started to mark him absent, when suddenly a young male voice cried out. “My name is Suzuki Masao. My name is NOT Masao Suzuki.” I looked toward the voice and saw a serious face glaring at me. He added, “My parents gave me the name. They named me Suzuki Masao, not the other way around.” To be honest, I was a little taken aback, and I pondered a second. Then I said, “I see. For some reason, I’ve always done this in English classes…but come to think of it, there is really no reason why we have to do it.” Then I asked other students what they thought of this. Deadly silence… Everybody looked terrified. It was the first class and they had no way of knowing how I might react to this. Some of them might have thought I would get angry. I could feel their tension. So I decided to throw away the lesson plan I had prepared and said, “OK. Why don’t we discuss this, because it is an important issue. Feel free to say anything. I am just curious to know what everybody thinks about how Japanese names should be addressed. Discussion time!”

“In 2000, the Council on the National Language proposed that Japanese people keep their names as they are even when they speak English.”

I divided the class into three groups, and after some time, had them report back to the class what they thought. The result was illuminating. One group thought it was all right to call Japanese names in an English way, reversing the order, in an English class, because after all we are learning English. The second group agreed that even in English classes, we don’t have to reverse the order of our names, because Chinese or Koreans keep their way, with family name first. The third group was so divided that they were not able to reach any consensus.

It is interesting to add that a few years later in 2000, the Council on the National Language (Kokugo Shingikai) proposed that Japanese people keep their names as they are even when they speak English. Following this proposal, the media reported the history of English way of calling Japanese names. Apparently, it was during the Rokumeikan Period in Meiji, when people went overboard to imitate the West, believing everything Western was modern, that people started to reverse the order of their names, including the then Foreign Minister in signing diplomatic documents.

Until 1997, I never had any student demanding to be called the Japanese way. As a matter of fact, both teachers and students took it for granted that the Japanese names be reversed to accommodate the English custom, and some students were even happy to be given English nicknames, such as Jim or Mary. However, I feel that perhaps the year 1997 was sort of a turning point, and we have started to have more Masaos. It is my belief that Suzuki Masao, who refused to be called Masao Suzuki, was, in his own peculiar way, struggling to search for his identity. And it seems to me that students in Japan, as well as in other countries, are becoming more and more aware of their identity, if not totally conscious of it themselves. As scholars such as Bonnie Norton, Jim Cummins and Claire Kramsch point out, we cannot teach a foreign language without taking into consideration the students’ identity.

Names are not just names. They represent the students’ identity, their ideology, their perception of the ‘self’, their inner thoughts, emotions and sometimes, their pride.

So, how are you going to call your students?

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Curtis Kelly

The Day I Lost My Integrity

“Make a few rules and then be consistent in enforcing them,” I was told, “or else the students will think you are unfair, or take advantage of you.” This is a basic rule of classroom management, and it makes sense. A rule is not something you can require of one student and not of the next. We need standardization and consistency in the classroom. It is a matter of integrity.

Well, here is how I lost my integrity.

“As she neared the door, all eyes were upon me. The others could see my discomfort.”

Her name was Maiko, and she was in my English class at a women’s college. She skipped most of the homework, but she wasn’t the only one. Her greater offense was not coming to class until the class was well underway, and that was pushing against a university requirement to attend two thirds of the classes.

Well, Maiko always came late, usually 40 minutes late, which meant she walked in when the class was exactly half over. One day, I decided to do something about it, albeit in a gentle way, and when she walked in 40 minutes late, I told her that I couldn’t decide whether to mark her absent or present. “So let’s do Jan Ken to decide. If you win, I’ll mark you present, and if I win, I’ll mark you absent.” Seemed fair.

Maybe I wanted her to win, but my “stone” beat her “scissors,” so I told her I’d have to mark her absent. As soon as she heard, she stood up and said, “Okay, then I’m leaving.” As she neared the door, all eyes were upon me. The others could see my discomfort. Then, just before she walked out, I broke and said, “Okay Maiko, stay. I’ll mark you present,” and I could see the others shaking their heads.

I was not consistent. I had reneged on my promise. I was sure I had lost all integrity with the other students, and maybe I had, but then something interesting happened. Three days later, only one student sent me a mail wishing me a happy birthday. It was from Maiko. And then she started coming to my office to complain about how easy the teachers were at our school and how they should be stricter. I asked why she came to me of all people, the “pushover,” to discuss her feelings, and that made her think. After a few more meetings, I helped her discover her real problems, and offered support for her decision to transfer to another program. She moved to another campus, but she still made an effort to visit me once in a while, usually with cakes, and tell me about her life. I had become one of her best friends, and it made me happy to hear how well she was doing.

Then, a year and a half later, when I went to my office one morning and a handmade wooden sign, with my name in red felt letters, was hanging on my door. Maiko had been there the evening before and left it as a gift. On the back of the sign was a poem. I don't know if she wrote it, or translated it, or found it somewhere, but it would have been in her style to have written it herself. Here it is, just as I found it:

Goes and Goes time goes on we are not alone.
We live on together and will find some precious things.
Sometime we smile, sometime we will cry somehow.
Don’t forget believing yourself. Tomorrows never die.

Integrity, Rules. Consistency. Now I think it is all humbug. Making things standard makes them inhuman as well. Maybe something cracked in that class that was needed to support the whole, but for Maiko, it was a crack in a wall.

Thank you Maiko for “believing yourself” and helping me believe myself.

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Chuck Sandy

Some of the most profound moments in a teacher’s life occur so quietly they could pass by without notice if one does not pay close attention. One such moment occurred not too long ago when I walked into my classroom to find all of my students already engaged in work on the project they were doing at the time. Except for greeting me, no one paid me much mind. I was no one’s center of attention. The work was everyone’s focus. Although this might not seem like much of a story, it was years in the making as I moved from holding forth in a teacher-centered classroom to becoming a co-learner in and a facilitator of an activities-centered classroom. “Then, once classes begin, I set things up, provide possible models, and step-by-step turn the class over to the students so they can get on with the work at hand.” These days my students are mostly involved in doing project work that requires them to pull together a variety of skills in order to create something that is uniquely their own within parameters we often set together. My primary roles before classes start are planning, organizing, and gathering resources together. Then, once classes begin, I set things up, provide possible models, and step-by-step turn the class over to the students so they can get on with the work at hand. Once this happens it then becomes impossible to predict with any accuracy what questions, problems, or needs might come up. In a single class I might be helping one person work out a grammar issue, talking with a small group about alternative ways of organizing information, or discussing an issue that someone would like to share with the class. Then, I might be asked a question about pronunciation or vocabulary. Someone might need help conducting a web-search. Another might call me over to tell me about a part-time job or a new car or a broken heart. As I circulate around the room, I never know what will be asked of me or what shape a class will ultimately take until I’m in it along with everybody else. I’ve come to love this unpredictability and my away-from-the-center classroom stance. It’s this that makes each class a story of its own, a narrative that remains unknown until we all work to weave it together.

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Marc Helgesen

This is a little story about criticism.

It happened when I was in second grade so I was, what, seven years old? I lived just a couple minutes from school, so usually I ate lunch at home. But one week my mom was gone ­ visiting my grandmother, maybe. Anyway, I was eating lunch at school. We didn’t have school lunches in those days. We brought our own. But we could order little bottles of milk.

“I wonder, a year or two or forty years from now, will my students remember me? And for what?”

I was eating my lunch and drinking my milk when, as bad luck would have it, I knocked over the milk. It drenched me, my lunch and ran into my desk, giving my papers and books a good soak.

Embarrassed, I cleaned it up. I don’t remember what the teacher said but the next day, when they were passing out the milk, she said something like, “Marc, I hope you don’t spill your milk and make a big mess today.” And of course, she said this in front of all the other students (my peers = the most important people in the world).

I’m sure if someone had asked her after school that night what she had said to me, she wouldn’t have remembered. But here it is, more than 40 years later, and I still remember the feeling of humiliation.

And (this is an interesting part), I remember the names of all my other teachers from Kindergarten through 6th grade. Even the “extra teachers” like music, art and gym (that was Mr. Beyers ­ Like “Beers with a Y,” he explained to us kids who thought that was very funny.) But I absolutely can’t remember the name of my 2nd grade teacher.

And I wonder, a year or two or forty years from now, will my students remember me? And for what?

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