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Interview with Chuck Sandy

chuck_sandy.jpg Chuck Sandy teaches in the Humanities Department at Chubu University. He is also a frequent lecturer on English language teaching and Education throughout Asia, South America, and the United States. He has directed English language programs and taught in universities, language institutes, and teacher-training centers in Japan, the United States, Korea, and Brazil.

He has worked on several components of the Interchange series, is co-author of Passages, and has recently completed a new series for young learners entitled "Connect" with Jack Richards and Carlos Barbisan. He spoke with ELT News editor Mark McBennett in April, 2003.

ELTNEWS
Let's start by getting the background information out of the way. You probably hate the old "Why did you come to Japan?" question as much as I do, but give us a brief overview of how you got to where you are today.
Chuck
I'm not aware of anyone who grew up longing to become an English language teacher or writer of educational materials, and I am no different. I was always more interested in literature and various forms of printed matter, so spent my university years reading books, imagining myself a poet, and dabbling in journalism. One day I went into see my advisor who looked up at me and said, "You know, you're going to graduate this semester." Having no real skills other than the ability to write fairly well and talk at length about the books I read, I panicked. In the same meeting, though, he also suggested I fill in an independent study option by being an assistant teacher/mentor in a freshman composition class made up of Japanese students. I thought, why not, and casually agreed, not realizing of course that this was one of those moments which define the direction of one's life. In that class I wound up discovering the whole world of ESL, made some good Japanese friends, and met the woman I would one day marry.

As that course was drawing to a close, someone from the foreign language department approached me and asked if I would like to be an ESL graduate teaching assistant and the department's first ESL grad student the following year. Not having anything better to do and having found teaching to be something I enjoyed, I again casually agreed. This was another one of those defining moments, for not only did I get an early M.A. in TESOL, but I also got the chance to do some teaching in Japan on behalf of that department and met my mentors, the writer Yotaro Konaka and the Japanese language professor extraordinaire, Takeko Minami. These two people got me every job in Japan I've ever had and shaped my life in ways that are still now becoming clear to me. It was also, therefore, indirectly through them, that I met my co-author Jack Richards, who in many ways has taught me more about English language teaching and publishing than I learned in grad school or could have possibly learned with anyone else.

In short, like most people, I wound up where I am today through a series of happy accidents - very glad to be an English language teacher and writer of educational materials.
ELTNEWS
You talked in one of your Think Tank articles about a manifesto you wrote for the teacher's manual at a Tokyo college where you worked. You said about it: "At its core was a philosophy encouraging teachers to treat students as whole people with valid and various needs, motivations, and desires rather than as language acquisition devices or charges to test, grade, and control." Does this philosophy sum up your approach to teaching?
Chuck
Though this early statement of mine does get at the center of my beliefs about education and teaching, I wouldn't say that it sums up my approach. Think of it more as a philosophical foundation on which I've built over the years, and that manifesto from the early 90s as a working document of who I would become and am becoming. Over the years I've built substance and depth onto what Ted Rodgers then called "The Nice Approach" and have come to understand that being an open and approachable person who creates, in Paulo Freire's phrase, "a warm nest" is not nearly enough.

It is the essential foundation for real learning to take place, but there also has to be stimulating content, questions and work that challenges students on a number of different levels, and a participant-teacher equipped with a headful of various techniques -- drawn eclectically but consciously from any relevant school of thought -- to make that warm nest a useful place. My approach to teaching, then, is to provide all of that ... with a smile. No one gets off easy in my classes, which is to say we do a lot of work and I expect a lot, yet we have good fun while we do it, and that, I suppose, sums up my approach.
ELTNEWS
In your recent columns for ELT News, you have used words like 'rebellion', 'revolution' and 'wobbling the system.' Do you think your students see you as a 'rebel with a coursebook' or just another "henna gaijin" (strange foreigner)?
Chuck
By definition, teachers are agents of change, and true education in any real, transformative sense is radical by nature. It's our job to wobble systems, to gently incite personal revolutions within our students, and to rebel against educational practices and ideologies which lessen anyone's chance at becoming more than he or she is. To say so in such terms is simply to put into words what all good teachers instinctively know and what most students instinctively recognize when they encounter such a teacher - and I mean, here, a teacher in any field, in or out of school, foreign or not-so-foreign, with a course book or without any books at all.

There's nothing strange about such a person in any culture, though not everyone -- in any culture -- is developmentally ready to work with a teacher who approaches education in such a manner. Therefore, it's essential for a teacher to remain flexible enough to be able to provide serious challenges to those who are ready for it and challenge-lite or alternate ways into the course or content for those who are not quite as ready. How my students see me is an unknown thing, of course, but I sense they see me as someone that is flexible, as someone who's taking them seriously and at least trying to be one of those good teachers. Whether I succeed at this or not varies from day to day and hour to hour, but my overall sense is that my students see me mostly as someone who cares about them and about what he's doing, and that's enough for me.
ELTNEWS
How supportive (or otherwise) of your teaching methods or style have the various schools you've worked for been?
Chuck
I've been extremely lucky in my career, both in Japan and elsewhere, to work in very supportive environments and within institutions that have allowed me the freedom to try new things and to even bumble things up on occasion. I've also been extremely fortunate to have had the chance to work with incredible groups of teachers in every place I've ever taught - people with whom I could comfortably grow and who helped me see the things that could be learned from even my most disastrous bumbles.

In the early 1990s I was lucky enough to be at Kanda Gaigo Gakuin in Tokyo at the same time as a core group of people (such as Dale Fuller, Chris and Liz Mares, David Olsher, Herman Bartelen, and Sean Reedy) who went on to become ELT authors and grew up to become master teachers. It's been much the same in every work situation I've had, and I do realize how very lucky I am to be able to say this.
ELTNEWS
And what about the students? For many Japanese students coming out of high school, the kind of autonomy you give them must come as something of a shock.
Chuck
chuck_sandy1.jpg We work up slowly to autonomy in the one freshman class I teach, so no one is particularly shocked all at once by what I ask them to do. Then, by the time I see some of them again in one of my seminars for upper class students, there's no shock what-so-ever. Of course, for these seminars, students choose to work with me, which means in some sense that their learning style jibes with my teaching style. Still, it's worth noting how readily almost all students I have at whatever level take to autonomy - which means in essence, being asked to take responsibility for their learning habits and class-work within an environment of limited choices.

It's probably important to point out here that learner autonomy in no way equals classroom anarchy nor resembles a true democracy. Students are still on a tether. It's simply a much looser tether than they might have been used to in high school, and I don't think anyone is taken by surprise. The biggest problem I have with first year university students in my classes involves having to temporarily reel a few in who get too excited and then redirect their energies in more productive ways. That, of course, isn't much of a problem.
ELTNEWS
Given the limited contact time that most teachers have with their students, do you think it's practical to try to focus on the needs of individual students? Or is it enough to focus on individual groups or classes?
Chuck
When I add together the participants in my current handful of classes and seminars, I have a total of only 50 or so students all together. This means, of course, that I have the luxury of simple things like being easily able to call everyone by name, not to mention the wonderful fortune to be able to get to know most of my students quite well. I fully realize that I am one of a small number in our field who can say such things and that many teachers have intensely diverse workloads, huge numbers of students, and more classes in a week than I teach in a month.

This is to say that the question is a non-starter. If a teacher is in a context like mine, then there's no reason not to focus on individuals rather than groups, but if a teacher is put into the situation of working with so many students that he or she cannot be expected to even remember names without a roster sheet, then that teacher has no choice except to focus on individual groups or classes rather than on individuals. You do the best you can, given the situation you're in.
ELTNEWS
Do you think it's possible for your students' need to learn English -- in the university setting rather than the "real world" -- to be compelling enough to motivate a significant number of them to make real progress?
Chuck
As far as I know, no one has ever been able to definitively say why one student will seem to make significant progress while the person sitting in the next chair will seem to make almost no progress at all. Need and motivation is only a part of it, and to focus too much on who 'needs' what for what reasons is to give that factor more weight than it deserves. Moreover, how does one measure "real progress?" Certainly, for many, this is measured in test scores, but again, that's only one measure.

I don't think any teacher can truly say who's making progress and who isn't as each student in any class, no matter what the field, is learning different things at different times. If you don't believe me, try this sometime: at the end of any class, ask each student to write down what he or she thinks is the most important thing learned during the class period. It's quite eye-opening (and humbling) to see the incredible variety of responses to this question. Everyone is making progress. Simply said, some are just making progress at things we haven't focused on.

chuck_sandy2.jpgAs far as the real world goes, I tend to think this world is as real as any other. Granted, no one is able to leave a class in Japan - or Korea or China or Brazil - and go out to order lunch in English, yet the days of limited access to English language materials are long gone. It's been a very long time since language students had to carry around a copy of a textbook and accompanying tape or tune into some distant radio station in order to have access to the L2.

Globalization certainly and rightfully is the cause of some major discontent, but one side effect of this process has been to make the real world, as that term is used here, even more real and more accessible to a greater number of people than ever before. Inexpensive travel, a bevy of people from other Asian countries to talk with, Amazon.com, the internet, and MTV all work together to make the old real world/ non-real world distinction almost another false dichotomy.
ELTNEWS
How much disparity of levels do you encounter among your students? How do you overcome that?
Chuck
Like anywhere, a class full of students is like a city full of buildings in various states of construction. Some need almost no support except for polish. Others are in danger of complete collapse without solid scaffolding. The rest are spread out between one extreme and the other. It's useful to note that this is a fact of life in all classes, whether they be language or math or music or chemistry classes.

A teacher deals with this by working to provide more than one way into any activity, by providing extra work for those who need it and for those who finish before others, and by using materials which are flexible enough to be of use to students at either extreme - either by watering down or supplementing.
ELTNEWS
How much importance do you place on homework and how effective have you been in convincing your students to do work (if that's not too offputting a word) outside of the classroom?
Chuck
I used to be scared of giving homework because I assumed few would do it and then asking them for it would cause me, the class, and the students embarrassment and no small amount of having to flounder around to somehow deal with this fact that the assigned homework was not being done.

Then, slowly, over the years, I completely changed my assumption. Now I assume homework is something that will get done and is expected. I let students know this and gently harangue anyone who doesn't do what they're supposed to do. I also give people an out, which is my email address. If they don't understand what they're supposed to do they can email me - or one of their classmates. If their dog runs away or they have a big fight with their parents or romantic partner or they get sick or have to work an extra shift at their part-time job, they can email me ahead of time to tell me what's going on with them and let me know they won't be able to finish the homework. Then, of course, I deal with the situation on an individual level.

Students with a cold turn the work in late. Students whose romantic interest ran away might get more of a relief. But anyone who comes to class without their work done - or without a book or pencil or whatever is needed - gets it done or gets what they need before proceeding further. This sounds awful to say, but students who forget their work or who show up with it undone without letting me know generally don't do this more than once. Those few who show up in such a state more than once get a cup of coffee and a conversation with me about what's going on in their life.

On my side, I try hard not to give meaningless homework - homework for the sake of having homework. I also try hard to show students where we're going with an out-of-class assignment and how it's related essentially to the next step in a project we're working on, for example. This helps convince them to do it even more than my disappointed face when they don't.
ELTNEWS
What do you enjoy most about teaching? And on the flip side, are there any aspects you could live without?
Chuck
What I enjoy most is having the chance to work with and get to know my students - who are some really interesting people. What I could do without are long faculty meetings, committees, and paperwork.
ELTNEWS
External phenomena such as the declining birthrate and the stagnant economy are contributing to a major overhaul, including mergers and closures, of the university system in Japan. Is it just an admin problem or do you see any signs of a corresponding pedagogical change?
Chuck
Difficult situations and tough economic times always bring significant pedagogical change. Schools that don't see this -- or that read the signs wrong, or that go off in some inane direction -- will close, if they haven't done so already. As always, the schools that are willing to innovate will not only survive, but will lead the change the rest will end up following. It's happening right now, and it's easily possible even at this early stage to see the direction the revolution is going in: a more diverse student body, greater autonomy for learners (and in many cases faculty), big curricular changes at every level.

A large number of schools are currently either accepting or getting ready to open their classrooms up to adult learners, international students, and those in Japan who have graduated from high schools that Mombusho used to deem unworthy, e.g. Korean schools, International Schools, Christian schools, and those who have been home-schooled. With these students welcomed into universities and colleges, pedagogy will necessarily change, is changing, and this is a very good thing.

And like those schools that will or have closed rather than change, professors who have and are bemoaning the fact that this change is taking place will either retire early or move on. This natural process of weeding out the embedded and the truculent will in itself produce great changes in how learning is approached and carried out.
ELTNEWS
Buckminster Fuller once said of education: "What usually happens in the educational process is that the faculties are dulled, overloaded, stuffed and paralyzed so that by the time most people are mature they have lost their innate capabilities." A recent study showed that starting formal schooling at age four was seriously damaging students' attitudes to learning - this not in Japan but in the UK. How much damage do you think is actually being done by education these days?
Chuck
chuck_sandy3.jpgI think a lot of damage is done in the name of education, a lot of it irreparable, but this has little to do with real education or real learning. This damage is the result of the usual things that damage to others is caused by - the urge to control, whip into some preconceived shape, humiliate, or belittle another human being. That this takes place in some classrooms in some schools because of some teachers is a crime of huge proportions and is the direct cause of the same thing later happening in families and in companies and in society at large.

Elsewhere I've called these damage-mongers the black hats of education, and one would hope that we'd find a way to get them out of schools instead of slapping them on the wrist when they're found out - usually after causing enough damage to make the evening news. As for education dulling one's innate abilities, it happens, sadly, and it's a shame that anyone has to spend time in schools with people who make that Pink Floyd song about bricks in the wall a sad reality.
ELTNEWS
Language education has gone through several evolutionary stages over the last few decades, from drills and rote memorization, via the communicative method to a more all-inclusive, holistic style. Where do you see this evolution moving next?
Chuck
We'll no doubt continue to learn more about learning in general and learner styles in particular. This will result in more individualized teaching both in terms of procedures and materials. At the same time, I predict a resurgence of some back-to-basics sort of movement with a renewed emphasis on grammar and vocabulary learning, but I don't think that this is anything to fear, given the other changes taking place. It's a good thing, which will move us closer to a balanced approach to language learning.

Also, I see more of a move towards content-based or content-rich learning, a steep decline in textbooks for young adult and adult learners built around dialogues and functions, a rise in internet-based publishing (which will make individualized materials more feasible), and the profession being filled with the sorts of people who are now in my seminars and in your classes - which is a very good thing. It's an exciting time to be a teacher or a learner or a materials writer, and as they almost say, may you live in exciting times.



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