Edu(va)cation: Hunting for Boundaries at the Birthplace of English language Education

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By Karin Wiebe

[This article was first printed in the Winter 2019 issue of TEAL News.]

Please don’t use the blue sticky gum to stick anything to the walls. Do you know why? Because Exeter College is 700 years old, and when you pull the gum off, the building will collapse.—Adrian Underhill, Principal Tutor

I attended the Oxford University English Language Teachers’ Summer Seminar (ELTSS) in August 2019. For two weeks students live the Oxford University experience, navigate new geographies and friendships and study the practice of teaching English as an additional language (EAL). There were 69 students in this year’s cohort, coming from countries as diverse as the UAE, India, Bangladesh, Russia, China, Macau, Japan, Inner Mongolia, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Peru, Chile and Mexico. My studies in sociolinguistics did nothing to prepare me for so many kinds of English. It was exciting and fascinating! Cultural barriers you would expect from so many strangers could be overcome almost at once. We had the same passion for teaching and enthusiasm for learning. It was 68 instant friends with no Facebook required.

Living in residence at Exeter College is a uniquely amazing experience. The buildings and grounds are well maintained and I’m guessing unchanged for…centuries. The surrounding stone walls remind you that bloody intersections of knowledge, religion, and politics were once very real boundaries. I watched the moon passing between battlements every night until I fell asleep. Art and displays in each space evidenced untold generations of scholars, philosophers, theologians, scientists, writers and artists. Fast company for an EAL teacher from British Columbia, but it fully inspired me to study and learn as much as possible.

Classes are held in intimate, apartment-like spaces that hold approximately 12 people. On Monday morning, Jon Hird explained at the opening of Words, Clauses, Sentences, and Beyond that the English language only became a serious topic of orthographic study when Exeter College (along with the colleges of Cambridge University) was commissioned to write the King James Bible. It was here, in these walls, that scholars first studied the English language.  

Hird’s lectures explored grammar at the word, clause, sentence, and text level. He offered a different perspective on grammar education that encouraged learners to find, manipulate, and practice patterns in engaging ways. His class was discussion-based with ample opportunity to practice adapting and exploiting texts, ask questions, and make connections to our unique classroom situations.

“Oh for the love of God, they’re waving”. Adrian Underhill halts his lecture and our small cohort of 12 students turn to find the ground-floor window is filled with tourist faces, all smiling, pointing, and waving. As if a maestro has cued, cameras appear, and we are all immortalized with disbelief on our faces.  

Underhill drew on humanist philosophy and expert language teaching practices to argue in favour of connected, personal educator/student relationships that foster deeper learning. In his week-long series of classes, Affect and the Whole Person in ELT, he explained that the work of educators begins with self improvement in three qualities—empathy, unconditional positive regard, and the abandonment of role playing as the “perfect teacher.” He drew from the work of Carl Rogers, explaining that “an awareness that we are unfinished allows us to fall into situations of education,” and Underhill wanted us to continue being students as well as educators.

Underhill connected an educator’s emotional literacy with a student’s ability to learn deeply and retain meaningful skills. He introduced Mary Helen Immordino-Yang’s work on emotion, self-awareness, and education and explained that “you can’t remember something you have no emotion about.” His lectures introduced us to language education theorists, philosophers, and authors like Earl Stevick, Jim Scrivener, and Paulo Friere. Each day, Underhill encouraged us to situate ourselves as teachers in new ways and to determine new paths of connection with our learners.

Tuesday’s keynote address is underground, in the Saskatchewan Lecture theatre. I’m puzzling through how that name could possibly have become attached to this space when Anatoly sits next to me. He is wearing a thick wool sweater over a long-sleeve shirt, long pants, and a hat. He speaks with a Russian accent and asks if I’m cold in front of the air conditioner vent. I realize we are sitting alone in the front row, everyone else is at least two rows back. I tell him “Canadians love the cold,” which he accepts. Each morning a different member of the Russian cohort keeps me company at the front row.

John Hughes explained that “our goal is to get students where they don’t need us anymore.” His keynote lecture asked us to consider that language learners can use the creative tools we give them to actively learn a language beyond the classroom. Hughes underscored the 2019 Seminar theme which placed learners at the centre of decision making in adult language education, explaining “we need to encourage them to approach new texts by asking questions and analyzing their personal perspectives.” He asked us to “develop learner autonomy. Let students discover the rules, don’t just give it to them.”

Hughes argued for classroom practices that activate a higher order language acquisition. For example, “we usually just check for comprehension, removing the answer and asking a question which leads to ‘I don’t know!’” Hughes explained that a higher order comprehension comes when students are asked to underline words which show the writer’s opinion and ask questions like “Do I agree with the conclusion of the text (and) what evidence does the author use to support the text?”

This morning’s fire drill was announced twice yesterday, but there is still chaos and resistance to resident participation. Only half the students come to the chapel for roll call at 7:00 am and one woman from Chile has fallen in the pews and fractured her ankle. Everyone appears in the Great Hall for breakfast an hour later which makes me think if the fire drill had advertised croissants, coffee, and fresh berries it would have been better attended. 

The first day in Imaginative Teaching in the Creative Classroom, Hanna Kryszewska was interested in classroom psychology, specifically group formation. She explained that it’s the educator’s responsibility to ensure students feel connected and co-operative with each other. Through the week she introduced an array of controlled and improvisational activities designed to engage the theory of multiple intelligences. Kryszewska’s lectures addressed the theory and experiences behind each activity she presented. Her buffet of visuals, objects, ideas, and potential resources were a treasure chest I couldn’t wait to bring home to Canada. Interestingly, this was not a uniform opinion of all students. Some class members appeared confused and even aghast at the presence of poetry, music, and improvisational theatre in language learning.

“Are you teaching listening, or are you using listening to teach language?”—Sinead Laffan

Sinead Laffan showed a 2016 video clip of brothers Gary and Paul O’Donovan who had just won an Olympic gold medal. Not a single person in the class understood the men’s interview except Laffan, who hails from the same part of Ireland. She used the clip to remind us what our learners are actually hearing in class, and in the coming days, explored the skill of listening using terminology and ideas uniquely “Laffan” like “match the mush” for decoding word boundaries and “the greenhouse, the garden and the jungle” as a visual concept for separating speech into teachable categories. Her lectures and perspectives were anchored with a week-long progression of listening skills development that focused on real texts.

I sat at a long wood table surrounded by fellow students and faculty in the Dining Hall and waited for Professor Dumbledore to appear. He didn’t show, but another delicious meal was served, and we all chatted and laughed. I felt safe and welcome at Exeter College, inspired by its considerable past and informed by the people who were present. No sorting hat, but you know that was just a fantasy. Instead, I snapped a picture of JRR Tolkien’s head where it sits behind the chapel door. Bronze, of course. A hobbit told me where to look.

This article is licensed under a

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Original reference information:

Weibe, K. (2019, Winter). Edu(va)cation: Hunting for boundaries at the birthplace of English language education. TEAL News. Retrieved from https://www.bcteal.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/TEAL-News-Winter-2019-v3.pdf

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