Written by Nancy Cloud (Rhode Island College)
and Maricel Santos (San Francisco State University)
“A project of the heart”
That is how our friend and colleague Gail Weinstein (1955-2010) referred to the Special Issue of the TESOL Journal “Learner Stories for Language Learning and Community Building”. In tribute to Gail, we would like to take this opportunity to share our own personal stories, beginning with a phrase that Gail often used to prompt story-telling among teachers and students: I remember…
Nancy: I remember…meeting Gail when I served on the TESOL Board from 2000-2003. It was a fortuitous event for me both personally and professionally because it put me in Gail’s universe. As the years progressed, Gail began to have a true wondering as to whether her model, Learners’ Lives as Curriculum (LLC), a model created in an adult education context, would have any power in other teaching contexts. I was clearly in a different context as a K-12 educator, and Gail shared her wonderings out loud with me.
Disillusioned at the time by all the direct teaching and scripted curriculum caused by external mandates like No Child Left Behind, I was anxious to see more learner-centered teaching in secondary classrooms. We set off on the project of designing a secondary curriculum called Lives Unfolding. Only two units were developed during the last years of her life, but they are models of how language skills can be developed and standards met, yet within a highly humanistic context where learners answer essential questions about their lives –where do I belong? who am I? – and come to know their teachers and each other in the process. Her model fosters true learner engagement—something every teacher seeks in his or her classroom. Gail understood clearly where the power in the teaching/learning process comes from—it comes from answering essential questions, from personal revelation and intimate sharing about our lives. She understood that language would flow when people have important things to share with one another, and she built curricula around this truth.
Gail called herself “a balloon floating in the sky” that needed someone to grab the string and pull down to harness the power of her ideas. Otherwise she would just be floating in space, never making the connections that would be needed to bring LLC to life. As the years progressed, she delighted to see that her well-structured model could work in secondary contexts, and EFL contexts in Japan, Russia and Israel — it just needed to connect with teachers who knew their students and their teaching context well so they could apply the model; ultimately find the powerful themes that would drive real communication. This issue was compiled in the last months of her life, with strong intention to “give away” to all language teachers what she now knew to be a universal model for curriculum construction.
Gail hoped we would grab the string, harness the power for our classrooms and create community as we build skills. She was genuine, just as she expected teachers and learners to be so that something important would happen as we teach language to our students.
Maricel: I remember…meeting Gail in November 2004 when she interviewed me for a faculty position at San Francisco State University. She greeted me cheerily and invited me to take a walk around campus. It was unusually sunny and warm that morning with no fog in sight, very uncharacteristic of San Francisco in late November. After a few polite exchanges of our areas of interest, she stopped suddenly and said, “I have the perfect place to take you” and she proceeded to walk me to the top of the Cesar Chavez Student Center. You have to know that this building features a very long cascade of stairs which leads to a rooftop pyramid, five stories high. She walked the flights with ease, not breathing hard, chatting along the way about the program at SF State. I was a runner at the time and could keep up with her, but I was wearing panty hose and a business suit, and remember thinking, “Sheesh, who is this person, taking me on a hike the morning of a professional interview???” but as we reached the top, we paused in silence and took in an incredible view. There was the entire campus, Mount Davidson in the distance, the rich urban fabric of San Francisco’s neighborhoods, miles of city that pulled our eyes to the ocean. There at the top of the pyramid was where she told me of her love for the TESOL program, her desire to strengthen connections between teacher training and service learning, and her absolute certainty that learners’ stories were the answer to so many problems in our adult ESL system.
Gail offered me a vision that morning for the field of adult ESL education. She had taken me to the highest point on campus to reveal what I now know to be true about her: her visions are ambitious, breath-taking, and always bigger than who we are as individuals. One of the things I will miss most about Gail is that feeling of “hiking up,” that feeling of working together towards a promising vision. Our hope is that this issue helps to preserve the vision that Gail worked so hard to promote.
To our friend Gail, we say thank you for including us in your life’s story. You were the master storyteller, a mentor and a true friend. Thank you for your gift of LLC, which you shared through this issue: your final “project of the heart”.
“Learner Stories for Language Learning and Community Building”