TESOL 2015: Focus on Culture


TESOL 2015 Convention Blog Post

The theme of the TESOL 2015 convention was “Crossing Borders, Building Bridges.” Here is a summary of the wonderful sessions I attended related to culture and intercultural communication; hopefully you can use some of what I learned in your own teaching.

Student Teachers Learning Together to Enact Culturally Relevant Pedagogy for English Learners

Michelle Benegas enthusiastically shared her dissertation with us Thursday afternoon. She used Gonzalez’s (1993) definition of culture as “lived experience.” In her study, she brought together four student teachers in an urban school through a community of practice to promote cultural consciousness. She explained how the mandated curriculum inhibited the culturally responsive pedagogy she was trying to instill in these young teachers. One of her crucial findings was that the student teachers learned to “weave” together culturally responsive pedagogy and standardized curriculum by selecting literature and topics related to students’ lives. Emily Styles’ (1988) “Windows and Mirrors” analogy helped these student teachers conceptualize curriculum that would help students see themselves reflected in a positive way and help them understand experiences outside their own.

Crossing Borders in Multilingual Classrooms: Using Students’ Funds of Knowledge

Lori Edmonds and Cathy Amanti’s workshop-style presentation engaged us in the idea of using diverse families’ abundance of resources, or funds of knowledge, as a starting point for curriculum development. An excellent example Lori shared was about a middle school math club improving math skills by building bird houses. An immigrant student used his impressive carpentry skills from building large chicken houses in his home country in Africa to lead the class on construction and tool usage. Using funds of knowledge can undo the damage of deficit theories on minority families. Instead of using universal standardized curriculum, research your students’ family and cultural assets (through visits and surveys) and use that as a launching point for your next unit.

Multilingual Language Education: Righting Historic Wrongs, Adapting to Linguistic Realities

Language and culture are deeply connected. Language changes how we see the world and express ourselves. In this panel presentation, Andrea Nicholas called us to action by sharing alarming statistics on the decline in Canada’s Aboriginal languages and stories of “battered” indigenous languages and cultures. Education of indigenous children in the dominant languages of French and English on reserves and in integrated schools led to what is referred to as linguistic genocide. St. Thomas University developed a Native Language Teaching Program, which includes 13 courses in linguistics, theory, and methods. Andrea urged teacher education programs to add programs like this so that immersion programs can revitalize native languages. As English teachers, we have a larger role to play in advocating for maintenance of indigenous languages. Investigate the treatment of native languages in your community and take action.

Evidence-Based TESOL: Teaching Through a Multilingual Lens

Jim Cummins’s work has inspired many of us in the TESOL profession for decades. His powerful presentation on the last day of the conference did not disappoint. He discussed the troubling trend of implementing “evidence-free” instead of “evidence-based” educational policies and practices. He used “multilingualism is a threat to national unity” as an example of a common ideological practice that is unhinged and lacking evidence. Another example he gave was the U.S. standardized testing of ELLs after only a year of English instruction. Substantial evidence-based research studies show that it takes 5 or more years for an ELL to have the same academic language capabilities as a native speaker. Unless research is heard, these unjust views will dominate policy. Devaluation of language and culture in school and greater society will continue. He urged us to reclaim agency at the school level despite larger policy implementation. In terms of classroom advice, he suggested allowing students to use their first language to gather research and take notes before presenting information in English. Additionally, he advises asking students to discuss topics with family members and use resources from their home countries so that they can explore multiple perspectives on current events and social issues.

In their own way, each of these presenters exemplified how educators can enact curriculum that values students’ culture while advocating for more just educational policies for ELLs.

About Christine Uliassi

Christine Uliassi
Christine Uliassi was an ESOL teacher and an elementary classroom teacher in the Fairfax County Schools in Virginia for 12 years. She completed a master’s degree in multilingual multicultural education at George Mason University. She lives in Ithaca, New York and is completing her last semester of classes at Binghamton University’s Educational Theory and Practice Doctoral Program. She recently spent 6 weeks in Shanghai, China teaching EFL.
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