Trying something new, whether it is a new activity we decide to bring into class or a new position we take on, is always challenging and requires a lot of courage and spirit. In this issue, Matthew Turner, Yitzha Sarwono, and our brave new blogger Ruthie Iida share their personal stories of being newbies – in integrating a deaf student into an oral communication class, in teacher training, and in becoming a student again.
On paper I’m a fairly experienced teacher, having taught for almost 10 years at the time of writing this. Over that time, I’ve also undertaken various forms of professional development and worked in numerous classroom settings. In many respects, I can no longer be thought of as a newbie. However, back in April of this year, I was very much placed in the position of a newbie for the first time in a while, when I was given the challenge of integrating a deaf class member into a compulsory oral English communication course. In all my years of teaching, I’ve never had a learner with any kind of hearing impairment, nor by extension have I really experienced teaching a student with a recognised or self-identified disability. In in-service courses, such as my MA program, my DipTESOL, and even my pre-service CertTESOL, there was never a module, workshop, or focus on teaching English as a foreign or second language to learners with disabilities. This is an issue that has already been raised by my peers. Robert Lowe (2016a) in his article for the Modern English Teacher magazine commented that provisions for SEN – (Special educational needs), are scarcely discussed issues on the above mentioned programs. Lowe suggests that teachers that enter the “ELT profession by following the most common training routes (not including those teachers trained in the state sector) are unlikely to have received any substantial guidance in how to teach students with SEN” (p.73).
I want to use this blog post to describe what I learnt from the experiences teaching a deaf student, with my hope that this piece will help to raise awareness of this undervalued area of our profession, and give you the reader some practical considerations for the classroom. Throughout the time I taught my hearing impaired learner, who for anonymity purposes I shall call ‘Kikuno,’ I kept a diary. After each class I would reflect on an aspect of the lesson that went well, that didn’t work at all, or anything else of relevance. I will refer to my diary as I write this blog.
The teacher as newbie
My class was an English discussion class, a class that required the ability to actively listen and respond to other people’s ideas and express opinions. Kikuno couldn’t speak, nor could she hear the discussions she was involved in. My plans that worked in other classes simply wouldn’t fit this group of learners, and so I had to adjust to the situation before me. The challenge, however, was to allow for integration and not make too much of the obvious differences. There were three areas in particular where adaptations were made. Firstly, I had to script my teacher talk. Before the lesson, I wrote down all of my planned teacher talk on separate sheets of paper that reflected the stages of the lesson. This allowed for Kikuno to follow my speech with the guidance of her note-takers (two student volunteers, one working as her voice, the other as her ears). This largely worked, however I complicated things by improvising, or going off-script. This got better over time as I disciplined myself to stop doing this, ultimately better scripting my instructions so that realtime modifications weren’t necessary. Secondly, the timing and the pacing of activities needed to be reconsidered. With a deaf learner as a member of a discussion group, everything takes a little bit longer. For example, the opinions spoken by the other learners needed to be written down and shown to Kikuno and Kikuno’s own ideas had to be conveyed via the note-takers. I learnt that short pair-work activities, mingling tasks, and other staples of my teaching simply wouldn’t work. Generally, I had to spread everything out, and give everyone more time and space to produce what was required. Finally, I made things a lot more tactile and visual. Phrases for expressing opinions, reasons, and examples were placed on the table for all the learners to use with Kikuno. I also insisted on hand gestures so that Kikuno would know who and when was taking their speaking turn in the discussion.
The learner as newbie
For my learners, it was largely the first time that they’d interacted with a deaf person, let alone shared a classroom with one. For Kikuno, it was the first time that she’d been in a learning environment that wasn’t tailored for hearing impairment. Throughout the process, the other class members quickly learnt the boundaries, particularly the speed at which they should speak and their conduct in discussion tasks. The learners got better at observing the note-takers’ and Kikuno’s styluses, and paying attention to the disparity in speed between spoken and written English. Kikuno also learnt her role in discussions, taking in all the other members’ points of view first before skillfully delivering her own. I also encouraged her not to prepare her ideas whilst she was simultaneously taking in everyone else’s opinions. She gradually learnt that other members would help her to develop ideas collectively, by asking follow-up questions. Over time everyone became more comfortable with the inevitable silences, which led to richer and more meaningful discussions. The other learners came to better understand the value of teamwork in discussions, often holding back the urge to ask questions themselves, in order to give Kikuno the chance to ask one of her own.
A new experience for the institution
This was also a completely new situation for my institution. Throughout the process, I learnt the importance of collaboration with different groups of people. Meetings were routinely held to discuss the best ways to move forward, ideas were exchanged, some of which made it to the class while others were seen as unviable. Concerns and appraisals were also expressed, everyone continuously learning from one another. Above all, everyone learnt the importance of listening to Kikuno herself, for she is the one who could tell us the most about effective procedures. Everyone took note of Kikuno’s insistence and desires to be a fully integrated member of compulsory English program and were happy to run with the uncertainty that such a situation brings. This collaborative process involving Kikuno, various support staff, and myself appears to reflect and is in keeping with Lowe’s (2016b) SEN framework for continuing professional development. Lowe suggests four steps: 1. Student consultation, 2. Internal coaching and mentoring, 3. Outside support and training, and 4. Cascade training and recycling knowledge. It’s at the fourth stage that I find myself now.
Not such a newbie now?
At the time of writing, Kikuno continues to study English, albeit with a different instructor who is likely experiencing the same things that I went through. I now find myself offering my thoughts as advice to her new instructor, which has left me with a great thirst to know more about similar stories and related research in the wider teaching world. Unfortunately, literature dedicated to the teaching of deaf learners in ELT is decidedly lacking, and as I hope my post has shown, the process has very much been trial and error. However, I’m pleased to say that I’ve found some wonderful resources along the way. Fellow iTDi contributor Naomi Epstein’s thought-provoking blog Visualising Ideas is dedicated almost entirely to her experiences in working with deaf and hard of hearing students. I have also found a handful of works that focus specifically on deafness in language learning education, namely Strong (1988) and Swisher (1989), while a more recent title by Judit Kormos and Anne Margaret Smith (2012) provides formative reading around the subject of specific learning differences. So I’m still a newbie, and I’m happy with that. I feel lucky to have been given such a challenge at this stage in my teaching career and will endeavour to make it a part of my continuing professional development through practice and research. I hope the field will also take it on as more of a serious issue.
Kormos, J. & Smith, A.M. (2012). Teaching Languages to Students with Specific Learning Differences. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
Lowe, R. (2016a). Special educational needs coordinators in ELT: A necessary step? The Modern English Teacher, 25(2), 73-75.
Lowe, R. (2016b). Special educational needs in English language teaching: Towards a framework for continuing professional development. ELTED, 19, 23-31.
Strong, M. (1988). Language Learning and Deafness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Swisher M.V. (1989). The language learning situation of deaf students. TESOL Quarterly, 23(2) 239–258.
First time is fresh, first time gives new flesh. Experience makes you rich and experience sets you free. As an adventurer, I’ve always loved to be given a chance to embrace something new. I must say I was getting rusty because I didn’t do anything challenging for quite a while.
The opportunity came along in the form of teacher training. I should say that training teachers wasn’t something entirely new for me since I’d done it a few times before, though on a smaller scale and only for teachers in my school. But this was something I considered out of my league: not only did I get the chance to train teachers from a different school, but I also had to train Maths and Science teachers!
Let me start from the beginning. Last February I was offered a chance to provide training for ENET (English for Non English Teachers). I was in a team of 7 trainers who came from different backgrounds and teaching fields. Our client was one of the most popular private schools in Indonesia and the program involved 80 hours of training. The goal was for the Maths and Science teachers to feel confident in teaching their subjects using full English in the classroom.
Before we could jump into training, we had to be trained, too, because none of us actually knew much about Maths or Science curriculum. We had to embrace CLIL (content language integrated learning) and start by learning the school’s material. We had to learn about things like phylum cordata, vertebrate, decimal system, 2 digits subtraction pattern, and many others. Learning this material was fun but trying to build a lesson in such a way that the teachers would be able to teach students using simple and comprehensible language was something else. Aside from learning the subjects, we were also trained on how to organize the program. As it was 80-hour training, we divided it into blocks of 3 sessions each day, 2 hours per session. In practice that meant that every time we got to the classroom we were set to teach for 6 hours, which was really intense! The length of the course could be demotivating for the participants and there was so much content to cover, so the preparation had to be thorough and handled well. Thankfully, we had an awesome team who would go extra miles in preparing the material for all the trainers. As our schedule consisted of long sessions, we had to make sure that we would provide engaging activities for all the trainees to stay motivated and actively participating throughout the program.
Every trainer was also taking part in designing lesson plans and the teacher’s guide. We spent a lot of time doing it, and since some of us lived in other cities, there were a lot of late nights, whatsapp sessions, dozens of emails, and revision here and there. We used all the tools we could to provide the healthy environment for all teachers to grow. From Power Point and flashcards to online learning sessions – we did it all.
I was very nervous before I started my first session because not only some of the teachers were more experienced than me in teaching, but I was also afraid that I wouldn’t answer their questions or fulfill their needs. Another concern I had was how I’d get through 6 hours of training time without anyone yawning in my class! Luckily, everyone in my team was very supportive (and the head of trainers reminded me to always speak slowly and look a bit more mature).
I had the privilege to teach three groups in three locations of our training, but I spent most of the training with one group in North Jakarta Area. There were 22 teachers in my group and everyone was very keen on learning. They embraced all the activities joyfully! Even the simplest activity, such as interviewing your friends, could turn out to be full of laughter. We did a lot of one-on-one Q&A sessions to work on their spelling ability and created engaging and fun role play cards with famous characters like Captain America, Thor and Indonesian famous comedians. We played with emotions, talking to each other in angry or laughing voices. One example of a role play we had was a bunny and sloth interview that I came up with, where one teacher would be the bunny and ask questions really quickly and the other would act as the sloth and mimic the slow characteristic of the animal. My group had a blast and the 6 hours of training went by like a breeze, leaving everyone happy and excited!
The CLIL session became my favorite, even if I was terrified of it at first. I soon found out that nobody in the classroom would judge me for not being a master of Maths and Science. These teachers were already full of ideas on how to teach their students. All they needed was some confidence and language means to use in their class to teach what they already knew so well. And that’s what we provided to them. After a couple of sessions, both the teachers in my group and I grew more confident as we had built trust towards each other.
When the 80 hours came to an end, it was a bitter-sweet moment for me. I was probably more happy than my trainees, because I completed all sessions and also gained a lot from the experience itself. Besides, it meant no more working at night, cutting papers, making slides, and doing assessment. But I was also sad that I had to say goodbye to my groups who I considered to be more than just participants in my class but rather my colleagues.
This experience has taught me a lot and I do hope that in the future I’ll get another chance like this. For that I must and I am willing to work harder. New experience? I will have my arms wide open for you!
In the heat of July and August, a determined-looking middle-aged woman burdened with an oversized backpack pulled a small rolling suitcase through the crowds in Shinjuku. She hefted the suitcase up and down multiple concrete staircases in Tamachi and Mita and clung to it protectively on narrow escalators packed with businessmen. The woman was me. I was navigating the city of Tokyo, where I stayed during the week in order to attend classes and study for my master’s degree in TESOL.
I began the program last May and finished up this past August, which is like ordering a large juicy hamburger with everything on it – onions, tomatoes, cheese, avocado, bacon – and wolfing it down in three minutes flat. The director of the program and the kind ladies at the graduate office didn’t use that analogy, but they were dubious about my living far from Tokyo and packing so much study into a short period of time. Their doubt did not deter me, as I was dead-set on making a change in my life and one year was the longest vacation I felt I could take from my full-time job. My husband agreed to foot the bill (“Think of me as your third child!” I told him, flashing what I hoped was a winsome smile) and also to let me stay in Tokyo three nights during the week so I would not waste study time commuting back and forth to the city. According to some friends, none of this was either sensible or practical.
Potential impracticality has never stopped me from trying something I was determined to do, but on the other hand, going against general disapproval does raise the bar: no-one wants to fail publicly when others have advised them to do things differently from the start. And so I knew that once I began my course of study, pride would not allow me to bail out of the program before finishing. What I did not anticipate, however, was that pride would also work against me at times. And that humility is not easy to cultivate when you’ve been the boss of your own language school for 16 years.
So, what was it like being a student again after a 29-year academic hiatus, and why did my pride fail me? Well from the beginning, I had to come to grips with the fact that writing academic papers is all about precision, not eloquence, and that was painful. As a former English literature major, I had spent years cultivating a certain writing style which just wasn’t working for me anymore. I was adrift in a different genre. For one thing, my writing was not formal enough. And I kept trying to be funny, which wasn’t appreciated, either. I found it difficult to describe or even think of theories as “robust” (robust was a milkmaid, right?), to think of language as “input” (which can be impoverished, rich, or even deviant), or to imagine that my students might suddenly have “language-related episodes” (Would they keel over? Would they speak in tongues?). And I was always over the word count.
But somewhere along the line, I got the hang of academic writing: it is precise, and precision is a different kind of eloquence. I learned to write swiftly and accurately, collecting my thoughts as I wrote, whipping off multiple neatly-crafted essays in a three-hour test period. That was a new kind of energy for me, resulting in a new kind of exhaustion at the end. I knew that I had chosen wisely to stay in Tokyo during the week, rather than pushing myself to make the long commute back home in the evenings. As I gained confidence and academic know-how, I began to fully engage in my classes, to feel competitive, and to raise my eyebrows at less serious students who ventured comments like, “Don’t you think we have too many readings?”
I loved every paper I turned in. Well, nearly all of them. And I loved the crazy three hour essay tests that demanded on-the-spot creativity, combined with organizational and analytical skills. Above all, I loved the content: I was writing about language acquisition and about pedagogy, both of which I feel passionate about. So it was crushing when many of those papers and tests came back with very little feedback. Or, in the case of my comprehensive exam – the equivalent of a thesis – no feedback at all. The test was not even returned. I did receive a typed letter from the director of the graduate program congratulating me on passing, but that is not feedback. “The exam was like giving birth!” I protested to my professor. “I want the baby back, and I want someone to tell me how beautiful she is!”
Yet even as I threw dignity to the wind in demanding the return of my exam, I knew that it was not going to happen. Mid-protest, I had already begun swallowing my disappointment and trying to recall the (brilliant?) ideas I’d had while writing so they wouldn’t be lost forever. And I did let go, reasoning, “I’m here as a teacher. Lesson learned: I won’t do this to my own students. All who work hard deserve feedback.” Thinking of the little ones waiting for the re-opening of my language school, I was able to squash the last vestiges of my pride and move on. Alright, I know objectively that there is at least a fraction of a small vestige left, but I’m okay with that.
The final word: if you’re considering graduate school, go with the awareness that no program and no institution is going to be perfect. You will, however, grow and mature wherever you study. It entails risk, sacrifice, and the cultivation of humility, but you’ll emerge from the experience both wiser (you can’t help but learn something) and humbler (because learning is never straightforward). I’d do it again in a heartbeat.