One of my favorite ESL book series is “Language Teaching Insights from Other Fields”. Edited by Christopher Stillwell, these books are collections of essays by English teachers who either had other jobs before they became teachers or work 2 jobs. The authors reflect on how the skills they learned in those other jobs have influenced their ESL teaching practices. Because I love learning and I think that skills are totally transferable from one situation to another if we just think about it, I find this idea brilliant. In that spirit, I would like to write my own unofficial contribution to the series.
Long before I even contemplated being a teacher, my parents bought a farm (literally, not figuratively) in the high desert region of California. At the age of 6 I moved from the very not agricultural city of Los Angeles to an alfalfa farm that was 40 miles from the nearest grocery store. Among the jobs I did on that farm were changing wheel lines (moving the irrigation pipes from one place to another several times a day), taking care of the chickens and goats and driving a swather (the giant piece of farm equipment that cuts the alfalfa and puts it into rows). Growing up and working on a farm has formed a part of my identity and in many ways has shaped the way I teach.
1. There is a lot of work that has to happen before anyone can sit down at a table and enjoy the fruits of their labor.
When we first moved to the farm, the fields had laid fallow for quite some time and much of the area that my father wanted to farm had never been farmed before. We had just bought the land so we didn’t have any money to hire people to help us so it was up to us to clear it and get it ready to plow, that meant my brother , I (5 and 6 years old respectively) and my mother walked around behind my father who was driving a tractor attached to a flat bed trailer and tossed rocks onto it in the hot desert sun. After that, we had to hire someone to drill a well for irrigation (that was beyond our skills), we had to plant the seeds, care for the plants, and harvest them. All of this had to happen even before we could start preparing any food in the kitchen.
Language learners have to do much the same thing before they can enjoy a conversation in their new language. First, they must clear away the rocks of self-doubt, fear, and insecurities in order to be able to learn effectively. Then they must plant a lot of vocabulary in their heads, and water it every day by revisiting it and using it. They must organize that vocabulary into neat grammar rows to use it understandably. If they leave those new words alone for too long, they will whither and die and will have to be planted again. All of this has to be done in the expectation that one day, all of their hard work will pay off and they will be able to sit down at that table and communicate with ease. In the meantime however, it is a struggle.
2. A field must lay fallow if it is to remain productive
Soil becomes exhausted if the same crop is planted over and over again. Land that used to produce a bounty, slowly produces less and less and what it does produce is less nutritious if it is not allowed to rest. While living in Tucson, Arizona, I planted an herb garden outside of my kitchen. I was delighted when my small basil plant grew into a bush. I harvested and harvested for several years enjoying pesto to my heart's content. Then gradually my bush began to shrink and die. No matter how much water I gave it, no matter how much sun it got, it would not grow any more. I needed to let the soil rest by either planing something different there or by not planting anything there for a while.
The brain is similar, if we study the same thing over and over without resting, our study time becomes less and less productive. While I tell my students that much of learning a language successfully is how many hours of practice they put in, it is not a good idea to do the same thing for long periods of time. When studying a vocabulary list for example, I recommend that students not study for more than 15 minutes at a time, then they should rest and do something else. Spaced repetition is a much more effective way to study than just muscling your way through and forcing yourself to study for hours at a time.
I also try to employ a “crop rotation” strategy when I teach my lessons. In order to make sure that brains do not get exhausted but are also not laying completely fallow, I rotate activities so that the brains in my classroom can work on different skills. This way no one area of the brain becomes too depleted. If we start out with a communicative activity in which students are speaking and interacting a lot, I follow that with a quieter activity like journal writing. If students have been sitting for a while working on a reading assignment, I follow that with an activity in which they can get up and move their bodies like a flyswatter game or an active pronunciation activity. In this way, everyone's brain continues to function efficiently and learning is less "exhausting".
3. If you water a plant too much, it will die
Part of being a good farmer is feeling the soil, gauging the weather, and having an understanding for how much water a field will need on any given day. Of course plants need water but if you give them too much water, their roots will rot. Root rot is caused by a fungus that thrives in wet soil. Once a plant has root rot it is very difficult to get rid of and keeping the soil relatively dry is the best solution.
Just as water can give a plant life or take it away, feedback can guide and inspire students but too much of it can sap their self-confidence and motivation. I know when I studied Spanish and Turkish, I appreciated feedback and I loved hearing what my teacher thought of my ideas and my efforts to communicate but when they stopped me completely to closely examine my grammar mistakes and didn’t acknowledge what I was trying to do, I stopped trying. For me, learning a language is all about the joy of communication; of course, accuracy is important for this, and I was always striving to get better at it, but if I succeeded in communicating, especially in those beginning stages, I considered it a success and I wanted my teacher to consider it a success also. Not every student feels this way, and just as some plants can take more water than others, some students can take more feedback than others.
Feedback can have positive and negative effects on students and as teachers, we need to get that same kind of feel for the soil that a farmer has. Some of the variables that go into figuring out how much feedback a student needs are, student level, how the student feels about him/herself as a learner, what a student hopes to accomplish in the class, how much feedback the student is expecting on a given assignment, and how much effort a student has put into his/her work.
When I teach I always strive to find that balance between helping students to improve and not “over-watering” them. This can be a very tricky balance to find and I don’t always succeed.
Sometimes the weather and politics get in your way and threaten to destroy the crop if emergency measures are not taken.
Much of the time my family farmed in California, there was a sever drought. A lack of water was a constant concern for farmers up and down our valley and while we were able to stave off disaster by drilling deeper wells, the water level was dropping and Los Angeles was constantly demanding more of it. I clearly remember the adults in my life discussing the California Water Wars and trying to figure out how best to keep the water from flowing out from underneath us. There were community meetings where farmers developed strategies for how to defend their water rights. They shared their experience with irrigation issues and tried to help each other develop better ways of irrigating crops. People were willing to fight for their fields.
Sometimes as teachers, things that are beyond our control affect our students' lives and we have to fight for them as well. Luckily our students are not plants and they can fight right alongside us. Just as the farmers had to come together and support each other, teachers need to come together to devise strategies that will help support students. The political climate worldwide seems to be turning against the immigrants and refugees who are often our students. This requires political action on our part. We must be aware of what is happening and resist policies that threaten the well-being of our students. We must also help our students to know what rights they have and teach them how to advocate for themselves.
5. Plants can adapt to and grow in all kinds of conditions but to really flourish, a plant needs good soil, enough water (but not too much), sunlight, relatively consistent weather and time.
Plants can grow in almost any climate but some climates are more conducive to growing than others. Students will learn something no matter what their situation is but if we want our students knowledge and learning to grow and flourish, we have to make sure that they have everything they need.
Let’s start with the soil. Just as plants need soil for nourishment, students need good food in order to be able to learn. If students are hungry, they will not be able to focus as effectively on their studies, it may cause psychological and behavioral problems. By hungry I don’t just mean lacking enough food, but also the right kinds of food to keep bodies and minds healthy and ready to learn. This can be a problem for university students and adult students as well as K-12. They also need to get enough sleep and access to health care when they are sick (we teachers need this too).
I wrote about water earlier as a metaphor for feedback, I would like to switch that metaphor now to a stimulating environment. Students need to have enough input to work with in order to create their own understandings of the world. Without stimulation, students will wilt and whither away. In an ESL classroom, this means interesting and engaging encounters with the English language. Lucky for us, there is no shortage of great material on the internet, in books and magazines, and even on street signs for us to provide for our learners.
Sunlight is imperative for most plants to grow. There are a few plants that grow underground in caves but they are the minority. Most plants will seek out the sun and turn their leaves and flowers in it's direction all throughout the day. Similarly, students need to be recognized and appreciated by their teachers and peers. Their triumphs and progress should be highlighted in small ways throughout every semester, and even every day. When my students succeed in speaking on a topic in English for 15 minutes, for example, I publicly recognize their achievement and we all applaud each other. If a student does very well on a test or helps another student out with understanding something, I will make an effort to tell that student that I saw and appreciated what they did. If you have your own classroom, you could even highlight well-done assignments on the walls and in class newsletters.
Inconsistent weather can stunt plants and stop fruit from growing. A few years ago when I lived in Turkey, I had a gigantic cherry tree in my back yard. In the spring it burst forth with flowers, the bees came in droves and a few weeks later, thousands of cherries began to appear. It was magical and delicious for everyone in the vicinity. The next year, the tree threw out just as many flowers and the bees were just as enthusiastic about pollinating them but there was a cold snap and even though the tree produced an impressive crop of beautiful green leaves, there were no cherries. Even more tragically, there were not apricots in an area that is known as the “apricot capitol of the world (Malatya)” and the economy of the entire region suffered.
Students also need consistency to bear fruit. They need to have routines in classes that encourage them to study every day. They need to know what they will be required to do on a day to day, week to week basis and develop the study habits they need to learn. The teacher needs to provide a consistently supportive atmosphere in class.
Finally, plants need time, time to germinate, grow, flower, develop fruit and ripen. Not all plants follow the same schedule, bamboo shoots ahead while olives take well over 20 years to yield a crop. This is normal and natural, no one would expect an olive tree to start growing olives in one season! Not all student follow the same schedule either (even though we would like it if they did so our curriculum would all match up, nice and neat). The crops in our classrooms do not consist of a single variety but rather are as diverse as a rainforest. We must give each student in our classes the nurturing and time he/she needs.
No learning is a waste. Everything we learn in life can be applied to every other part of our lives and this complicated web of understandings make us uniquely who we are. I love reading about how an architect would approach course design and how being a bar tender helped one teacher become a better teacher. When we start to compartmentalize our lives and wall the different parts of who we are away from each other, we are losing a great resource that is within each and every one of us. We are all teachers but we are currently and have been at some point in our lives many other things.
What other jobs have you had that have influenced the way you think about teaching? Please comment below!
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Hi, I'm Kia.
I help ESL / EFL teachers create fun, effective courses that students love.