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Favorite Books – The Handmaid’s Tale

I have always been a fan of dystopian novels and stories. I actually started with the Utopia by Thomas More in high school, which is an old classic that considered what a perfect society might be like. After that, I started devouring any kind of Utopia/Dystopia I could find: Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, The Giver, the list goes on. The dystopian novel that has really haunted me, however, has been The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

I was 19 and overconfident in my knowledge of feminism. Despite this, I had only ever read the “classics” (focused on white male dystopias).  This was assigned reading  in my Women in American Society class(I dove into the deep end of critical theory and struggled greatly). Besides the other challenging, mind-blowing revelations in that class, this book focused on the fragility of women’s rights and how easily rights can be taken away. Reproductive rights, property rights, the right to not be sold as property in marriage, the right to participate in the same virtues and vices as men (jury duty, smoking and drinking in bars, running marathons, etc). Not only this, but also that many of these rights were only granted within living memory. I remember the novel mentioning  women not being allowed to have credit cards without a male co-signer up until the 1970s. At first, I thought this was an alternative history timeline until I asked my mother about it and then proceeded to research it. This is the truly haunting part of the book, especially for those not the most well versed in recent history.  I recommend this book for everyone, but especially young women, as often we can take for granted rights and liberties that were fought hard for.

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My Teaching Philosophy

I started my teaching career 3 years ago as a Teaching Associate for Cal State Fullerton. At the end of my studies for graduate school, I completed a practicum which required me to compile a teaching portfolio, including a teaching philosophy.

By plucking her petals, you do not gather the beauty of the flower.”

-Rabindranath Tagore

Through my teaching of English and critical thinking, I want students to engage in society in every aspect of life through claiming their voices and not abdicating their personal power. Through a Socratic, communicative method of questioning students’ beliefs about authority and the right to speak (Peirce), professors and students can co-create knowledge and process in the classroom (Freire).

Through the MS TESOL program, I have gained much experience from my practicum teaching experience as an English 101 instructor, as well as my tutoring experiences at Coastline Community College’s Success Center and the CSUF Writing Center. In each of these positions, I have learned and applied the theories from Bonny Norton Peirce to Paolo Freire that I learned in Second Language Acquisition and Teaching Adults in an ESL/EFL Context. I also have modeled much of my syllabus after Ferris and Hedgecock’s recommendations.

Students are regularly subjected to the whims of teachers and other authority figures; their student knowledge and experience valid only if validated by authority. Paolo Freire’s banking concept of education applies quite well to today’s education system. In this philosophy, teachers give the gift of knowledge to eager students. Students lack knowledge, therefore they sit in class in order to absorb the knowledge that the all-knowing teacher bestows upon them. But this philosophy ignores the basic humanity of students: no one enters the classroom tabula rasa.

A new metaphor, rather than the negative, capitalistic definition of banking, is more apt to describe the classroom I strive for: a garden. The professor should act as a gardener, working with the natural inclinations of students for them to flourish. It is vital to consider students’ interests as “any gardener who should attempt to raise healthy, beautiful, and fruitful plants by outraging all those plants’ instinctive wants and searchings, would meet as his reward—sickly plants, ugly plants, sterile plants, dead plants” (de Cleyre). Ignoring that students bring their experiences and personal knowledge into the classroom is misguided. It is also important to give students the chance to grow in autonomy or “beauty” rather than “plucking away” at them so that they can fit into our educational molds. It is easy as teachers to engage with students on a purely transactional level rather than a human one. Each class brings different ethnicities, age groups, and social classes teaching the professor much about the world outside the classroom. Nothing happens in a vacuum.

Professors should act to encourage students to share their knowledge in the classroom and critically evaluate it. Critical thinking skills are integral parts of any English class. In doing so, the professor helps the student to become a critical thinker as well as a co-creator of knowledge. We learn how to interact with the discourse in society through our classrooms and our professors. Giving students the tools to go out and engage with society facilitates not only great English skills, but also social change. As a professor, I want to encourage my students to dissent and look for solutions if they see ills in society.

I wrote this two years ago for my practicum. Since then, I feel like I have lived many life times. However, the foundations of my teaching philosophy are still present in my mindset today. The garden metaphor is apt to describe the classroom, in more ways than one: a gardener can only control so much, plants thrive best in different environments and conditions, some plants need more or special attention from the gardener.

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Fractal Power of Learning English Words’ Definitions in English

The fractals of natureI often find my students using translators in class. When students are low level, this can be a boon. Instead of asking the teacher constantly for the definition, this is the next best step. But as students move into more advanced ESL and onward to mainstream classes, it is vital that they understand the fractal power of learning word definitions in English. Here are 3 major reasons why:

Words do not always have a 1 to 1 correspondence from one language to another.

English in particular has many ways to say one thing, and while many translators give the student peace of mind there are many things to consider when learning words such as register, collocation, connotation v. denotation, frequency, etc (ESL teachers, do yourself a favor and read Word Knowledge).

Translators are security blankets that can hinder fluency.

Again, I have seen this over and over again in my classes: advanced students that cling to their translators (bonus points if Google Translate). Besides the lack of complete accuracy, the overuse of translators can cripple a student’s confidence in themselves. This lack of confidence can cause students to miss out on practice because they feel that they are not up to the challenge. My goal as an educator is to move students towards independent learning. Thus, in this case, if I see that a student is advanced enough that they can learn English definitions in English, I heavily discourage the use of translators (students should only use translators in case they really don’t understand the definition of the word). Also, they lose out on the biggest benefit of using an English dictionary.

Learning English words’ definitions in English will increase your vocabulary dramatically.

I know vocabulary learning is frustrating. I experienced this when I was learning Italian. At first, it was easy to just translate word for word. But as I studied more, especially since my upper level grammar classes were all in Italian, I had to learn a lot of metalanguage words in Italian (like, grammar terms such as noun, passive voice, etc). I just gave up my translator and started just accepting the fact that I needed to read in Italian even though it took me forever. The thing is, I got a lot better with my vocabulary and a lot faster with my reading.

I like to tell my students about the fractal power of this approach. If I don’t know a word in English, I go to the dictionary and I find two more words that I don’t know the meaning of. I then have to go look those words up. What if I find words I don’t know then? You must persist, especially in the beginning. Keep going until you can unlock that chain of words that you don’t know. The reward outweighs the time. Instead of learning one word, you may have learned 5 words. Now think what happens if you keep pursuing vocabulary in this manner. It creates a fractal, much like the plant pictured above. It grows from one stem and splits into many many more leaves and stems. Imagine your vocabulary like this plant.

The next step:

Now that you’ve moved on from translators, what dictionaries should students use?

I will answer that in another blog post.

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Recommended Vocabulary Apps

screen-shot-2017-01-13-at-1-07-38-pmVocabulary Apps:

Duolingo – This is a great app for learning vocabulary and for practicing sentences. You can “level up” in the target language and compete against your classmates for the most points. The class link is here: https://www.duolingo.com/o/yzazhk

Screen Shot 2017-01-13 at 1.08.32 PM.pngMemrise – There are many English courses available for students. Memrise has students associate words or images with vocabulary to help students remember vocabulary. http://www.memrise.com/courses/english/english/?q=intermediate