Monthly Archives: August 2010

A Little Less Lonely

This was my philosophy of language teaching, written for my pedagogy class in Fall 2010 at the University of Virginia.

French markets are famous for vibrant displays of every imaginable alimentary substance. The best part, though, is the bread: French bread is sinfully delicious. And of all this delicious bread, one man in Lyon makes it better than anyone else. His chocolate chip loaves in particular are moist, buttery, slightly sweet—perfection itself. The first Sunday I was in Lyon, I stopped just to admire his wares, but his charm quickly converted me into a patron. Over the next four weeks, I stopped by his station weekly for a mouthwatering loaf and a bit of conversation. Despite the fact that our acquaintanceship lasted a mere month, and despite the fact that we never spoke longer than ten minutes, my eyes welled on my last visit to the market when he smiled with disappointment in his eyes and pronounced the final “adieu.” That moment demonstrates why I chose language education as my career. To connect to others, to form relationships, to break stereotypes—these are the most important human functions, the ones that make our time on the planet a little less lonely. All of them are possible only with language.

To this end, my classroom encourages genuine, respectful interaction; everyone’s voice is heard. Every class meeting begins with informal conversation: I greet students and ask what has occupied their time since I saw them last, what they are working on, and how their lives are going. Students eagerly respond to this invitation to share their lives with others. The relationships we form early on are of utmost importance to me personally and as a foundation for our language study. In no time, rapport builds to the point that students no longer hesitate to discuss their childhood, likes and dislikes, or hopes for the future. They learn to trust the other students and me with glimpses into their lives. However, rather than always talking about ourselves, I routinely ask students to adopt the perspectives of others, which simultaneously raises their affective awareness and vocabulary base. Regardless of the assignment, the goal in my classroom is the same: to foster real communication in as authentic a situation as possible for the students’ current linguistic level.

Even when presenting grammar and vocabulary for the first time, I try to take a learner-focused approach. Rather than give rules and immediately expect output, I ask students to look at or listen to authentic texts that feature the concept, and then we work together to construct and test hypotheses about the form. This way, my role can shift from lecturer to guide. In my experience, language students who are guided stay engaged; those who are inundated with new information quickly become overwhelmed or apathetic. A typical lesson in my classroom, then, follows the PACE method, allowing for extra support when the students seem to need it. The extension component of the lesson always consists of thoughtful communication with others while reinforcing the new linguistic form, often via “info gap” activities. This communication might be in written form or spoken, presentational or interactive, but the goal of all language, sharing information, is always at the forefront.

This belief about sharing information leads me to include as much authentic text as possible. Language classes are not about words: they are about speakers. Words alone do not make a language what it is; emotions, traditions, and people do. Consequently, to introduce my students to French is to introduce them to its speakers. We consider questions such as, “How do native speakers wield the words we learn in class? How do the words interact with the cultures in which they are born? How does the language reflect the voices that use it?” Of highest priority to me is that my students see the French language as a dynamic space in which life takes place. It is not merely a phenomenon occurring within our classroom. Authentic text helps students come to this realization. Music videos, film clips, news articles, photographs, theatre programs…these are all vital in my classroom. Not only do these instruments allow us to see the grammar and vocabulary in action, but they are also launching pads for culture discussions. The vast majority of students I have taught, regardless of age, are intrinsically motivated to discover new things about the cultures that share our world. By weaving cultural information with linguistic information, students begin to see the full picture of language and how it works in tandem with the people who speak it. Their comments in class mature from, “That’s so weird!” to “I can see why they do/believe that,” or even, “That makes sense.” As these new points of view are accepted, students’ interest in the language itself tends to increase, which makes the classroom experience a powerful one for all of us, myself included.

I hope to continue learning ways of maximizing the linguistic and cultural interests and abilities of my students, particularly as it relates to bringing down the affective filter. It is my firm belief that as the affective filter is dissolved, language learning skyrockets. When students are no longer intimidated by the language itself or by the teacher, they engage more voluntarily with the material. And as they become more comfortable with the others in the classroom, they find it easier to use the language to discover each other. In the future, I want to work with others to research and develop classroom materials and practices that encourage the affective filter to dissolve as much as possible. The more positive associations a student has with the language, the more likely she will be to study the language in depth. What can teachers be doing to reach and appreciate their students as individuals, rather than viewing the entire class as a single entity? What types of activities work to quickly dissipate the natural reservations students bring to the subject? How can teachers build motivation and creativity within the short space of a class period? These questions fascinate me: I am eager to learn more about how students learn so that I can become a better teacher and servant for them.

I have benefited through the years from excellent instructors from whom I learned the value of a teacher’s enthusiasm and passion for the material. As I have gained experience teaching for myself, I have learned more practical lessons: keeping students in their seats for long periods of time is counterproductive. Lecturing about grammar rules tends not to be effective. Listening to students’ specific needs as it relates to language instruction raises productivity and confidence. Every day I enter a classroom, whether as a student or a teacher, I learn something brand new about the profession. My primary career goal is to continue this process forever, so that each day my students have an increasingly effective teacher in the classroom. Nothing is more beautiful to me than the moment when a light bulb clicks on for a student, when she discovers yet another way to use language to make her neighbor a little less lonely. If I can continue finding ways to make that happen, I will feel that I have been a success.

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Rainbows

“So when…I’m all by myself
And I can’t hear You answer my cries for help
I’ll remember the suffering Your love put You through
And I will go through the valley if You want me to.”
— “If You Want Me To” by Ginny Owens

I didn’t grow up in a Christian denomination that spoke much about grace. Instead, sermons of sin, God’s displeasure, and the weakness of humans abounded. Once, a pastor informed my youth group that there was a specific formula one must follow when praying: it was only by praying this way that God would listen. An evangelist who came to my church when I was barely a teenager suggested that those who weren’t filled with the Spirit might not be saved, and the only way to be sure you’d been filled with the Spirit was whether you’d spoken in tongues. Ergo, those who haven’t spoken in tongues might not be saved. For this reason and others, I grew up doubting the grace of God as frequently as I went to bed at night—and if I were being honest with myself, I’d have to say that I still have relapses. Every night for years and years, I prayed the sinner’s prayer just in case Jesus came back for His people during the night. I wanted to cover my bases in case the last 4,591 sinner’s prayers didn’t take.

It’s no great surprise, then, that when I was eighteen years old, I was sure that God had revoked my salvation privileges forever. Looking back over my life, there were lots of things I regretted thinking or doing, from saying disrespectful things to my parents to making fun of people at school. Drugs, alcohol, and sex—the trinity of Big Sins—might never have tempted me, but there was still an undeniable sinfulness at my core. I kept praying words like, “I know You’re probably not listening anymore, but even if I can’t be saved, I’ll still try to live like I am. I still believe in You, and I’ll try to send others Your way. I’m just sorry I’ve screwed up so often and that this relationship couldn’t work out any better.”

I remember praying exactly that way as my family drove to my aunt’s house one Friday afternoon. I was feeling especially bold that day, and asked God if he wouldn’t mind sending me a sign if in fact I hadn’t quite used up my grace allotment yet. “I know I’m probably overstepping the bounds here a little, God,” I whispered tentatively, “but if there’s still a little grace with my name on it, would you mind letting me know?” I fell asleep, praying that prayer over and over. When I woke up from my nap, I swear the first thing I saw was a rainbow. Now, a rainbow might not mean much to you, but here’s what it says about them in Genesis:

            Then God said, “I am giving you a sign of my covenant with you and with all living creatures, for all generations to come. I have placed my rainbow in the clouds. It is the sign of my covenant with you and with all the earth. When I send clouds over the earth, the rainbow will appear in the clouds, and…when I see [it], I will remember the eternal covenant between God and every living creature on earth” (Genesis 9:12-14, 16, NLT).

So every time God sees a rainbow, he remembers his covenant with us: he has guaranteed us love, grace, and protection from the perils of life on earth. It only seems fitting that if that’s what’s on God’s mind when he sees a rainbow, the same should be true of me. I spent the next several moments in the car contemplating the mercy of God…until I began talking myself out of the message. “Mercy for others, but no longer for me,” I reminded myself, frustrated that I’d been swept away by the magic of nature’s beauty. “God is merciful to those who have more self-control than I have and can refrain from sinning so much.”

A few months later, it was January of 2003, and I was in a church service with my then-boyfriend. I don’t remember what the minister preached about that morning, but I do remember the overpowering urge to ask for prayer. I was still struggling (privately) with the feeling of being outside the bounds of salvation, but that rainbow had sent a tiny ray of light into my being, causing me to question if all really was lost. Almost immediately after I walked up to the altar, a woman joined me and began praying for me, praying all the things I wanted to say but didn’t feel that I could. Without ever asking why I was at the altar, she told me that God found me beautiful, treasured, and even holy. She told me that God did not take kindly to his children being terrorized by Satan’s lies. She told me that God roars like a lion against anyone who bullies, mistreats, or harms one of his own. She told me that I was precious and forgiven…and I believed her. I finally believed that I was still accepted and that God was welcoming me to his side. My body crumbled to the floor, and for a long time I sat in the presence of the Lord, letting grace and peace flood me. I belong to Jesus, I belong to Jesus, I belong to Jesus…

That night I ate dinner at my boyfriend’s house, and then we all took our regular spots in the sunroom. His mom sat on a wicker chair in the corner, and he and I settled onto a glider. In moments, the sun was setting in the most unbelievable way: the sunset was quite literally a gigantic rainbow that spanned the entire sky. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet…they were all there in order as the sun slipped below the horizon. We marveled; none of us had seen a sunset like that ever before. (And while I can’t speak for them, I can say that I haven’t seen anything remotely like it since.) Remember? I heard the word echoing somewhere within me. Remember? Remember? God seemed to be linking the rainbow experience from the car to this one, reminding me that we had a covenant, he and I. He’d painted both rainbows—skywriting, really—to remind me of the immense love he harbors for me. If I hadn’t already believed that God had power even over the colors of the sunset, I certainly did then.

Ever since, I have actively sought out rainbows; however, I usually don’t have to. If I am going through a trying time, if something is weighing heavily on my mind, a rainbow will inevitably appear. God always reminds me of his ultimate control over the situation and of my privileged place in his family. Just yesterday I tearfully returned to my apartment in Virginia after spending a fabulous week of respite at home. I begged the Lord to tell me why I’m having to go through this—being away from home, family, and friends—in order to get a degree I’ve fallen out of love with. He didn’t answer, but did send a rainbow to meet me along the interstate. I love you more than words can express, remember?

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