“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”
~ Ben Franklin
- Personal Growth:
My father has always been supportive of my interest in language. When I was a young boy, my father was often inaccessible to me, shut away in his library working. In order to spend more time with him, I would enter the library quietly and choose from the many books on the shelves. At first, my father allowed me to read whatever I desired, but then he began to guide my choices. My father often had to travel around town or to nearby places. Again, wanting to spend more time with him, I would hop in the car. My father made a game for me of trying to get the gist of signs on businesses as we drove past them. This was excellent preparation for summarizing and breaking messages down to their essentials. I’m sure that my father’s creative and perceptive guidance was instrumental in gearing me toward a passion for language, which naturally became associated with my efforts to spend more time with my father. My father is undoubtedly the most gifted teacher I have known. Because of him, I was drawn to the words of Benjamin Franklin in the quote I used to open this passage. I think Franklin’s words accurately describe my father’s gifts to me through having become involved in my thirst for language. Those words also help to express my own philosophy of teaching.
My father taught me not only to feel words, but to taste words, to enter the cave that is opened before me as the new word’s invitation to explore beyond the surface of the word. As I began to study English in school, I saw that I would have to make the language experience fit my needs. I admired my teachers for having passed over the hurdle of attaining English and making it their own, but I could also see that the stiff, formal teaching methods in my culture would barely crack the dry crust of the baked sand through which I would wade. My father saw to it that I was enrolled in private English schools where I was able to interact with native speakers and thereby become immersed with the language. This was a great privilege and opportunity. Even so, the journey from Arabic to English is a dense and thorny one. Often I wondered whether I would ever be free of the tangles I faced as I sought to make sense of the mysteries of English. Little by little, so gradually that I wasn’t even aware of the progress, I began to see light that became brighter and brighter, then to feel the cool presence of water, first a mist and then a pool.
In the times when I felt discouraged, I remembered some of the teachers and professors who were native Arabic speakers but who had acquired English. I interviewed some of them, asking them to describe their experience of studying English. They shared their own stories of struggle and determination. In those periods when I felt that my task was hopeless, I could hold up these instructors as shining examples of perseverance and triumph. As long as there was hope, I would not lose sight of my goals.
All of this describes my own experiences of finding ways to learn in spite of anything that may have stood in my way or material that once seemed insurmountable. It is generally true that our experiences inspire our attitudes and our way of approaching problems. We take what we have learned and experienced, then turn that into tools and strategies for teaching others. The voice that inspires creation and solutions can be seen as rising out of our own efforts at creating and solving. Thus, as I have taught myself to persevere, I can also teach others to persevere. All that I have experienced has been distilled into my teaching philosophy.
- My Main Goal:
My personal observations in ESL classrooms composed primarily of Arabic-speaking students as well as the courses that I took at the School of Education at the University of Colorado at Boulder both lead me to consider the importance of using the students’ L1 in an ESL classroom. The paradigm for teaching of ESL has rested firmly on a foundation of avoiding the use of L1 when teaching ESL. This has been accepted for decades as the proper way of helping students to acquire English. In my opinion, even the most gifted teachers spend great amounts of class time trying to convey the meaning of an idea or even a single word by using an appropriate level of English, supplementing that with drawings or other visual aids, classroom activities, etc. It occurs to me that a few words in L1 for the Arabic-speaking students will quickly move the discussion past the perplexing word or concept and allow more to be taught in the classroom. A few isolated moments in the course of an intermediate and advanced class would not seriously disturb the flow of English. However, my in-class experience shows that more L1 usage with beginner level students will help moving the lesson towards its objectives.
Beginner levels have the most to gain from strategic uses of L1. Beginner Arabic-speaking students of ESL have less of a foundation in English vocabulary, listening comprehension, reading comprehension, and grammatical constructs. As they strive to acquire these skills, they are more likely to be confounded by lengthy explanations of new terminology. Manuals that are used for beginner ESL study cannot truly be written so as to reach across the cultural gap for all potential cultures that will be using these beginner ESL manuals. Explanations that are carefully devised by native speakers of English, even though they may have many years’ experience working with different cultures, could never be phrased in such a way that they cover every possible syntactical variant. This is inevitable, and therefore not a failing on the part of ESL planned and taught in English.
Often I have heard fellow Arabic-speaking students say, “I looked up every word in that sentence and still didn’t understand the sentence.” I’ve even had experiences of that nature myself. When that happens to students, they could be advised to look up secondary and tertiary meanings of some of these words, but even then part of the challenge is syntactical or otherwise connected with differences between Arabic and English.
When I am in a monolingual Arabic-speaking ESL classroom and I can see that students are perplexed, or can sense the potential for confusion, a word or two in Arabic can be like turning on a light. In such a case, L1 should not be seen as a way of losing an opportunity to experience English, but as enabling and facilitating an opportunity to experience English.