Monday, June 22, 2015

Critical Thinking in the ESL Classroom

On a recent Friday evening in Windsor, fifty plus ESL educators were gathered for the 'Back to the Well' workshop that I co-presented with John Sivell. While most attendees went home with new ideas on how to give their learners' brains richer conditions for second language acquisition, the participants at one table grappled with a challenge of a different sort.

John had given us a brief history of Second Language Acquisition theory, ending his crystallized overview with a description of emergentism, then had yielded the floor to me.

I had then recounted some of the ways that I have been implementing John and Chirawibha's ideas in my classroom(s), to great success. We had then distributed the 'toolbox' handout to each participant, one set of graphic organizers for each table of four, and one or two copies of a text based upon the CLB level for which each table indicated a preference.

Shortly before the workshop, I had gathered what I thought was a good variety of texts (several written and one transcribed audio) spanning Phase I adequate literacy all the way up to CLB 5+.  My sources were a free sample from a literacy series, The Ontario Reader, The Best of the Reader by Joan Acosta, and a couple of other texts recommended by a colleague. Topics were ones I assumed teachers would find familiar: David Suzuki, Canadian history, and so on.

It was hoped that at each table, teachers would take a minute to examine the text, read through the 'toolbox' handout for ideas, and then begin to brainstorm together as many ways as possible they might find it valuable to take students back again and again into that same text. Could they stretch it two days? Three? A whole week? Could it remain as engaging on day four as day one?

At most tables that is just what began to happen, but not at all of them.

At one table close to me, the intended process didn't get very far. Instead, another important issue was broached, though not very comfortably. Before discussing how to explore the language with a class, one educator felt a need to question the text itself (a CLB 3 text about Kanata, the origin of the name of Canada). This teacher was concerned about the effects of presenting such a text without encouraging some critical analysis by the learners.

What are we doing, she wanted to provoke her fellow teachers into thinking, when we teach a text like this without challenging the socio-cultural norms and structures that allow it to stand as the prevalent version of the story? 

What I think she was getting at is this: might students presume there is no version aside from this quick and simple blurb that glosses over all nasty details regarding such things as oppression and genocide? And is it our job to take the time to explore that with our learners?

That's not my role, someone else at the table may have said.

Well, that certainly is MY role, said the teacher who wanted to trigger deeper thought.

And then there was an impasse, an uncomfortable detente, a mood killer for the table, a failure to bond.

In thinking about how I wanted to bring up to you, my readers, the subject of critical thinking in the ESL classroom, I came upon this helpful article by Andy Halvorsen in the Internet TESL Journal. To be honest, I've attended workshops on critical ESL that left me feeling completely overwhelmed by the proposed task at hand, ill equipped to implement the approach. This article, on the other hand, not only gives me hope but makes me feel that I am already doing most of what is suggested.

When I invite my learners into a text, I try always to remember that nothing is written in a socio-cultural vacuum. Every story has a perspective. Are we viewing the story from the point of view of those in a position of power and privilege? If so, what might other perspectives sound like? I do believe it is of utmost importance for us as educators make such questions a regular part of classroom discussion. Why? Well, if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem. Do I want to live in a stagnant culture that does not progress in terms of equal rights for all? Do I want to bring my learners' attention to such realities as ageism, sexism, racism, ableism? Rhetorical question, clearly.

Getting back to the frosty mood at table one, how might the participants have proceeded? Maybe we could first have students try to imagine how the text might sound if written from the point of view of First Nations people? Could different teams come up with a few perspectives? One team might even take the point of view of the trees that looked on as events were transpiring. Then the groups could come together to examine the most interesting (worthy of study) nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs that all groups used in their versions.

In fact, one of the activities John and Chirawibha recommend is one in which students categorize words as having either positive, neutral, or negative connotation. This can lead to much debate. Think about it.

The word "institution" may be neutral to you, but has a strongly negative connotation to me since that is where doctors wanted to put my baby brother when he was born with spina bifida. The word "school" may be positive for my literacy student who is over the moon being able to attend classes for the first time in her life. But what about First Nations elders alive today who were forced into residential schools as children? This one graphic organizer is in itself an exercise in critical thinking.

How about you? How comfortable are you prodding your learners to probe assumptions and question the values imbedded in the texts you present to them? Do you worry that you'll trigger conflict among the learners--conflict that will spiral out of control? Or do you, like my friend the provoker, feel that it is part of your job to help students think critically about the text that has been set before them?

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