Why RA in ESL?

I’m beginning to undergo a seismic shift in my understanding of my role as a teacher. I used to be satisfied with teaching vocabulary and collocations in my reading class along with a few pre-viewing questions of a text and some post-reading discussions. I now understand that I’ve been cheating my students out of a reading experience that will be meaningful and will further their skills and knowledge of English. Decoding vocabulary is not enough. Asking a literal question is too easy.

They are better than that. They are smarter than that. And so am I.

My own reader identity was shaped early on. My parents created an environment that had many books at a variety of levels. They read to me at bedtime. My school encouraged students to use the library. I rode my bike to the library every week. I chose books I wanted to read. I still have all these strategies that keep me reading today — even with the influence of the internet in my life.

I must recognize that my students most likely have not had the same environment that I did. I cannot approach them as though they are younger versions of me. This is part of the shift that MUST be made starting now. I began to consider this yesterday on the train ride home. I remembered a Gen 1.5 student at Bakersfield College, Sonia, who stated loudly, and proudly: “I hate reading.” It shocked me at the time. It made me feel this gigantic wall between us. I wondered why the hell she was taking my class. I felt that I would never be able to reach her. NOW, I realize that this was her defense mechanism, and I should have addressed it in a totally different manner. I remember trying to be positive to her, giving feedback when she handed in assignments – but I’m sure that wasn’t enough. I focused on asking questions to her classmates because she never seemed to be prepared. Then I found out that she was pregnant about half-way thru the semester. I thought to myself: “what is she going to teach her kid about learning and reading? Her kid is doomed” I should have asked myself instead:: “what am I going to teach Sonia about reading and learning, so she can be empowered to pass it on?”

Sara Behseta led a nomadic teaching existence for two decades.  She wandered far and wide, searching for meaning in the deserts of ESL community programs, conversation schools, community colleges, and intensive English programs in Milwaukee, San Diego, Pittsburgh, Bakersfield, and Los Angeles.  Her overseas experience was in Valparaiso, Chile, where she failed miserably in learning Spanish, but in the process became more aware of the struggles of the second language learner. In many of these positions, she felt like an imposter and has always known she still has much to learn from her students and colleagues.  She credits her parents with instilling a love of reading from an early age with bedtime stories from J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.


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