What are Effective Methods to Make Learning Relatable for Language Students?
In Elliot W. Eisner’s article, What Does It Mean to Say a School is Doing Well? the author puts forth many questions about standardized educational goals (2001). I will respond to three of these unanswered questions through the lens of my pedagogy as a minority language teacher.
Question 1: Can [students] engage in the kind of learning they will need in order to deal with problems and issues outside of the classroom?
In the book Bridges Out of Poverty, the authors discuss how societal classes in the USA view education (Payne, DeVol, & Smith, 2010). They propose that the wealthy class often sees education as a way to make connections, the middle class as a way to make money, and the poverty class often sees education as completely irrelevant and abstract. And they have a point, how will learning about isosceles triangles help a student turn down drugs? Does the Battle of Gettysburg matter if a student does not have food to eat that night?
If we create curricula that focus on content, much of what we learn is inapplicable to real life for any group of people, regardless of their background. It is our role as teachers to provide contextual cues and allow students to apply the content to their current realities and future goals.
In my experience in teaching American Sign Language (and other minority languages), I have found predetermined vocabulary lists to be largely unhelpful and difficult for students to retain. For this reason, I present a general situation like “your work” or “going to the store” and have students write up their own vocabulary lists. If a student works at a veterinarian’s office, their list would include: pet, vaccinated, neutered, spayed, etc. (Words that are essential for them to learn but would never show up on a classmate’s vocab list who works at McDonald’s.)
Question 2: Are the ideas [students] encounter important? Are they ideas that have legs? Do they go someplace?
Learning can be quite stagnant unless there is a greater purpose leading it. Ideas are important to students (especially young students) when visibly applicable to their lives. Eisner (2001) spoke of a national education program with “a clear specification of intended outcomes,” but I believe it is much more than an (albeit clear) check-off list of learning objectives (p. 298). Curricula and its “objectives, content, methodology, and evaluation” (Su, 2012) can be quite short-sighted. But as Eisner later wrote in his article, learning must “go someplace” (p. 301).
At my alma mater, Brigham Young University, a monument that says, “Enter to learn. Go forth to serve.” I saw how this priority guided learning for every class, every teacher, and every student. Engineering students built motors to attach to the front of low-cost wheelchairs (Hollingshead, 2015), math and astronomy students designed glasses for Deaf children that project sign language interpreters wherever they look (BYU News, 2014), and students learned one of 63 languages taught on campus so, as one student put it, “the opportunities we have to serve are tremendous” (Benson, 2020). As John Dewey (1899) wrote, when students are “saturate[d] with the spirit of service,” they use what they learn to enact positive change.
In the case of my sign language students, I have found that encouraging my students to become hearing advocates in their communities and countries has “encourag[ed] the big picture perspective” and “creat[ed] emotional investment” in my students (Schwartz, 2012, p. 2). Especially in the case of this generation who have fierce convictions about equality and fairness in the world, this kind of learning helps students “make connections between the learning they are doing and the world” (Schwartz, 2012, p. 2).
Question 3: Do students participate in the assessment of their own work?
In my first course at University of the People, we explored various learning environments: assessment-, knowledge-, student-, and community-centric learning environments. My own resentment toward standardized testing and the toll it takes on students with anxiety, OCD, and disabilities further steered me toward student- and community-centric learning. I believe that assessment- and knowledge-centric environments are too often exclusively content-focused, but student- and community-centric learning is context-based.
However, by the end of the course, I was able to see that my strong aversion to testing was in fact a disinclination to summative testing where students are compared against a single, rigid standard, not the positive counterparts: formative assessments. Like Thomas (2019) puts it, “Formative assessments generally just need to be checked, not graded, as the point is to get a basic read on the progress of individuals, or the class as a whole” (para. 3). The author of Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom defined them as “authentic measures of assessment” (Armstrong, 2018, p.129). I saw the value of projects for self-assessment and mentorship.
In my sign language classroom, these authentic assessments take the form of a student interpreting and performing a favorite song into sign language or a student telling an awkward story using VGC (visual gestural communication) skills. It may take the form of a student interviewing a Deaf community leader or creating a Deaf poem with fingerspelled letters A to Z.
Elliot W. Eisner’s article proposed questions to spark thought. For me, these thoughts revolved around ensuring that my teaching pedagogy includes more applicable and relatable contextualized content, learning with a greater purpose, and positive assessment practices.
Armstrong, T. (2018). Multiple intelligences in the classroom (4th ed.). ASCD.
Benson, E. (2020, March 6). BYU’s foreign language programs still top other universities. The Daily Universe. https://universe.byu.edu/2020/03/06/byus-foreign-language-programs-continue-to-top-other-universities-promote-cultural-awareness/
BYU News. (2014, May 26). Google Glass adaptation opens the universe to deaf students. https://news.byu.edu/news/google-glass-adaptation-opens-universe-deaf-students
Dewey, J. (1899). The School and Society. The University of Chicago Press. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/53910/53910-h/53910-h.htm
Eisner, E.W. (2001). What Does It Mean to Say a School is Doing Well? From Phi Delta Kappan, 82:5, pp. 367–372. https://chrisdavidcampbell.files.wordpress.com/2016/12/eisener-2001.pdf
Hollingshead, T. (2015, April 1). BYU students make the world's lightest, least expensive motorized wheelchair. BYU News. https://news.byu.edu/news/byu-students-make-worlds-lightest-least-expensive-motorized-wheelchair
Payne, R. K., DeVol, P. E., & Smith, T. D. (2010). Bridges out of poverty: Strategies for professionals and communities. Moorabbin, Victoria, Australia: Hawker Brownlow Education.
Schwartz, M. (2012). Best practices in experiential learning. Ryerson University. https://www.ryerson.ca/content/dam/experiential/PDFs/bestpractices-experiential-learning.pdf
Su, Shao-Wen. (2012). The Various Concepts of Curriculum and the Factors Involved in Curricula-making. Journal of Language Teaching and Research, 3(1). DOI: 10.4304/jltr.3.1.153-158.
Thomas, L. (2019, April 26). 7 Smart, Fast Ways to Do Formative Assessment. https://www.edutopia.org/article/7-smart-fast-ways-do-formative-assessment