TESOL Convention 2015: ‘Teachers’ Roles in Crossing Borders and Building bridges’ by Dr. Sonia Nieto

posterIt’s my first TESOL Convention and it’s absolutely overwhelming to say the least. Not many familiar faces either, as most of my colleagues decided to go to IATEFL, so I was delighted that in the opening keynote I bumped into Debbie West, chair of TESOL France, who was friendly as ever and introduced me to a couple of people.

The room was packed for the opening keynote presentation by Dr. Sonia Nieto. I took out my laptop and made some notes as she spoke, which I’ve now turned into a brief overview of what she’d said. I wish I’d remembered to take a couple of photos to add to this post, but never mind. Lesson learned. Will make sure I take a few pictures from the sessions tomorrow. Hopefully, this one will be the first of what I’m planning as a series of posts from this year TESOL Convention, so stay tuned.

In her talk Dr. Nieto focused on stories of teachers who have worked mostly in public education system in the US often with recent immigrant children. However, the lessons from here can be applied to other ELT settings too. Based on the examples of these teachers she discusses how we can build bridges for our students to help them cross the borders without losing their original identities and cultures.

So what does it take to cross borders and build bridges?

Dr. Nieto uses the bridge as a metaphor – it is built on solid ground, but soars to heaven. It connects otherwise disconnected places, giving access to a different shore. Most importantly, though, the bridge mustn’t be burnt once we’ve crossed it although unfortunately it often is.

To put it in a different way, the traffic over the bridge shouldn’t be only one way from the students L1 culture to their L2 culture. Rather, there should be possibility of going backwards and forwards at will, so that the L2 culture is adopted by the student without losing their original identity.

Dr. Nieto also points out what building bridges is not:

  • pre-determined curriculum
  • set of strategies
  • watered down curriculum
  • feel-good approach
  • only for sts from particular backgrounds

And then she goes on to give some practical examples:

  • learn to say sts names correctly
  • label the room with sts languages
  • display the work of all sts
  • learn about your sts lives
  • get to know your sts families
  • learn another language

Dr. Nieto then describes in more depth what we need to take into account to build bridges between cultures in our classrooms:

  1. Asking profoundly multicultural qs:
  • who’s taking calculus?
  • who’s gifted and talented?
  • who’s teaching the children?
  • where is the ESL program located?logo
  • questions of Access and Equity
  1. Being anti-racist and critical pedagogues:
  • beyond heroes and holidays
  • structural inequality, not just individual prejudices
  • high expectations for all
  • praxis: not only talking, but doing
  • Access and Equity
  1. Becoming a sociocultural mediator:
  • taking sts from where they’ve come from to somewhere else, but…
  • … taking who the students are, their identity with them
  1. Challenging taken-for granted assumptions, such as:
  • sts need to learn the basics first
  • intelligence is innate
  • skin colour determines ability
  • immigrants care less about education
  • standard English is the only game in town
  1. Understanding the sociopolitical context:
  • societal level: who counts? what counts?
  • school level: do policies benefit some sts more than others?
  • who benefits, who loses?

In the next section Dr. Nieto discusses how to build bridges between cultures:

  1. individuality and culture – while the culture says who we are, it doesn’t determine us; consequently, it can’t be imposed on the sts, but has to come from them
  2. inclusive pedagogy and curriculum (culture, language, experience)
  3. a stance and dispositions of teachers – here Dr. Nieto gives examples of teachers who embody each value:
  • engage in critical self-reflection – John Gunderson: “Teaching is about relationships, not about knowing how to do a lesson plan”
  • demand high quality work from all sts – Angeles Perez: “I pride myself on getting them (sts) to set their goals; and they are high goals”
  • affirm identities, expand sts worlds – Heather Brooke Robertson: making relevant books available; challenging labels “The labels placed on our sts are racist social constructions I work to eliminate every day”
  • continue to learn – Bill Dunn: “In my struggle to understand [Spanish] I’ve learned not only a great deal about my sts, but also about myself”
  • value diversity in word and deed – Mary Jade Haney “I teach in a profession that balances the universe”

All in all, a great opening plenary. Looking forward to tomorrow. And fingers crossed I can keep up regular updates from the talks I’ll go to. Promise to take some photos.

Looking forward to your comments.

2 thoughts on “TESOL Convention 2015: ‘Teachers’ Roles in Crossing Borders and Building bridges’ by Dr. Sonia Nieto

  1. Hi Marek,

    Interesting stuff! In how to build bridges between cultures, point 2, Sonia brings up “Being anti-racist and critical pedagogues:…structural inequality, not just individual prejudices”.

    But how can we question structural inequality in the classroom – when we can’t question structural inequality in our profession?


    1. Hi Paul,
      Thanks for commenting.
      I think they are two different things. I can’t see why we can’t or shouldn’t question inequality in the classroom even though there’s still structural inequality in our profession.
      For example, we can discuss equality with our students. Bring in texts or listenings on the topic. Talk over any prejudices they might have.
      I can think of quite a few things we can do as teachers.
      We can also question inequality in our profession. You’ve been doing this a lot. So have I on TEFL Equity Advocates. The more of us do this, the more likely it is that things will change.
      What do you think?

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