By MICHELLE MIRELES-BAGWELL
—I began my teaching career in 1995 when I graduated with an English degree and a secondary single-subject teaching credential. For the next 16 years, I taught English at nearly every level, from high school AP classes to middle school Language Arts and everything in between. I enjoyed teaching, and because of my husband’s job, which required us to move often, I taught students throughout the US.
In 2012, I graduated the University of Southern California with a master’s in TESOL and despite all my experience teaching English, I once again became a novice teacher. Some might think that it would be an easy transition from teaching literature and composition to teaching the English language to nonnative English speakers.
Those people would be absolutely wrong.
I had to learn effective and engaging methods of teaching students how to speak, comprehend, read, and write English, and I had to teach this to them in English, the very language that they were learning! There were some days that I carried out an internal dialogue that would argue whether I could even successfully teach ESL. I had a solid foundation in teaching methods from my degree, but I still had so much to learn. The first time a student asked me about modals, I was at a loss for words to explain them. My mind was racing to produce an explanation, but I’m sure that the students saw only my eye twitch and my mouth slightly open, hoping that the right words would magically appear.
I read, watched videos, and asked questions of other teachers. I even went back to school for an MS Ed in Learning Design and Technology so that I could design, pace, organize, and assess the lessons to provide the students with maximum results in learning.
After nearly five years of teaching ESL, I am a much more confident teacher, but I am also acutely aware that there is always something to learn so that we can fine-tune our teaching to best serve the ESL population.
Last year, 2016, was quite an eventful one for me. My family moved from Napa to Monterey, I began a doctoral degree at UC Santa Cruz, and I joined CATESOL, thus becoming part of the Steinbeck Chapter. The other members of this chapter have been incredibly welcoming and supportive of me, especially after they learned that had I volunteered to be the chair of the Northern Regional Conference. I have never organized a conference, and I hadn’t even attended one for CATESOL. The members of the Steinbeck Chapter have helped me in immeasurable ways.
I decided to attend the CATESOL Los Angeles Regional Conference to help me envision what should be included in the Northern California one. With the generous help of the CATESOL Education Foundation, my conference registration fee was paid for, and I had the opportunity to attend this conference.
I had originally planned to attend this event through the lens of a conference chair, observing how the conference was run. This quickly changed when I arrived and began to take note of the various engaging, relevant, and fascinating topics that were being presented that day.
Two specific events were particularly meaningful for me: the poster session and Donna Brinton’s presentation on content-based instruction.
A 45-minute block of time was devoted to the conference poster session. As a doctoral student, I was really interested in the research and information that was presented in a concise and clearly understandable manner. I found two exhibits particularly engaging, and I spent quite a bit of time asking questions and learning more.
The first poster exhibit was titled “The Terribly Troublesome Academic Thesis Statement: NNSs & Gen. 1.5s.” The presenters, Ninet Aghasatourian, Jan Baisden, and Chelsea Novotny from Cal Poly Pomona, explained how they were trying to improve their students’ thesis statements in academic writing. They found that using direct, explicit instruction on proper construction of a thesis statement and where it should be placed in academic writing improved their students’ ability in autonomously writing them. They used excerpts from the textbook, PowerPoint presentations, and supplemental material to illustrate to their students the process and the final product of a thesis statement. I was particularly interested in this because I have taught both ESL and Developmental English classes in community colleges and this is a difficult task for students to master. Learning about their successes will help me plan my own lessons in the future.
The other poster presentation that I was drawn to was titled “Engagements Through Sociocultural Elements in EFL Settings: Improving Pronunciation.” In this presentation, Allison Bruins, Alejandra Pulido-Carretero, and Zainab Parekh spoke about a three-week English class that they taught to young children in China. One of the challenges that they faced was keeping the students engaged and attentive during instruction because the children already had had a long day of classes and activities before they attended the three weeks of English classes. The English instructors used themes and/or stories that would be of interest to the students, such as animals or outdoor activities. The teachers found that students were engaged during these lessons and successfully learned pronunciation and vocabulary related to the themes that were taught to them. One of the key factors was to provide the students with themes that were age-appropriate. The students were not as interested when the lessons were on transportation methods and occupations because they were not relevant topics for this age. Although my own teaching has been with much older students, I still found this information helpful. I will use this to develop themes that my own students can find engaging and I will also find ways to embed literacy and pronunciation instruction within the themes that I am using at the time.
Finally, I was absolutely riveted by Donna Brinton’s presentation, “Sharpening Contextualized Learning Through Content Based Instruction.” She explained to the audience the effectiveness of teaching language in conjunction with three different “prototype” models: theme based, sheltered, or adjunct.
In a theme-based course, each module is organized around a different theme, ideally an engaging topic that the learners will find interesting or want to learn more about. She used an example of an English for Academic Purposes (EAP) Writing course. This course could teach writing on the subject of homelessness in the US.
Sheltered instruction is another method of language instruction that separates students with gaps in their L2 proficiency from the mainstream. Specially trained teachers provide instruction while using sheltering techniques. The students increase second language proficiency through exposure to rich academic language and texts.
Finally, adjunct instruction is a model in which students attend two separate classes, one in content and one in language. The classes are paired, which enables each of the instructors to exploit the language-learning objectives and academic content in both of the classes, with each instructor emphasizing his or her own subject. The result is students’ being exposed to high-level academic content and language in each of the courses.
Through the pragmatic approach of content-based instruction, students acquire key vocabulary terms, semantics, comprehension, and production of the target language as a means to learn the subject.
I thought that this presentation was very enlightening, and I plan to design my own themes that I can use in classes. In order to learn more about a topic that is interesting to them, students must learn the language. This method would seem to have built-in motivation, engagement, and autonomy with each theme.
The conference was a great experience and I really learned so much in one short day. I wish that I could have cloned myself and gone to more than one session at a time! I do plan on returning next year, and I am now really excited to attend the state conference in October!
Michelle Mireles-Bagwell is a doctoral student at University of California, Santa Cruz and conference chair for the 2017 Northern Regional Conference.