Guiding Language Learning with Student Generated Solutions


 This week we have another guest blog post. Karen Green is an English Forward Master Trainer and Education Coordinator for Manos de Cristo, a local nonprofit organization. Read her post below!

Not many teachers in the United States are introduced to the philosophy and teaching approach of Paolo Freire, a Brazilian-born educator who worked with illiterate populations in rural areas mainly in the 1940s – mid-1960s. Most of his students were farmers or fishermen, and left out of the traditional formal education system. His unorthodox approach to education was that teachers and students all have something to learn and something to teach. He also worked to eradicate the stigma that being unable to read as an adult equals a low level of intelligence.  His belief was that teachers are not the only ones who have knowledge to impart. Adults in general have a wealth of life experience and know how to not only survive, but to thrive, how to take care of their families, how to work and learn. Freire’s approach can be summed up in the phrase, “read the word, read the world.”

Freire worked with a population that didn’t know how to read in a language they could speak. Our students are wanting to gain literacy in their second language, and will have different levels of native language literacy.

In Freire’s book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he refers to illiteracy as a form of oppression. Despite literacy level, Freire’s “problem-posing” approach serves to have the teacher guiding students through student-generated solutions, based on the students’ own knowledge of their community.

These kinds of problem-solving discussions are difficult to have with lower-level ESL classes due to the level of expression students need to have. What can be done in any class is community building. Even if the level of literacy and country of origin of our students may differ, they come to class wanting to gain knowledge to better their life situations.

I don’t want to leave out two levels of awareness that are important for instructors to have. Even though instructors are sympathetic, patient, caring, and motivational, they must be aware that they represent the same culture that leaves ESL students out of conversations in other parts of their lives outside the classroom. We also have to be aware of the part we play in the creation or maintenance of systems that leave out the immigrant community.

We can help students learn what they need to know to express themselves and stand up for their rights. We can also move students to come up with creative solutions to their own problems. We can give them the tools to experiment with language, use their creativity and intelligence, build confidence, and overall be seen as having something positive to share in our society.

One innovative, new adult education program in Austin, TX is using Freire’s philosophy

Another program in Austin, TX, Workers Defense Project, strives to train immigrants to be leaders in their community and in their workplaces, and includes the important component of English language instruction.

A way to use Scenarios or Problem situations in the ESL classroom

One of the leading Freire scholars in the U.S. is Elsa Auerbach. Her revised edition of Problem-posing at Work: English for Action includes activities and stories for intermediate to advanced-level ESL students

Here’s what we can reflect on:

Teachers are not the only keepers of information. We can certainly learn from our students’ lives, their talents and creativity.

Most textbooks have situational dialogues. Try incorporating some problem scenarios in class to see what kind of solutions the class can develop. You can guide any level through solutions, and students can practice saying, “I agree. I disagree.”

Some questions to consider:

How can we see our students as empowered and resourceful despite their struggles?

We may encounter problems in our students’ lives that we have no way of fixing. How can we differentiate problem solving and problem-posing?

Do you feel comfortable allowing students to voice concerns about societal or political problems, and turning them back to the class to help negotiate a solution?

Do you think you would and your students would see you more as a social worker if they begin to talk about problems? Would this or has this overwhelmed you?

Do you feel that you are invading students’ privacy by asking about problems?


# Toni AguirreToni Aguillar 2015-01-11 16:54
What I get from Paolo Freire is that everyone has something to contribute. We can all teach something and that it doesn't necessarily have to be academics. I think that is why there is that saying "It takes a village to raise a child" because the village has the wealth of knowledge of LIFE...formal education is just a tool for the child to defend itself from society.
# I think it is making senseJulia Maffei 2014-11-09 19:41
I realize that the problem that most of my students have in common is that they don't speak English well enough to realize their dreams in certain areas. So, when we discuss how to learn and how to keep learning, we are working on the Freire ideal.
# comment part 4Julia Maffei 2014-10-26 11:40
So, as far as problem solving as a class, I can give them the language they need to negotiate systems and let them know that they have the right to speak up. Individually, I am there as an open and caring person ready to lend an ear. Yes, life is difficult, but let's have some fun in English class and raise our spirits and our ability to get what we want and need. I am still unsure about how I can pose a societal problem and discuss solutions with the class or even how valuable that would be to my student population, whether it be recently arriving refugees of mixed nationalities, or Spanish speakers with mixed immigration status.
# comment part 3Julia Maffei 2014-10-26 11:38
In addition, many of my students have been traumatized by war, and I am not psychologist. Some (lay) people have said to me that I should get them to talk about what they have experienced and that would help them. I doubt it. I am, however, open and affectionate to students. I have sat with a chronically depressed mother whose son was killed by a car bomb and tried to sooth away her tears. I have comforted and hugged and kissed a mom whose daughter is going to have yet another surgery to remedy her cleft palate. I repeatedly chatted on the phone with a student was blinded when his face was blown up by a car bomb. I have never said, "Tell me about your problems" to these students, but I have made myself available to them. I give students my personal cell phone number, and tell them to call me if they need help with English.
# comment part 2Julia Maffei 2014-10-26 11:37
There are certain issues that I feel comfortable helping students deal with, but others I don't. Working with refugees who have a myriad of problems that they must negotiate, I have to be careful how much help I offer because it is overwhelming. In addition they have case workers that help them with their daily problems, although the case workers are overloaded. I can, however, give them language to talk to their landlord about housing problems. I can give them the language to talk about how they miss their families back home. I can give them the tools to understand a how to fill out a job application. I can show them how to get a library card, so they can have more self-efficacy. I can empower them with more English.
# comment part 1Julia Maffei 2014-10-26 11:36
Thanks for this, Karen. I think that even though it may be daunting to move out of our comfort level of the "traditional" way of teaching, we take risks to try different ways of engaging students at any level. Even if students don't have the language yet to express their opinions or concerns clearly, they still have opinions and concerns that are relevant. It may take some awkward interactions before they can express themselves clearly.

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