My approach to teaching and learning is informed by instructional design, a practice I learned as a graduate student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Since earning my MA at UMBC, I have been applying instructional design, specifically backward design, in everything I do as an educator. For example, I credit my success as a Senior English Language Fellow in Russia to instructional design. This Fellowship was the first opportunity in which I was able to design learning solutions for outreach teacher training programs in Samara and the Greater Volga Region. Working with my Russian counterparts, I was able to identify the needs of Russian teachers of English. Although most assessments were informal, I found the greatest success through an interactive workshop model than the traditional lecture presentation model, even though the latter was often requested. Through instructional design, I found it easy to report the strengths and needs of future outreach teacher training programs.
As the curriculum coordinator at the Center for English as a Second Language (CESL) at Southern Illinois University, I integrated my design approach with Wiggins & McTighe’s Understanding by Design framework to revise our curriculum to meet the needs of our diverse learners. My approach at CESL differed from the one I used in Russia because I was part of a faculty committee focused on developing curriculum. Instead of me alone identifying the content needs of English language teachers, we are identified the academic, linguistic, and cultural needs of our students. This approach thrived on partnerships with the CESL faculty and staff as well as the faculty of Southern Illinois University. These successful partnerships along with instructional design helped me grow as a coordinator and leader.
Culturally Responsive Teaching
Culturally responsive teaching also informs my teaching philosophy. Although I have been practicing various components of culturally responsive teaching since I started my career in English language education, I first became aware of this approach as a research assistant at the University of Iowa. Culturally responsive teaching was the main focus of my work at Kirkwood Community College, where I designed and facilitated opportunities for Kirkwood faculty to develop this teaching approach. My international teaching experience has helped me develop my cultural responsiveness as I quickly discovered that using the cultural knowledge and frames of reference help to make English language learning more relevant to and effective for them. Because I learned this early on in my career, I had assumed that this was common sense for all teachers. For me to be an effective teacher, I believe that I need to learn as much about my students, in terms of their background and expectations, as they need to learn from me and the course that I am teaching.
While my culturally responsive teaching takes into consideration the sociocultural backgrounds of my students, the multiliteracies approach requires teachers and learners to critically analyze the sociocultural factors behind texts, both traditional and digital. Since the advent of social media and the web 2.0, I have been including a variety of traditional and digital texts in my classrooms. I have also encouraged my English language learners to apply their speaking and writing skills through traditional and digital formats. This approach is easily carried over to teacher training and professional learning when English language teachers consult social media and online sources to develop their pedagogical content knowledge. Information and language content is now more easily accessible to more people than it was a decade ago, and as an educator, I feel that it is my duty to provide my students with the analytical tools to best search for, select, and evaluate the texts they need for their language learning or pedagogical development.
My graduate studies and my instructional design background have helped me develop a skeptical perspective on the many fads and buzzwords used in education. Because of this, I have welcomed the recently published book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel (2014) as my new guide towards evidence-based practice. I was pleased to find that the literature on successful learning supports many of my teaching techniques, such as teaching students how to study, creating desirable difficulties in the classroom, and being transparent about the frustrations and difficulties inherent in the learning process. As a lifelong learner, I am thankful that this book helped me to design a more deliberate approach to explain to students how learning works.
My belief is that balancing evidence-based practices with culturally relevant teaching helps to better design, facilitate, and assess learning.