"The whole movement of life is learning" (Krishnamurti). "To be an act of knowing, then, the adult literacy process must engage the learners in the constant problematizing of their existential situations" (Freire). "Once you learn to read, you will be forever free" (Douglass). "I can learn anything I have the desire to learn" (White, S.G.).

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Chasing squirrels over spring break

A classmate from Groups and Teams was sharing how difficult it was for her to remain focused on her work and not be distracted by fascinating information she encountered in her research.  She coined the phrase "chasing squirrels" to describe the activity of going off-topic to learn more about an irresistible "squirrel."  Indeed, I planned to spend spring break reading and working on my project, yet here I am blogging about tempting critical discourse squirrels.

The Janks and Gee articles got me thinking on many levels.  In chp. 4, Janks writes about how difficult it can be to remain critical when we are an insider, reading with text.  I think we read with text to  affirm our beliefs and sense of belonging, so much so that we often cannot take a critical stance when reading what is all around us.  We construct our realities and identities in this way.  Janks says text is "positioned and positioning" (p. ).  Gee et al. argue that there is no such thing as text with "no social practice" (p. 4).

I need to make a conscientious effort to "unlock ideology from text" (from class notes) in my social practice.  Janks' critical linguistic tool for analyzing verb use made me realize how complex critical discourse analysis can be.  I'm a student of higher education and I can hardly wrap my head around the idea that passive sentence structure infantilizes and objectifies a person or group. This got me thinking about the adult learners in my ESOL class (squirrel alert).

Many of the adult students served by my program are low educated, low literacy  learners (passive sentence structure-ouch).  They have little formal education in their L1 (native language) and have not yet learned to read and write.  They have  not yet acquired the vocabulary to read, much less critically analyze, written text in English.  This does not mean they do not have other literacies and ways of knowing, rather, they are not yet deriving meaning by reading.  Gee et al. argue that reading is more than making meaning from text, it is talking about it, socially interacting with it, living it, making it part of your world.  While the ESOL students may not yet be reading, they are talking, socializing, and living in our community.  They certainly have a social practice, and they are "reading" oral and pictoral text.  Gee et al. describe this living process of literacy as Discourse.

We all belong to a Discourse, it shapes our identity (Gee et al., p. 15).  Perhaps this explains why it is  hard to be critical of text that we use to frame our world.  Gee et al. describe a situation where a person becomes part of more than one Discourse, and Discourses are, by definition, at odds with each other (a concept of Gee that  I can barely grasp).  Consider an immigrant to the U.S. (an ESOL student).  She is part of a Discourse with her L1; her identity, sometimes called language ego (e.g., Brown, 2007) is constructed and framed through this L1 Discourse.   She studies English (her L2) in order to  integrate into American culture and L2 Discourse.  She becomes bi-cultural between her L1  and  L2 Discourses.  They are, by Gee's definition, at odds.   Think about the L2 Discourse she sees and hears (because she is not yet ready to derive full meaning from reading) that may be shaping her new, L2 identity and language ego:

illegal alien
illegal immigrant
tax evader

How does L2 Discourse work to make  her want to become a citizen, engage in our community, and make a difference?  It may foster resistance to learning English and adopting American culture; the L2 Discourse is clearly at odds with the L1 Discourse. On the other hand, the tension may serve as a catalyst to go out and fight for social justice.  Gee et al. argue that this kind of bi-culturalism is one way to go about social change.

In her research with educated, successful immigrants in Canada who reached high levels of English proficiency, Cervatuic (2009) posits that situated social practice and culture (L2 Discourse?) are equally as important as the language learning.  Successful language learners possess an internal locus of control that allows them to create a counter-discourse (internal voice?) to deflect the powerful, negative feedback and take agency of their identity and learning.  Moreover, Cervatuic describes these differing social practices (L1-L2 Discourses?) as "imagined communities" (p. 257).  We construct and frame our own world.  Ultimately, these successful language learners "chose to cease viewing their linguistic and cultural identity as conflicting and disharmonious" with the imagined community of native speaking culture (p. 263).  I think of this as giving yourself permission and seeing yourself as worthy  to join the L2 Discourse.  It's making peace between the conflicting imagined communities/L1 and L2 Discourses.

That must be one hell of a process!  I can think of only a few ESOL students I've encountered that were able to demonstrate that way of knowing, or, as Gee et al. would say, that kind of literacy.   I need to remember that taking literacy to the streets, as I like to say, requires a long and perhaps painful journey that I should not assume any language learner is ready to take.  Of course, publishing student stories is a long way from marching for social justice, but it's a small step in that direction.

Squirrels be gone!  It's time to get back to spring break.  Thanks for taking the time to read this  long post!  Susan 

Cervatuic, A. (2009). Identity, good language learning and adult immigrants in Canada. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 8, 254-271.
Brown, H.D. (2007). Principles of language learning and teaching. White Plains, NY: Pearson Longman.


  1. I can't seem to get past this topic....
    An article in the March TESOL Internatonal journal http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/tesj.67/pdf Raising Critical Consciousness via Creative Writing in the EFL Classroom details how one prof used the approach of taking another's perspective to raise critical awareness. He assigned his junior college students the task of writing about specific, sensitive topics from the position of a marginalized group in their society (in Japan). Japanese education is often criticized for being narrowly focused on examinations as a way to measure achievement, and not promoting creativity and critical thinking. Putting students in the place of different marginalized groups to critically analyze Discourse of the dominant culture, and reflecting on the process at the end of the semester, was the approach. Based on student feedback, the prof felt learning objectives were met.

    I try to take the perspective of ESOL students I work with, to imagine what they must think about the Discourse here in Prince William County, to learn what they think of the examples I posted above. I'm beginning to think I'm not understanding their perspectives at all. I usually fail at getting much of a response when approaching sensitive topics in class. I talked about some of the ESOL learners, and the kinds of literacies they practice. I'm not sure how critical they are of the ways they are marginalized in the community. True, they all speak of being intimidated with their English, of rude Americans. I think many learners have a very different way of knowing as described in "Women's Ways of Knowing" (Belenky et al.). "Literacy alone does not lead automatically to reflective, abstract thought..." (p.25). I want learners to take a critical stance, I want them to react to what they see in the community, I want them to see that it can be different. I simply want them to question, not take at face value, what is all around them. I'm not sure they have the inner voice, or a way to deflect negativity.

    So, after reading this TESOL article and remembering the basics of problem posing education (e.g., Freire, Vella) I may try to pose the problem of what to do if you are in charge of the County, how to run things differently in a way that helps immigrants. Since they are a marginalized group, I would be asking them to consider another possibility. I would love to know how they would run the ESOL program differently! Thx for listening.

  2. Loved this post Susan! I especially enjoyed your reference to "chasing squirrels" from our G&T class:) I enjoyed the readings this week immensely as it has really brought about a change in perspective regarding how others may see what is set in front of them one way, and yet a varied Discourse can lend a totally different view! The example that you mentioned regarding the law students in the article was eye opening to me. To consider the law students as possibly part of two different Discourses allows one to consider how so many students may read the exact same text in a classroom and find themselves with a few different interpretations. It can also provide some guidance as to why some students may struggle as they do. Good luck with your adventures in ESOL, I applaud you for trying to see your students with a different lens!

  3. Hello, all:

    I read this article early in the semester, and it really jarred me, even before we talked about any of this. I know I personalized it, but because of my life, I kept thinking about all the Discourses I participate (or try to participate) in. I tend to be on the periphery of some, and engaged in others. I know that when I first encounter a Discourse, I try to make out the rules. Personal issues have taught me that rules are very important in my life. They let me raise my children for several years by myself in a new city. They let me keep control of rambunctious Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts. Now I look at what I used to think of as groups as Discourses, and I see more than just the membership; I see a larger society. I really liked the chapter. It resonated. My son has found a Discourse he is comfortable with - Rocky (Rocky Horror Picture Show shows). He is getting old to participate, but the Discourse is very accepting of his quirks and he has learned a great deal about interaction from it. The Discourse for many Asperger's is the characters of Third Rock - they don't understand why humans do some of the things they do, they just know they have to learn them to get by. How many of us enter a corporate Discourse where we learn behaviors without necessarily learning the reason behind them? I've taught several students from large companies that have a strong corporate culture, and I believe in the concept that a person is amenable to a Discourse before joining. So many Discourses, so little time to reflect. I'll follow the lead of others to some extent, to belong to a Discourse, but either my age, my experiences, or my personality sometimes keep me from totally inculating a Discourse. Now I understand more of it. Unraveled thoughts, but it creates a more observant Me.


Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on this post. Diverse opinions are welcomed.