"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, June 22, 2014

The torture of teaching and learning in the ESOL classroom

I decided to blog about the Worthman (2008) article I shared with the class because, as I wrote in the discussion guide, the content is personal to me: I saw myself in both of the ESOL-teacher study participants.   In addition, I can’t resist the opportunity to discuss adult education classrooms as a “site of struggle” and a place where “identity templates” are created.  Have I mentioned that I study identity issues (smile)?

At this point, I’m not sure which way I’m going with my identity research, but I have an intense interest in two broad areas: a) the classroom as a site of literacy practice (a ‘site of struggle’), and b) ESOL curricula that aim to domesticate and/or Other language learners (creating those ‘identity templates’).   For me, something that connects identity in these two areas—classroom and curricula—is the concept of belonging.  At the heart of adult education-ESOL is the learner’s desire to belong to a community of English speakers.  This desire to belong, and the process of creating an English speaking way of being, is what I seek to study.  So, my blog post today about Worthman’s ‘empowerment and emancipation’ article (EE) is written through my identity-belonging lens.

Firstly, EE has us conceptualize power in a Foucault framework of force that “installs itself” through a dominant discourse.  This is different than the notion of ‘power as capital’ that I have been writing about in other discussion guides.  I am humbled by how much I need to learn about the works of these scholars.  Nevertheless, I understand the dominant discourse to be both the discourse in which the learner seeks to belong (a secondary discourse for her) and the discourse that positions her as Other, de-valuing her knowledge and her language, subsuming her into the monological discourse of English-speaking ‘America’.

EE has us look at the adult education-ESOL classroom as a site of struggle, where this Foucaultian power is felt by the learner as she learns how to be in a secondary discourse, the monological—one and only—discourse of her new culture.  Power is delivered through this one discourse in a way that disciplines and
molds her into an ‘identity template’ of a ‘model citizen.’  Wow, I didn’t know all of this heavy stuff was going on.  It sounds like the ESOL classroom is a site of medieval torture!  Where am I, as teacher, in this gruesome scenario?

EE profiles two ESOL-teacher study participants, either of which could be found in a typical adult education ESOL program in our state. Both seek to teach adult learners the skills necessary to belong; however, one is using a method that 'molds' and 'disciplines', the other is using a method that ignores the mold.   

I realize I have set a tone that molding and discipline are somehow 'torture,' and that we should aim to defy this monological power, but I have also learned that we cannot assume an awareness of or desire to defy it on the part of learners.  On a more theoretical level, I argue that making the assumption that learners have a desire or will to defy the power that is, is acting as an agent of a different discourse, a counter- and critical- discourse, one in which the learner many not have a need to belong.

In the end, this dilemma is a torture.  It is the torture of trying to do what we think is best while respecting the agency of adults who seek to join the English speaking community. 

Thanks for taking the time to read through my ramblings!  


  1. Okay Susan, you sound tortured, and I immediately halfway through your blog, was picturing you as the "victim" in your included graphic. Where does this leave you in this gruesome scenario - you ask? Well, by reading your continuing thoughts I see you as being "stretched", no longer as a gruesome victim. You are not rambling, rather you are stretching as you ask yourself to weigh, consider and reflect. You seek to do what is best, but you are recognizing the learner's identity. You are stretching to be more than a typical educator regardless of the binds you feel.

    1. Thanks, Lisa. I guess 'stretched' is a great way to put it. The opening chapter of one of Foucault's books is the graphic account of a condemned man being drawn and quartered. Whenever I go to Foucault, I envision this gruesome act. Perhaps bringing in this metaphorical 'stretching' is my way of taking the first step out of the molding and identity template that have shaped and disciplined me for so long. Its terrifying. Is it possible to have Stockholm syndrome to our identity prison?

    2. You write very clearly, Susan, even as the ideas themselves are just sprouting! It is fun, and an honor, to observe…
      I liked Worthman’s article, and especially the comparisons he made between Amy and Mariam. Also liked his insight about how instructional approaches like student-centered learning, get “appropriated’ into other approaches and paradigms. Such is life! And while I agree that when, for example, student-centered learning gets reduced to diagnosing deficits and prescribing instruction, something drastic is lost from the original idea of self-direction and open-ended outcomes. Same is true with experiential learning, when we forget, by degrees, to invite the local diversities—in all their starkness—into the learning process.
      But I tire of the polemicizing of adult literacy teachers who dutifully follow prescribed curricula or use diagnostic assessments to pinpoint instruction. Yes, it’s true that phonics programs are dangerously easy to co-opt into a Foucauldian truth regime. On the other hand, teaching is always first and foremost an interpersonal endeavor between two human beings. Trust and respect and tact trump all theories of learning!
      Your observation that not all students are ready to shift from an empowering to an emancipating approach is really important. And that’s an ethical conversation for another day! :}

  2. Susan,
    From my past teaching experience and interaction with language learners, I saw my role as a facilitator of their needs – a guide. Having that constant awareness and building an honest relationship and connection with my students helped me to remain mindful of my place in their learning journey. Of course I did all that I could to meet their needs and remain consistent with the needs of my employer; always a fine line, but a line I was more than willing to walk. I think because my awareness of how I saw myself for them, helped to keep me grounded in my intention to never stop trying to be better as their teacher and to serve their needs; whether or not I hit or missed or mark is another story. I also had the very rewarding opportunity to provide private tutoring. In that arena (discourse) I was able to cater my role as guide in the English language. I did my best to remain in exact alignment with my learner(s) needs because they were in the driver’s seat.

    Your intention and focus to serve your learners well, is definitely a personal journey for you as an educator and I wish you the very best on your path to discovery for yourself and your learners.

    1. JG - thank you for your insightful comment. It helped me do a little discourse analysis of what I wrote in my torture post. I think I sacrificed meaning in order to be entertaining. The issue I aimed to explore certainly includes serving learners' needs and making connections with them in the teacher-student relationship, but the 'torture' I seek to study is the underlying connection between second language learning and learner identity.

      My issue--my metaphorical 'torture' and deep question—surrounds the way we go about language instruction and what powerful but subtle, below-the-surface meaning and ways of positioning are embedded in our methods, curricula, and teaching strategies. In what ways are we furthering the acculturation process, and molding immigrants into model citizens, through second language teaching and learning? I believe we should also draw a distinction here between EFL and ESL, since EFL does not involve acculturation in the same way as ESOL learners seeking integration in new language culture—would you agree? Anyway, I do not want to imply that I consider acculturation bad or good; rather, that it is a powerful force at work in the language learning process. I want to illuminate what is taking place below the surface.

      The ESOL teacher is in the position of power and influence, not just because she is the teacher, but because of her dominant language skills which, as we know, include much cultural knowledge and ‘capital.’. Her language skills afford her a more powerful position in the dominant culture, and this influence is projected through her teaching. This in no way implies she is an evil torturer or doing something wrong. Bill's point that a polemical study, depicting a dutiful teacher as positioning learners into an identity template, is not respectful of the humanity of our profession is well taken.

      My journey, so to speak, is that from teacher to researcher into these deep aspects of learner identity. My clumsy words and forgetfulness that we are talking about human beings reflect a lack of experience and first attempts at joining the identity studies discourse. Gulp.
      I treasure this feedback and will use it to mold my identity as I move forward .

  3. Hi Susan, I understood your initial post and where your focus lies and what you are trying to do in your chosen field. Yes, I agree there are differences between EFL and ESL. I also saw quite clearly your internal struggle with finding clarity with your declarative statement, "the 'torture' I seek to study is the underlying connection between second language learning and learner identity." Perhaps your focus is more of an academic study, rather than from an instructor's viewpoint. However, they are both connected and I am sure having that insight into both worlds will serve you well as you continue on your journey. I hope you enjoy the ride! :)


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