Monday, September 29, 2014

AFFIRMATION AND NOTICING: InterPlaying while tutoring English as a Second Language

ATLANTA SKYLINE. This photo was taken from the fourth floor of the Scheller Collge of Business at Georgia Tech from a breakout room where I was conducting tutorials with Chinese graduate students enrolled in Quantitative and Computational Finance. (photo by Ruth Schowalter, ESL language coach)
One-on-one English tutorials with international graduate students are intimate and supremely rewarding for both the language learner and the instructor.  Having taught English as a second language at the university level for more than 20 years, I have met thousands of bright, talented and motivated people of the world and supported their efforts to gain a comfortable fluency using their “academic” language—English!
Now, as an InterPlay Leader-in-Training, I have been experimenting with ways to use the principles of InterPlay in my language instruction. Before I go any further in this discussion, you might want a working definition of InterPlay. Well, there are many definitions, but here is a simple one for starters:
INTERPLAY is “easy, fun, and life changing. It is based in a series of incremental “forms” that lead participants to movement and stories, silence and song, ease and amusement. In the process, we discover the wisdom in ourselves and our communities.” (from the InterPlay website)
To understand how these life changing and incremental principles of InterPlay can be used in language instruction, let me explain a few applications I am currently experimenting with in my one-on-one tutorials with Chinese graduate students majoring in Quantitative and Computational Finance at Georgia Tech.
ESL TUTOR AND TUTEE SELFIE. Arthur (his English name) and I took this selfie at the conclusion of our one-hour one-on-one tutorial. I learn so much each time I have the opportunity to meet individually with students, especially now as I integrate the principles of InterPlay into my language instrutction. (photo by Ruth Schowalter, ESL language coach)
As I train in InterPlay, I am learning to discern the good and name it with a greater frequency than I did previously. Affirming the good is one of the tools of InterPlay. However, as a language instructor specializing in pronunciation, I am trained to recognize and record where English language learners are deficient in producing English with an American accent. That is, to point out “the bad” –the opposite of “the good.”
This noticing and focusing on the deficiencies is what students demand. After all, that’s what I get paid for, and in their belief system that is the “only” way to make improvements. Acknowledging their achievements, areas of spoken English in which they demonstrate strong skills, is quickly skimmed over, and dismissed as being insignificant in the learning process!
Previously, before InterPlay, I excelled at outlining my students’ flaws so I could lead them down the avenue towards accuracy. I disregarded their “humanity” and honored their hunger to achieve. In my rich past, I once had a student from Colombia pout during a meeting where I was explaining why she was failing my advanced-level pronunciation course. She was not impressed with the detailed document, which recorded her speaking errors over the academic session. “In your class, we call ourselves the D students,” she told me. My endless hours spent evaluating the shortcomings of their speech was not proving to be the way to motivate them individually or collectively.
I had failed in my ruthless ambition to show them precisely where they could improve. Thus began the reformation of my teaching. My pedagogy evolved. I transformed my role from “evaluator” to “coach.” Instead of grading students based on their performance observing a strict course agenda, I would set up overarching course goals, observe their individual behavior and cheer them on as they meandered on their personal language journey. I developed a new course using the acting tool of improvisation to teach fluency in a manner that enrolled me as “coach” (see this blog, blog, and blog for examples).
Once I had figured out the “content” of teaching language using improvisation along with the collaboration of my improvisation teacher, I needed more of a “how” in order to implement these improvisational tools. Discovering InterPlay has become THE HOW!
Therefore, “affirming the good” is the first thing I am practicing in the one-on-one tutorials I am conducting now with my Chinese graduate students at Georgia Tech. This affirmation practice requires me to retrain my teaching brain. Really focusing on the positive outcomes of each student’s speech demands patience and being present to the individual.
At the beginning of the hour-long session, then, I set up a way to “playfully” interact with the “tutee” and allow him/her to speak for 10 minutes or so without any correction. We do this “playing” while standing up and moving, using our hands, feet, and entire bodies. We have already warmed up our voices and played with vocal variation.
Once I have set up an objective, for example, “Tell me about a former work experience,” or “Give me your ‘elevator speech,’” I keep the student on his/her feet moving about the room, experimenting with their delivery while strolling. I stroll or walk with the student too. Once the “walk about” is completed, we sit down and AFFIRM THE GOOD. This begins with NOTICING, another InterPlay term.
CHOOSE A VOWEL. Often English language learners need multiple ways to perceive how to produce target language sounds. Here Boya and I pose with a mirror as she chooses to work with the "ahhhh" sound, which is a low-mid vowel requiring the mouth to be wide open as if having the back of your throat examined by a doctor. Using different lip, tongue, and jaw muscles in another language feels clumsy and makes it difficult to produce sounds accurately. A student's ability to move towards accuracy is greatly increased when having fun, experimenting, being permitted to make mistakes and recover, and then to make choices about future ways to implement these English vowel sounds. Affirming the good in the students progress greatly enhances their optimism in becoming successful communicators. (photo by Shi Tang, QCF student)
InterPlay teaches us to “notice” what our body is experiencing; that is, to tune in and see where we might be feeling tension or energy. Is the tension residing in the neck, the stomach, the throat? In InterPlay, we call these noticings, “body data.”
As a language instructor, I am very interested in having my students connect with English and the wider American culture. For me, this connection to our U.S. English speaking culture is more than just intellectual--it is emotional and physical. Having the students be more in touch with their “total” beings, seems a positive way to support their successful language learning. Fluency results from ease and comfort, from connecting with the self and extending that sense of self to others. We use language as a social tool in addition to a cerebral one.
Although it surprises my Chinese “tutees” when I ask them how they are feeling and to share what they are noticing in their bodies, it makes sense to them as we continue our tutorial session. Let me explain....
Well, InterPlay offers a way to use the “body data”! After I, the instructor, has listened carefully to the student observations of what feels good or bad in the body when speaking English, we discuss “why” these feelings are occurring. In InterPlay, we call this “body knowledge.” For example, one of my students expressed feeling more ease when slowing down his speech and making it more musical. Using his hands to punctuate a key idea felt different (slightly awkward) but effective resulting in a feeling of accomplishment.
Many international students learning English for academic purposes equate fluency with speed. The faster one talks, the better one is at communicating. This is a false assumption since their hurried speech generally results in a stream of unstressed words devoid of musicality resulting in a breakdown of meaning.
Well, “noticing” how they felt during the tutorials with these Chinese students revealed that when they speak fast, they feel nervous about finding the right vocabulary and cut off from the listener. Relying on being solely in their heads while speaking distances them from experiencing a fullness when communicating with others.
“Body knowledge” is knowing when these good and bad experiences occur. I’m experimenting with teaching students to be aware of what feels positive and effective when they are speaking English and to practice those behaviors to increase the frequency of fluency. And then the reverse, if something feels bad when they are speaking English to reduce that behavior—like speaking fast but incomprehensible sentences. Implementing what you have learned from body data and body knowledge is called, “body wisdom.”
Whoever thought that as a language instructor, I would be teaching “body wisdom”! As I work and play towards integrating the principles of InterPlay in my ESL teaching, I am surprised, pleased, and expanded!
CONCLUSION. You probably won’t be surpised to learn that I have a lot more to say about this topic of using InterPlay to teach English as a second language! I really really do!  I want to tell you right now about “witnessing” and explore the concept of “incrementality.” But, for now, I will stop with this incremental step, this blog entry about the InterPlay principles of “affirmation” and “noticing”!
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: I thank my Chinese graduate students for their earnestness in learning English. They elected to take this “accent reduction” course and are very open to trying new strategies and tools to increase their fluency. I appreciate their trust in my methodologies and vulnerability. What a gift you are to us all.
SELFIE WITH TUTEE. Such fun! A new found way to relax and speak English both on a personal and academic level. I am convinced that academic English cannot be pursued without making personal connections at a very warm human level. (photo by Ruth Schowalter)


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