This semester, I have had the pleasure of being a Writer in Residence in Julia Schumacher’s English Language Development classroom at Mansfeld Middle School. I have been awed by the students’ thoughtfulness and willingness to explore language and new styles of writing, as well as by Ms. Schu’s engagement in the classroom. We sat down to discuss her approaches to teaching and her experience thus far participating in the Writing the Community Program.
What brought you to teaching?
I graduated from college in 2009 with a double major in French and African Studies. I didn’t know what to do for work and I had a lot of questions about how I should be spending my time. I thought I didn’t want to be a teacher because [of the adage] “those who can’t do, teach.” I studied in Cameroon my junior year of college and realized that while I wanted to be a global citizen, I wanted to work with and understand my own community. After finishing college, I joined Americorps and worked at an elementary school. It was through that experience that I learned more about community work and what kind of adult I wanted to be. I spent five years working in schools before deciding to go to grad school to become a teacher. Those five years taught me how special schools can be and how much power teachers have, either power over or power with kids. I started to see schools as places where I could do good that would also be good for me. Spending six hours a day with kids helps me be the person I want to be.
I still have questions around whether this is work I should be doing. School should be a space where we all get free and it’s not. A part of my work has become having these conversations with colleagues and asking them how the classroom is a place where they are getting free. I try to model to my students how I have the power to create. It’s so easy to focus on what we are not able to do.
What is your teaching philosophy?
Before I had a classroom of my own, my way of conceptualizing the classroom space was very touchy-feely and focused on loving students and making them feel loved. In my third year of teaching, my version of love is letting students know they are capable of excellence. I am transparent with my students about my belief that they are highly intelligent people and that I am not here to help them be adequate. They are already doing school in a language that is not their native language, which means the standards and expectations they have to meet are so much higher. Our class motto is that “expertise is earned,” and we talk about how it doesn’t serve them to expect adequacy, that they aren’t doing this for other people or to meet other people’s expectations. If they don’t believe they are capable of greatness, they won’t be excellent. Teaching in an ELD classroom, one of the important goals is to help students pass the AZELLA test. As a result, we focus a lot on grammar, but I also create space for them to get to know themselves as people. We focus on student language production and co-creating knowledge, with the goal of getting to the point with content that students are teaching other students.
What were your hopes for participating in Writing the Community program?
Because of everything students need to know to be excellent second language acquirers, a lot of class time is structured around grammar. The math of language is really important and I spend a lot of time thinking about how to help them be excited about that. I have found it challenging to do that part of the teaching and find the time to also explore the art of language. When I was becoming a French speaker, so much of what I loved had to do with the art of language: its beauty, precision of expression, pronunciation, flow. When you are working with second language learners, it is easy to only focus on language as a tool. I wanted there to be time to explore the joy and beauty of expressing oneself. I also wanted there to be space for students to meet other adults who care about and love language, so much so that they make it their job. I wanted students to see that as a possibility.
What have your students’ experiences been thus far?
My students have had space to share things they wouldn’t be sharing otherwise. They are producing more and producing language that is so much more complex and more interesting than any other time. I am also noticing they are engaging with more complex thoughts. And this is sometimes true with kids who aren’t connecting otherwise. Part of this is having people come in with a different approach and a different perspective, not always knowing if it will work. No kid is going to get everything they need from one person, so it’s great to have other practitioners come in. For my students, this is new terrain and a completely different way to think about language. Finally, even though Mansfeld is across the street from the University of Arizona, it feels important to form relationships with the U of A. Students feel a lot of pride about the U of A, but not a lot of students end up studying there. I want students to realize they could go to college and study poetry!