9th January 2000
By Alfreda de Silva
My first impressions of Julie Zdanoski were of a calm and gentle personality with great dynamism and a passionate belief in what her work is all about.
She is one of thirty seven American English teachers scattered around the world from the year 1990 to 2000.
She teaches English at the Sri Jayewardenepura University to a variety of groups which include junior lecturers from the Business School, undergraduates in the English Department and a small circle of lecturers from the Faculty of Arts who wish to become more proficient in English. She also works on Methodology with teachers-in-training in the English Department.
Exposing students to both familiar and new experiences and setting them free to react to them individually further motivates learning.
"I have noticed commonalties,'' she says "between some recent American approaches and the Buddhist practices of compassion and self-awareness as well as communal social values, that permeate village life in Sri Lanka. Compassion, self-awareness and respect rank high in Julie's design for language learning.
How does compassion come in? It enters with time and space for heart-to-heart communication. "For language acquisition to be successful, we need to restore heart and deeply meaningful contact to the classroom," she says.
She deplores the fact that in teaching language as a set of rules and categories the lessons become mechanical. "Rules are taught. Exercises are corrected and handed back. There seems to be little connection between the classroom and the exterior or interior world of the learner."
Of teachers who see one of their roles as supplying right answers she declares that ''it's a kind of theft, a closing of a window of opportunity" not to allow the student to spot his own mistakes, through some conversation on the subject.
Highlighting selected errors and giving students an insight into recognizing and rectifying them, the teacher would be helping them to develop their sense of awareness of the English language and what they need to do to progress.
"Handing down knowledge and answers is not education. Such practice develops dependency on outside authority," stresses Julie. "We need to teach communication in a rich, significant and humanistic way and this is possible even at the novice level."
In this adventure in learning, however shy or underprivileged some of the students may be, they discover personal strengths and weaknesses and develop creative skills, with a teacher's carefully - designed activities.
Music, drama, poetry and song are some of the aids that can be used constructively in the language learning classroom. Julie uses film and popular songs as 'text' in English language teaching at the Open University and at the Sri Jayewardenepura campus.
With the drudgery taken out of language learning and the students set free to learn at their own pace, because it is recognized that they are not all made in one mould, lessons become something to look forward to, for both teacher and pupil.
Julie reiterates that it is important that students feel understood, that their fear of making mistakes and being humiliated is taken away. Mutual respect among students and between student and teacher is a vital ingredient in speeding the learning process.
This must, in turn, lead to a fundamental respect for other human beings and their cultures and languages, - all languages are equal, it is only that they are different.
In answer to my question on job-related English and its real need after a period of over fifty years of very little English learning in the classroom, she replied, "This would not be a lesser kind of English. There should be absolutely no snobbery in learning English for special purposes."
She observed that the students should be carefully watched and allowed to speak when they have something to say, without being interrupted by the teacher with an improved version. They have got to acquire language on their own. It's another skill, like tennis or swimming.
Communication is learning to be understood, through hearing, speech, vocabulary structures and turns of phrase. It aids the learning process for a student to be spoken to by name, by the teacher. There is a psychological impact here of teacher - interest and concern in the progress of the individuals in the class.
There should be scope for choices in the classroom. A sense of trust and compassion is fostered in students when a lesson-plan helps them work creatively in a group. The teacher sits in the class or outside. The focus is away from him/her, and placed firmly on the students.
Julie gave me an example of The Silent Way of encouraging creativity; Students are asked to bring some small interesting object to class and not show it or discuss it with each other. It could be a letter from a parent far away, a medal, a box, just anything they wish to bring.
While soft contemplative music is played in the room to inspire them they examine the object and put down their thoughts on it. What is unusual about it? From where did it come? What are their feelings about it?
Students exchange papers and read each other's work trying to figure out what the object is. In this way their creative expression is not written for the teacher but for fellow students.
Julie is a strong advocate for new, exciting, enjoyable life to be brought into the classroom. Feelings, compassion, trust and self- awareness must support creative thinking, speaking and writing which draw their deepest lessons from experience. The office of English Language Programs (OELP) a branch of USIS is responsible for US Government English teaching support activities outside America. It provides a wide range of services and products throughout the world.
Perhaps the best known of these is a publication called The Forum. Julie points out that it is a resource for English Language teachers worldwide. Previously offered free of charge, and now for a modest price Forum Magazine publishes articles by teachers from all over the world. They highlight classroom techniques and resources applicable to teachers and students in developing countries. Those interested should contact the local distributor: Veena de Silva, 12, Riverdale Road, Anniewatte, Kandy.
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