Fulbright Essays, Part II: Ten Years of Change

About a month ago, I posted the first of two essays that I submitted with my Fulbright application in the fall of 2003.  Below is the second one, which focuses on teaching English as a foreign language, and on teaching in general.  After two years in Taiwan, I have yet to return to the classroom.  A large part of that was my book – I wanted to complete it first.  Now that it’s complete, though, I want to keep writing.  I do miss teaching on some days, but my goals and interests have changed over the last decade.  While it’s never good to dwell on the past, it is refreshing to look back once in a while to help sharpen the view forward.

Teaching English as a Second Language        

“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops” writes Henry B. Adams, and these words have guided me in wanting to become a teacher.  I believe that learning is a shared experience, and students feel most empowered when challenged to present their own unique ideas, and participate in their own education.  My philosophy of education is based on this coupling of intellectual rigor and democratic exchange, and I intend to put it into practice when I teach in Taiwan.

During my high school and college years at Jesuit institutions, I have come to realize that an effective teacher brings the world into the classroom.  By contextualizing academic texts within global fields of culture and society, Jesuit teachers have taught me how to enliven the learning process.  They trained me to be a well-rounded educator by demonstrating effective strategies—such as acquiring an appreciation of language and culture, gaining an in-depth knowledge of the field through research, broadening my own perspectives through travel and interactions with people, encouraging students to be active learners, guiding them to be open-minded in promoting classroom debates, and providing an intellectual space for contemplation.  Such a focused combination of textbook knowledge and real-world experiences are the hallmark of Jesuit teaching, and these are the practices I want to emulate in the classroom.

Moreover, these strategies have proven invaluable, in my Education Certification Program at Fairfield University.  While enrolled in this, I have spent sixty hours observing teachers in classrooms at local schools, and was witness to both effective and ineffective teaching strategies.  An approach used in the Certification Program is called “constructivist teaching,” which is centered on engaging students by relating varied subjects, enforcing material on their level while allowing them to give critical responses, and creating an environment of peer exchange.  One example of this is giving the students a poem to analyze and asking them to demonstrate a comprehensive understanding by explaining the various levels of meaning.  At the end of the class, students will be asked to synthesize the different layers of meaning based upon verifiable images in the poem.  This approach teaches students critical analysis.  Another method is for learning foreign language skills, which I mastered during my semester in Spain.  My professors taught language as a living and changing entity that is best understood through application of real life situations.  The class discussed aspects of popular culture such as music, movies, and current events, gave presentations on travel, and took walking tours of the city.  The teachers used many visuals to make connections between words, phrases, and ideas, and also applied auditory devices like music, to create a clearer understanding.  I will employ such strategies to teach English to Taiwanese students.  For example, to test students’ comprehension through listening, I will play a popular song and pass out lyric sheets with words, such as verbs, left out.  The students will fill in the correct verb, while explaining what tense and agreement it is, to complete the sheet.  This technique helps to decipher the foundational grammar and structure of the written language and the auditory nuances of processing the spoken version.  This exercise makes language instruction truly enjoyable and extremely effective.  Both the “constructivist” approach and the foreign language methodology will sharpen my presence in the classroom when I teach English in Taiwan.

The Fulbright Fellowship in Taiwan will give me an ideal opportunity to utilize my American education in a totally different pedagogical system.  Taiwanese students go through nine years of required schooling with an exit exam based upon Chinese traditions.  Part of their educational emphasis lies in rote memorization, while the other part forces them to recognize the role of modernity and progress through intense competition.  The Taiwanese system requires a large quantity of time from the students, with a longer school day and stricter enforcement on learning, which is viewed on the same level as an adult profession.  Here in the U.S., our school days are shorter, but this free time is often consumed by extracurricular activities.  The balance of daily student life is a topic I want to investigate extensively to gain a better understanding of the differing educational tactics, while examining the results and effectiveness.  I would also like to research how writing and literature are taught both for content and for foreign language acquisition as students progress.  I want to see if the load of courses that they take and the sequence of their courses are interdisciplinary and balanced.  I will then incorporate these findings into my own research data to observe what the benefits are to the students’ intellectual growth.

While in Taiwan, I will grasp the complexity of these issues by interacting with the faculty at the assigned Taiwanese school and through conversations with other faculty and students in the area.  One of my other goals is to be involved in community activities and learn Chinese and Taiwanese languages during my Fellowship year.  I will work hard in all these endeavors with the hope of making the same kind of impact upon my students as my teachers have had upon me.

As part of my graduation requirements, I will be teaching full time at the high-school level in the spring of 2004, and I expect to be fully trained and prepared to take on the responsibility of the opportunities offered by the Fulbright Fellowship in Taiwan.  The Jesuit motto is to go out in the world to learn, to teach, and to be “men for others.”  I have the confidence that I can accomplish these goals as a teacher in Taiwan.  Life is traditionally described as a journey and, as Augustine said, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel, read only a page.”  I have many goals for learning as I hope to study the language, culture, and history so that I can become enriched with the experiences and tidings from Taiwan.  When I complete the Fulbright, I hope to travel around Asia and then return to teach English literature fulltime in the US, while pursuing a doctoral degree.  With my doctorate in hand, I would like to travel abroad once again to teach and learn in a foreign land, and continue a life-long learning process.

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