My attraction to teaching English to speakers of other languages began after publication, with two co-editors, of a literary anthology about world football (soccer). Released by the University of Nebraska Press in 2008, The Global Game: Writers on Soccer grew out of eight years curating an original website on world football cultures, also titled The Global Game, with the subtitle Soccer as a Second Language.
The website’s subtitle captured some of my fascination for soccer, which for me represents another mode of communication, a means of international exchange, a gesture of solidarity—the same tenets that characterize language learning and teaching. At a literary translators’ conference in the same year as the book’s publication, I met an ELL teacher from Bryansk, Russia; we became friends, and I found myself leading her mostly Salvadoran students in Irving, Texas, through one of Peruvian writer Giovanna Pollarolo’s poems about women and football, “El sueño del domingo (por la tarde)” (Dreaming of Sunday Afternoons).
Russia. El Salvador. Texas. Peru. The travels, both virtual and real, made possible through football and language teaching are staggering.
Over time I’ve come, because of such connections, to articulate an ELL teaching philosophy that values crossing borders, openness and safety, affirmation of identity, and the right to speak. As an MA TESOL candidate at Northern Illinois University, I’ve been able to develop and to consider these values both as a teacher and researcher. These values necessarily have implications for methodology and the teaching environments I find most suitable. The methods and preferred classroom settings will be touched on below.
The theme of crossing borders came to prominence in my first ESL classes at Briarwood Recreation Center in Atlanta in 2010. It soon became apparent that, for migrants looking for a place in U.S. society, merely crossing the border between México and the United States is not sufficient. After ten, fifteen, twenty years in the Atlanta area, members of my class of Spanish-speaking females—housebound, working in restaurant food-running or bussing jobs, in child-care, or in cleaning positions where they are kept largely separate from native English-speakers, or limited to circles of friends and family in primarily Latino apartment complexes—were still working to cross the language boundary. I started to learn Spanish as well, because the teacher needs to encounter students at that barrier that reminds us of our own vulnerability. Seeking an education—trying a second language—is a risky endeavor. I insist that I try to learn the language of my students.
With this class in Atlanta and subsequent classes at La Asociación Latinoamericana, the idea of crossing borders together helped build comunidades de aprendizaje (learning communities) that is my priority as a classroom instructor. In fall 2017, after spending some time in service in the twin cities of Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora, México, I took an opportunity with a classroom of twelve international students to explore deliberately the border-crossing theme (see artifacts, including the class syllabus and subsequent reflective presentation on pedagogy).
It’s exciting to have an opportunity in a language class to confront intercultural moments and to challenge other boundaries, such as that between teacher and learner. To do this work, openness and safety are essential. As Paulo Freire spent a career demonstrating, classroom learning offers a chance both for violence and transformation. For the latter to occur, dialogue with learners should be one of my primary ambitions. In an ideal setting, Freire writes in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “[p]eople teach each other, mediated by the world…” ( 2000, 80). My expectation is that students come to honor their own ideas and discourse styles and to realize that neither I nor competing authorities should stand in for the student’s sense of personal integrity and their individual life history. According to Marx, as referenced by Freire, “The educator himself needs educating.”
Therefore, affirmation of identity is an important task in the language classroom as we “try on” different ways of communicating. It’s a disorienting place to be. We walk a fine line between trading in our native-language identity, caving to external and internal pressures telling us that “our language is wrong” (Anzaldúa  2012, 80), and clinging to it so fiercely that we do not allow transformations to take place, new identities to emerge. Sometimes it is necessary to directly challenge learners to realize their unbounded capacities, pushing resistant students to previously unimagined achievements. In my experience, motivation can be instilled while working alongside, rather than standing sage-like on a platform. Sometimes students challenge me. One Spanish-speaker objected to my explaining some concepts and repeating activity instructions in Spanish: “You have to speak to us in English,” she said, her voice shaking as we stood together after class. It was a dialogical moment and a reminder that all of us, teachers and students, are developing. We can acknowledge this identity as co-learners, or, as Freire writes, as “teacher-student” and “student-teacher” (80). I try to position learners as the agents of discovery in classroom lessons (see artifact, an outline for a language-corpora study to help with vocabulary acquisition).
For me, language students are not potential or active speakers of foreign languages but possessors of their own languages. That is, the students have free agency, endowed by their native speech and communicative styles with all the cognitive tools that I and other native English-speakers possess and, indeed, with novel ways of seeing the world that should be honored as part of classroom interactions. They have the right to speak (Norton and McKinney 2011, 84); students, in fact, should dominate the speaking. Students are endowed with this right and awareness, never better illustrated than with one of my petite Mexican female students from Guerrero. She told me how clients in the elite social club where she worked as a food-runner had a habit of walking straight past her when she said “good morning.” She immediately recognized the meaning of these silences and saw, too, that her rights had been violated.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. (1987) 2012. Borderlands La Frontera: The New Mestiza. 25th anniversary 4th ed. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.
Freire, Paulo. (1970) 2000. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th anniversary ed. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum.
Norton, Bonny, and Carolyn McKinney. 2011. “An Identity Approach to Second Language Acquisition.” Chap. 3 in Alternative Approaches to Second Language Acquisition, ed. Dwight Atkinson. New York: Routledge.