“Searching for an entrance” and finding a two-way door: Using poetry to create East-West contact zones in TESOL teacher education

Cahnmann-Taylor, M., Zhang, K., Bleyle, S. J., & Hwang, Y. (2015). “Searching for an entrance” and finding a two-way door. International Journal of Education & the Arts, 16(21).

Abstract:

Several scholars have argued for the importance of aesthetic and autobiographic narratives to democratize the Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) field and showcase varieties of minoritized perspectives. This study focuses on the students’ participation in poetry classes and the ways in which these instructional experiences created opportunities for both foreign-born students and U.S.-born faculty and students alike to revise assumptions related to cultural literacy and U.S. academic norms. Through examination of interviews and poetry of Chinese pre-service TESOL students’, the researchers found improvement in English language acquisition and comprehension and cross-cultural exchange. The aim of this study was to illustrate how arts-based learning opportunities work to expand all students’ potential for creating Eastern-Western exchanges of intellectual thought and intercultural understanding.

Key Findings:

Analysis of Chinese students’ poem drafts and interviews with Chinese and native English speaking classmates illustrated varied contributions poetry writing made toward TESOL teacher preparation.

  • Students identified that writing poetry afforded the opportunity to address feelings of displacement that coincide with teaching and learning in a second language. The tension between language acquisition and cultural shift were reflected in both the U.S. and foreign born students’ interview and poetry.
  • Native English speakers found through the poetry of their peers that their previous assumptions of equating a non-native English student’s speaking ability with a lack of intelligence was incorrect and an artifact of cultural bias.
  • Students became more willing and open to expressing controversial subjects from their home countries and the U.S.
  • The differentiation between cliché and fresh language informed students’ complex appreciation of bilingual affordances in creative expression.

Significance of the Findings:

The findings from this study indicate that creating a culture of equality and inclusion in the TESOL field is possible through the use of creative writing to break down linguistic and cultural barriers and biases. While only some of the Chinese students noted the course increased their skills with English language proficiency, most felt they learned to use the language creatively to explore and express feelings. This new knowledge of creative linguistic usage allowed both U.S. and foreign born students to address complex and controversial issues in meaningful and relatable ways, opening a dialogue of students’ work to increase cross-cultural understanding. As the world becomes more globalized, teaching non-native speakers (NNS) creative expression and proper usage of clichés will assist in communications across multiple platforms including business, government, education, and the arts. As such, creative writing should be included in TESOL curriculum to expand learning and comprehension opportunities.

Methodology:

Arts-based interventions/teaching inform this study’s focus on the creative works of 12 Chinese international students in a Master of Arts TESOL program in the Southeastern United States. Student participants were enrolled in an optional creative writing seminar for at least one of three semesters the course was offered, an unidentified number of students in this study took two semesters. The researcher’s aims were to instruct TESOL educators' as creative users of the English language themselves. Training included apprenticeship in poetic craft (e.g. figuration, line breaks, anaphora), practice writing poetry drafts with specific guidelines (e.g. numbers of lines, metrical feet per line, use of metaphor etc.), and writing workshops where participants discussed the form and content of newly written poetry drafts. In addition to student-teachers’ poems, data for this study included transcripts of interviews with participants as well as notes from class observations. The data from the written works and the interviews and observations were analyzed for themes and patterns to ascertain the findings.

Limitations of the Research:

Students who participated in this study were self-selected and therefore had a bias to the curriculum and the method of instruction. Of these self-selected students, there were several NNS from other primary languages such as Russian, Korean, and non-U.S. English who were in the same classes but were not included in the study’s analysis. A final limiting factor was the small sample size of 12 participants.

Questions to Guide New Research:

• Would students of different cultural and linguistic backgrounds have the same results of cross-cultural understanding and openness to express controversial topics?

• Would students in undergraduate TESOL programs show gains in creative expression or would the effects be diminished due to less advanced English language skills?

• How would students be affected by this curriculum if it became a required course, would all students benefit from creative writing classes?