In an unconventional series of sabbaticals, classics professor Dana Burgess takes a late-career degree in ESL to Sri Lanka and back.

Photos Courtesy of Dana Burgess

Lakmini was looking at her own paragraph, projected onto the wall of our classroom at the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka. She knew that something needed to change; the first few sentences didn’t explain what the paragraph would go on to argue. Her classmates had told her what they’d liked about her paragraph, so she had a better idea of what she needed to be saying, but she didn’t quite know how to say it.

I turned off the little projector and asked her what she really wanted to say. She spoke it to the class, clearly, simply and with powerful conviction. Lakmini had found the diamond in the mud of her own rough draft. That’s not easy to do. We think we know what we want to say before we say it, but the fact is that we are usually working out our ideas as we express them. Lakmini had to look through her own words to find the idea that lay beneath them. She took a moment to write down the words she’d just spoken, to wash the mud off her own diamond, and she thanked her classmates for helping.

As in many departments at Peradeniya, all instruction in the Department of Classical Languages is conducted in English. English is a second or third language for all students, and almost no students have ever had a native speaker of English as an instructor for any subject, either in secondary school or at university. These students—and the many worldwide in similar contexts, including some international students at Whitman—work hard on the content of their courses, but they also have to work hard to deal with the foreign or second-language medium of instruction. I was in Sri Lanka teaching my familiar content, Ancient Greek and Latin literature and philosophy, but really, I was teaching English as a foreign language, and, more precisely, teaching academic writing in English. This unusual sabbatical gave me a chance to teach a full load of courses in English for non-native speaking students, so I could get better at helping Whitman students.

My interest in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, or TESOL, began in Whitman’s first-year General Studies program. Of the 17 students assigned to my section one year, five had English as a second language. The first-year course is writing intensive, and I found it very challenging to teach academic writing to students for whom English is a non-native language. I helped my international students that year, and some of them grew wonderfully, but I also feared that I had not served them as well as I might have.

My students of Latin and Ancient Greek at Whitman have usually started those languages from scratch, unlike back east, where some prep-school students show up to college with four years of Latin under their belts. One of the great joys of language teaching is watching students get better. Yes, I can see student improvement when I teach literature in translation or classical civilization courses; those students learn more about the ancient world, and they get better at making arguments and seeing connections. But with language instruction, a teacher gets to see a student move from a total inability to decipher the Greek alphabet to a capacity for appreciating complex lyric poetry; it can bring tears to one’s eyes. I’d noticed, along the way, that my students of ancient languages also got much better at writing papers, partly because they came to understand how language works—not just how English works or how Latin works, but how language works. Modern languages are properly taught as means of instantaneous two-way communication; but that doesn’t make any sense for ancient languages. Students of ancient languages only have one task; they need to learn how to read. They will never order a cheese sandwich in ancient Greek. So the ancient languages are taught analytically, through a detailed understanding of grammar. My students of Latin became better readers and writers, in part because they’d gotten the benefit of this analytic approach, and I thought analytic language study could also help non-native speakers of English become stronger writers.

I arrived in Quito, Ecuador, in the summer of 2008 for a one-month program leading to certification in TESOL. My classmates were mostly in their twenties, fresh out of college and looking for a way to work abroad. Our first day of classes was “language shock,” as we all became students of Quechua (or Kichwa), an indigenous Andean language none of us knew. The point of “language shock” wasn’t to teach us Quechua, though we did learn a tiny bit; it was to give us the experience of learning a very alien language that we didn’t necessarily want to learn. I’d been teaching languages for more than 25 years when I got to Quito, but I learned much about learning languages in those first few days. I always knew that learning languages was hard—I teach Ancient Greek, after all—but there’s nothing like the firsthand experience of gracelessly stringing together odd sequences of consonants. I was really bad at it, and the humiliation was a great lesson for this senior instructor. Our international students, and our U.S.-born students who are speakers of languages other than English, face challenges that native speakers sometimes fail to understand or appreciate.

I liked what I’d learned in Quito, and I’d become especially interested in the linguistically mixed classroom. Nearly every classroom is linguistically mixed; one student is a native speaker of English who has never studied any other language; another grew up speaking Cantonese at home and learning English in school, the “heritage speaker”; another has studied several languages and may have lived in several foreign countries. I thought that the analytic method I’d long used for Latin and Greek could help draw a linguistically diverse group of students toward an experience of common enterprise. So I developed a new course at Whitman—Linguistics 107, Syntax and Grammar—which was intended to include native and non-native English speakers.

I wanted to have both groups in the room because the Quito program had so emphasized how students could learn from each other. It worked. The non-native students in Syntax and Grammar had mostly learned English in schools from other non-native-speaking teachers, who often emphasized formal grammatical analysis. Native-English-speaking Whitman students usually have had no instruction in formal grammatical analysis and often can’t identify a verb or a noun, so the non-native speakers could help teach grammar to the native speakers. This builds the confidence of the non-native speakers, who find themselves in a land where their command of spoken English is significantly weaker than their peers’, though they may have a thorough grasp of English grammar. But the native speakers have an ear for English and its idioms that non-native speakers do not. Both groups help each other.

One day, I had asked the students of Syntax and Grammar to offer a report on the structures of some language other than English. I’d encouraged them to research a language they did not know, so that they’d learn something new, but I allowed them to report on any non-English language they liked. One of our best reports was on Navajo, offered by a native speaker of that language. The student got a chance to be the expert, but she didn’t just rely on her native-speaker ability; she researched the language she already knew well, so that she could present some of its structures to her classmates. She was not a comfortable public speaker, but she was engaged by her project, and she had built her presentation carefully; the class gave her a spontaneous round of applause when she was done. She taught her peers, and her peers saw the beauty of her first language.

Since active communication between peers works so well for language study, Whitman has built several programs under the Written and Oral Communication Initiative (or WOCI) to help students teach students: the presentation coaching program for the Whitman Undergraduate Conference; the Writing Fellows program attaching trained student tutors to individual courses; the English Language Fellows offering peer tutor support for non-native users of English; and the Winter First-Year Writing Workshop, a weeklong intensive course in academic writing offered just before classes start in January. In all of these programs, students are trained by faculty members to work with other students on communicative skills. As a bonus, this means that WOCI funds are mostly going into the pockets of Whitman students being paid to support other Whitman students. The money stays in the college community, and community feeling is strengthened as faculty, students and staff work collaboratively on building language skills.

Speakers and writers of non-native languages have to be brave, it takes guts to risk sounding foolish. And all writers have to be brave; we are committing ourselves to what we say, and we know that others will judge us by what we write.

For 2012-13, I applied for an unusual full-year sabbatical to pursue a master of arts in TESOL at the School for International Training in Vermont. Among other courses, I took Curriculum Design and Assessment. We were asked to complete a project over the semester, and I chose to redesign Syntax and Grammar, incorporating TESOL techniques. I knew that I wanted to move away from making Syntax and Grammar only about English. Another course at SIT, Intercultural Communication for Language Teachers, emphasized ways to respect the cultural perspectives of all learners in a multicultural classroom. I had gotten interested in Universal Grammar, Chomsky’s idea that all natural human languages are closely related, sharing a limited number of ways to express meaning through combining those in fabulously diverse ways. So the retooling of Syntax and Grammar introduced Basque, a non-Indo-European language of Europe; Toyucca, an indigenous language of Brazil; and Japanese. The goal of this instruction was not to make students able to use these languages for communication, but to help them understand the ways all languages create meaning.

We also began to consider some artificial languages, like Klingon, and the languages of Borges’ “Tlön Uqbar,” to help us see language structure as a product of cultural worldview. Whitties like playing with puzzles, so this became a favorite new aspect of the class. After SIT, iterations of Syntax and Grammar were far more intercultural, and I became keenly aware of the pedagogic advantages to be had by exposing students to lots of different languages and their structures.

While I was away in Vermont, Whitman was taking important steps to develop its program in composition. We were lucky enough to be able to hire Lydia McDermott, assistant professor of composition in general studies and director of the Center fOr Writing and Speaking (COWS), which expands upon the prior Writing Center. Professor McDermott has worked closely with the Encounters program on writing instruction, and she has offered a new course, Theory and Practice of Tutoring Writing, for student tutors of the COWS, for WOCI Writing Fellows, and for tutors and Student Academic Advisers working through the Academic Resource Center. The year after I got my master’s in TESOL, I took this class as a student. My classmates included Whitties interested in the profession of teaching. I have been especially pleased to see that many young alumni/ae first explore the teaching profession through ESL either in the U.S. or abroad. The liberal arts really are the best preparation for a career in education, and Whitties’ well-known commitment to social justice has helped lead many to make a difference in the world in this most direct and personal way.

Most language study at Whitman happens when students write papers. As I got to know more about TESOL, I came to a better understanding of what’s involved in getting better at writing, in one’s native language or in another. It’s not just about finding the right words to say what you think. We figure out what we think, and we figure out what is actually the case, when we have to put ideas into words.

In August 2015, I arrived at the University of Peradeniya in Kandy, Sri Lanka, for a semester of full-time teaching in the Department of Classical Languages. I’m writing this article in the 14th week of our 15-week semester, and I know that I’ll be going home very soon. My project here revolves around instruction in composition. The Syntax and Grammar class has been a wonderful way to teach language at the level of the sentence, but much of my language instruction at Whitman concerns the written paragraph and the written paper. Students at Peradeniya face the most difficult academic task I have ever known: writing in a non-native language. At Whitman, I’ve been lucky enough to participate in the Winter First-Year Writing Workshop. For a full week, just before classes start in January, we meet for six hours a day with a group of first-year students, usually about half native speakers and half non-native speakers. I’m here at Peradeniya to develop the techniques I learned during the Winter First-Year Writing Workshops.

I brought a tiny projector with me to Sri Lanka, since institutional resources are very limited. I project a piece of student writing onto the wall, and I guide my students through a critique of their peer’s work. This technique takes time. In the early weeks, I limited the discussion to forms of praise. All we did was identify what was good about a piece of writing and why. The next step has been to ask what we want to know more about; what in this piece of writing invites further exploration and why? In early weeks, I’d keep it all anonymous, forbidding the student author from identifying her or himself. Gradually, as the group became comfortable with what was a very unfamiliar way of working, we moved toward a more critical analysis and away from anonymity. This has been thrilling work. Now that we are at the end of the semester, my Sri Lankan students are writing with much greater precision, clarity and momentum.

Lakmini often comes to class with Ayeshi, who barely speaks above a whisper, even when she has excellent ideas. Lakmini is never afraid to be the center of intellectual attention, though Ayeshi is pretty shy. Lakmini organizes things: theatricals, discussion groups, university gatherings. One day, Lakmini openly frowned at a student who admitted that he hadn’t done the reading in Plato’s Republic, but Ayeshi never really cared about the public realities that much, especially about what her peers might or might not have done. She was focused on the question, whatever form it had in the moment. She was listening to the argument, following the dialectic, trying to figure out what could be the issue to be adjudicated. That’s why she got so much better at argumentative writing. For Ayeshi, adducing evidence was not about defending her preconceptions. She believed in “what is the case” in a way that relativist, late adolescents rarely do. In Plato, Ayeshi had found a kindred spirit, one who scorns the sublunary realm in favor of the transcendent glories of the “form of the good.”

One day, Ayeshi’s paragraph was projected onto our classroom wall. The students were trying to identify the thesis, an important task in Writing Workshop. The trouble was, there were too many theses. Ayeshi had two big ideas compressed into a mere 300 words. For a time, the students struggled to accommodate both, but it soon became evident that we were looking at two basically unrelated ideas. One had to go. No one wants to destroy what they have created, and Ayeshi had worked hard to develop both her ideas. But writers have to distinguish the diamonds from the mud and discard the latter. Luckily for Ayeshi, she had a roomful of supportive classmates to help her decide what to keep.

In a few weeks, I get to bring what I’ve learned here in Sri Lanka back to Whitman for the 2016 Winter First-Year Writing Workshop. In past years, the Whitties have grown wonderfully as writers. We only get one week, but classes aren’t in session, so we have the luxury of undivided attention. Writing instruction is labor intensive, for both teachers and students; the rewards are also intensive. Last year, for our final activity, we composed a letter of thanks to the WOCI’s principal donor, Elizabeth Welty. The students expressed their thoughts about what they’d learned. I think that part of what they said addressed finding diamonds in the mud: “Working in the safe space of the workshop, we have become more confident writers because we could speak and share our work unafraid… This has transformed the writing process from a terrifying monster into an approachable and hopeful task.”

There’s been lots of talk recently about “safe space” on college campuses, but I think the students of the workshop were talking about a different kind of safe space. They were talking about the safety of being able to criticize their own work and the work of others. Only when writers are “unafraid” can they share that sloppy first draft, that pile of mud that just might have a diamond within. And only when writers are “unafraid” can they make the agonizing choice to discard some of the mud. Speakers and writers of non-native languages have to be brave; it takes guts to risk sounding foolish. And all writers have to be brave; we are committing ourselves to what we say, and we know that others will judge us by what we write. Language teachers try to make it easier for students to take chances. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to work with non-native English speakers; it’s helped me build the classroom communities that make developing writers willing and able to look critically at their own writing. When we criticize our own writing, we criticize our own ideas, and that is the critical thinking that college should nurture.