Helena Curtain, Associate Professor, Emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, came to Serbia this May through the US Embassy as a guest speaker at the English Language Teachers’ Association (ELTA) conference.
Her area of expertise includes the methodology of teaching world languages, teaching English Language Learners, Applied Linguistics, Second Language Literacy, Integrating Language and Content, and Curriculum and Instruction. She held a workshop at the American Corner in Belgrade entitled ‘Maximizing the Potential of Language Activities’, and kindly agreed to talk to us.
Professor Curtain talks about her teaching and teacher training experiences, and the needs of teachers and learners today.
TeachingAcademy: Welcome to Serbia! We know that teacher training involves a lot of globe-trotting. Do you think Serbia is very different from the countries you’ve visited?
Professor Curtain: Thank you, I’m very happy to be here. What I find is that, when we’re talking about schools and teachers, the issues are the same. It’s the same concerns about good teaching and quality learning everywhere you go. It’s a nice feeling to know that education and our concerns about it are universal.
TeachingAcademy: Does it also mean that the students are universal, that you can teach somebody in Serbia and somebody in Asia, or somebody in the States just as well?
Professor Curtain: Well, students are all human, and they are universal. But teaching students from China is different from teaching students in Serbia or the United States, why? Because in Chinese culture, students sit at their desks, they put one arm down on the table, they put the other arm on top of the first arm and they don’t move.
So the teachers that work in China expect that students would be like that – but we know students are not like that. Children are the same everywhere, they love to play, to be happy, to learn – you might find some cultural differences in the way that schools are organized, but you’re not going to find any difference in children.
TeachingAcademy: Speaking of teaching in China, how about the respect that teachers are held in?
Professor Curtain: That would be a part of their cultural situation, teachers in China are very highly respected, which is not often the case in Western countries, unfortunately. It is difficult, but a teacher has to create their own respect. In fact, there is a quote from Parker Palmer, “good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher”.
So, while methods are important, more important is who the teacher is, the identity and the integrity of the teacher. We often find that if children love a teacher, and even if the teacher is using old-fashioned methods, the kids will learn anyway. Why? Because they want to connect with this human being, that teacher. Our humanness comes first – and the methods come second.
The same goes for me as a methodologist and a teacher trainer (even though methods are what I’m devoting my professional life to), what is most important is who I am as a human being. When I am doing workshops, I try to model that. That I am just me and it’s my humanness that I am bringing to you, and my ideas that I am bringing to you.
TeachingAcademy: How about technology? There is a widespread wave of training and policies pushing teachers to boost their knowledge and skills of learning technologies. Does it stifle this idea of humanness and connectedness?
Professor Curtain: Technology is another tool. It’s a powerful tool, but it does not replace the teacher, and I think that even online courses need to have the input of a teacher. Also, it has to be synchronous, happening when the students can connect with the teacher. I just read an article the other day about students who have computers in the classroom (like in many schools now). And what the article said, is that those students are not learning as much as the students who do not have computers.
I would assume, it is because “if I can google it, I might not make the effort to think about it as deeply”. Using the calculator in Math also used to be the question that people asked about at one point. Yes, you should know how to use a calculator but you also need to know how to do the computations. Because if you don’t, it will not enter your brain and stay in your brain.
Technology can not be held up as a goal. It’s a tool to get to our goals. I think we are learning to balance that. We need to learn how to balance the use of technology. As for the policies, I think ICT is so exciting that many people want to see how we can incorporate this, and perhaps they are just getting too excited about it. It is an exciting and wonderful tool but it can never replace the teacher.
TeachingAcademy: Teaching is a bit like fashion – theories come, go, and then return slightly remodified. Let’s examine the history of language teaching and see what we have now.
Professor Curtain: In language teaching we used to have the Grammar-Translation method, where all you did was learned the grammar and translated. Following it, after WW2, we had the Audiolingual method because what they found was that, yes, it’s all great to be able to translate, but you need to be able to communicate with people and so there was the focused attention on oral communication. The Audiolingual method taught words and sentences. Some people call it “planned parrothood”, or the “drill and kill” method. So you were drilling and were using oral language, and you sounded really good, but you didn’t always know what it meant.
Now we are trying to focus on what you can do with the language rather than what you know about the language. I think that we’re at a different place – we know more about the brain, we know more about learning, and I don’t think we talk so much about the methods, the different or distinct methods. We talk more about meaningfulness, context, and proficiency.
TeachingAcademy: So what do we need to do as language teachers and is there anything that can help us?
Professor Curtain: How do I get the student to grow in their levels of language, and the way I get them to grow? First of all, I must tell them what it is that they need to do to become good language learners and then give them opportunities to do it.
There are three keystones language teachers should bear in mind – meaningfulness, teaching in the target language and focusing on proficiency or what is it that I am able to do with the language, not what I know about it.
Since the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) and the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) were introduced, doing what we do has been much easier. The power of the scales is amazing, it tells you exactly what an A1 can do, what a (low, mid, high) novice can do. When I first was working in the Milwaukee public schools, I was in charge of Foreign languages for the entire school district, people would ask me, „What’s your curriculum?“, and I would say, “Oh, well, we use the Spanish for Mastery textbook, and we do chapters 1-15.“ And then somebody else would say, „Oh, we’re much better than you, we do the whole book“.
So basically, we didn’t know what we were doing. We had no “can do” statements, we just went through the book, that was organized entirely around grammatical concepts, and not around what we can do functionally with language. And so now we have this wonderful gift of descriptions, as a blueprint, a map of what the students should be able to do.
TeachingAcademy: You are a co-author of Languages and Learners: Making the Match: World Language Instruction in K-8 Classrooms and Beyond. The book is now in its fifth edition, and things changed since it was first published in 1988. What impact did it have on the book?
Professor Curtain: I used to have a chapter up until this edition on how to plan thematically. And the first paragraph was about the need to have learning targets, a yearly goal, etc. Now that chapter is totally different and it starts with proficiency – what it is, and what proficiency you want to achieve. The scales we mentioned are very useful here, and teachers have to know what it is that you want the students to be able to do. Secondly, you have to know how you will test them. And only then does thematic planning come in. It comes in at the end, not at the beginning!
TeachingAcademy: The title of the book was also changed from ‘Languages and Children’ to ‘Languages and Learners’. Is it related to what you talked about it the workshop, about the importance of playfulness in teaching all learners, regardless of their age?
Professor Curtain: The ideas in the book are basic, universal ideas, for quality teaching and learning. Now, with little children you must use all those techniques, because they will crawl away from you or they will tell you they’re bored. But with middle school, high school or university, they’ll just sit there patiently, so what I’d really realized is that it’s K – life! Kindergarten through life. The other thing I realized is that high school teachers won’t even pick it up. So, it still says K-8 but it also says and beyond. The focus is still K-8, but to make it more accessible to other people. Also, it’s not about children, it’s about learning, thus „learners“.
TeachingAcademy: Why have you never written a coursebook?
Professor Curtain: Twenty-five years ago, my co-writer and I started a project. It was called „Omar and the Magic Mailbox“. It was thematic, communicative and rejected for its lack of a grammar focus. I have to say that even with the first edition of ‘Languages and Learners’ which came out in 1988, we were far out there, talking about integrating language, content and culture, which is intrinsically interesting, cognitively engaging, and culturally connected. And now it is my pleasure to tell you that it’s the lingua franca, people are talking everywhere about integrating language, content and culture – those ideas are now spread around and we’re not out there alone talking about these things.
TeachingAcademy: Teachers need to learn about culture to be able to integrate it.
Professor Curtain: All teachers need to be certified pre-service through whatever state they’re in. The requirements are rather similar, but for example in Wisconsin, where I live, there is a large Native American population (Ojibwe, the Menominee, Ho-Chunk and several more), so there is a course that teachers who teach in Wisconsin have to take, about the Native American population of Wisconsin, for example.
TeachingAcademy: Sometimes we in ELT are not very careful with the terms we use. Thematic planning which you mentioned is a good example, as it is often interchanged with topic-based teaching. What is a topic and what is a theme?
Professor Curtain: A topic is a loose connection of ideas. The topics we teach in language are family, leisure, hobbies, school, transportation, sports, etc. A theme is what the significance is of some aspect of that topic. For family, it could be ‘What different families look like’, for food it could be ‘nutritious food’, ‘Food and poverty’, ‘Food and historical contexts’, for animals, it could be ‘endangered animals’, ‘animals and habitats’. But there is always a focus question you could answer such as ‘Where do animals live?’, ‘How do I eat nutritiously?’, ‘How are families the same and how are they different?’
TeachingAcademy: This reminds me of project-based learning, where you also have a driving question…
Professor Curtain: I don’t know enough in depth about project-based learning but the idea is that the inquiry is what drives it. Also every thematic unit needs to have a central idea, and a focus question. Now, with project-based learning I think the students do most of the work toward finding the answer to that focus question.
And my concern sometimes is, are they doing it in the target language? Or are they doing it in the native language? For me, it has to be done in the target language, because otherwise – it benefits the students, but not their language learning. So I would go for modified project-based learning within a thematic unit.
TeachingAcademy: And how far away are CLIL and bilingual education?
Professor Curtain: CLIL is based on Canadian immersion programs, the idea of integrating language and content. It’s cognitively engaging, and also culturally connected, and that’s what we’re also trying to do. CLIL is absolutely powerful and I think every classroom should have CLIL. Bilingual education is a part of my background. I started three bilingual schools in Milwaukee: a German school, a French school and a Spanish school.
All subjects are taught in the target language, the children start at kindergarten, at age 4 or 5. And then at grade 2, English is introduced. The wonderful part about it is that students leave with an ability in the target language and an ability in the native language. Being bilingual – it’s really the best of both worlds.
Its popularity is growing and growing. In the United States, bilingual education or immersion programs as we call them, are more at the elementary level, primary school level, whereas I find here in Europe you start your English at primary school, and then you go to a bilingual program at secondary school, and you learn content through language.
TeachingAcademy: Where does education leadership come from: teachers or principals?
Professor Curtain: Unfortunately, it comes from the principal of the school, because that person can constrain the teacher. In fact, I taught at a school like that, a very difficult school, but when you close the classroom door, you can have your own world, you are able to teach, and the students will be able to learn. I think that the instructional leader is extremely important for a school, and if a school has a powerful principal, or leader, that school will thrive. If a school doesn’t have a powerful leader, some classrooms will thrive, depending on who the teachers are.
TeachingAcademy: What do teachers need?
Professor Curtain: Support. Someone to say, “I see what you are doing”, “I value what you are doing”, “I appreciate what you are doing”. They also need to have the principal come in and actually see what’s happening in the class, and give feedback.
They need to grow and to develop. In the United States we have a wonderful project called the Teacher Effectiveness for Language Learning (TELL) project and it’s a group of professionals, classroom teachers and curriculum supervisors like I was putting together what it means to be an excellent teacher in planning, what it means to be an excellent teacher in teaching the target language, etc. This TELL project is about what teachers can do for themselves, to learn and grow.
TeachingAcademy: What are the biggest challenges teachers face?
Professor Curtain: A lack of support, from many different perspectives. Even from a large cultural perspective, being a teacher, and not a doctor, for example, doesn’t bring you respect. Teachers are affecting the future of our nation the same as the doctors are.
Then it’s from the resources perspective, in terms of what materials do I have to teach. It’s also from the parents’ perspective – do the parents appreciate and support the teacher in the way that they used to? The resources of practice teachers used to have are not there any more. And it’s a lonely, lonely profession. And people that do it, do it out of love.
TeachingAcademy: How do they survive?
Professor Curtain: They are on a mission. It’s love and caring. And saving the planet.
TeachingAcademy: Do teachers know how important they are?
Professor Curtain: I make it a point to tell the teachers they are and the reason I do it is because of a teacher who approached me after my workshop in the state of New Jersey about two years ago, and said to me, ‘I thought about you all the way home’. I was wondering what technique, what idea made her think, when she said, „You thanked us“.
Teachers in the United States are right now being scrutinized everywhere, and are being made accountable, with test results and tests that do not take into account anything students bring. So now I make an effort to tell teachers how important they are and to support them and thank them for the work they do, and the caring and the loving that they give to the kids.
I start out with, “Thank you, thank you for who you are, thank you for the love and care that you give to your students, you could get another job that pays more money, but you are doing something”, and I make them say to each other, “You are changing the world one child at a time. You are the difference that is going to help to make the world a more peaceful place. Because you are giving the kids a gift of language.”
TeachingAcademy: You also tell teachers they are culture bearers.
Professor Curtain: I believe language teachers should speak the target language, as much as possible. Don’t speak Serbian and explain how English works, speak English! If you speak English, you are bringing that culture, because language and culture are intertwined and you are giving the kids that feeling of being in the culture.
TeachingAcademy: Why do some teachers feel reluctant to speak the language they teach in the classroom?
Professor Curtain: They may be worried that their language is not good enough. I want teachers to know that your English doesn’t have to be perfect to create a cultural atmosphere. But that’s not the main reason. I think the main reason is they think the kids will not understand.
Especially when it comes to grammatical explanations. The other thing is, it also is a lot more work to teach all in English. Why? You need lots of pictures, visuals and activities, you need to constantly be showing kids in three or four different ways what something means. It is much more work, but it is much more effective.
TeachingAcademy: How about our learners? What do learners need most?
Professor Curtain: They need to be in an environment where the teacher creates activities that are intrinsically interesting, cognitively engaging, culturally connected, and communicatively purposeful. Meaningfulness is at the bottom of it all, and having opportunities to use the language.
TeachingAcademy: You mentioned playfulness as an important factor in teaching and learning.
Why do we stop playing with children at some point?
Professor Curtain: Usually we think games are appropriate until grade 5, and then it starts to change. We are socialized to think that games are not academic and that academic rigor implies only the ‘paper and pencil’ kind of activities. And we need to be reminded that that is not the case. It is extremely important that we don’t just do paper and pencil, that play and fun be part of it.
TeachingAcademy: Games are not only for children – we play at teacher development sessions. You are often asked to stand up and do something silly. Why do some teachers then decide not to do it in the classroom?
Professor Curtain: Or, they do it and then other teachers criticize them. They say, „You are not good enough as a teacher because you are not academic enough.“ And this especially happens at the High School where there’s this idea that being an academic is only working with ‘paper and pencil’ and ideas, and not doing anything physical or working with manipulatives. We just need to change that. Rigor is about being connected to the brain, and making students be engaged cognitively.
TeachingAcademy: Are teachers difficult to engage in workshops? What do you do to engage them?
Professor Curtain: You know the teachers who come to the workshop and they just want to sit? I have to be honest, I am the same way sometimes – I go to a workshop and I just want to sit. And then when the trainer says ‘Get up and do it’, I don’t want to, but when I do, I engage.
Talking to different people is engaging. If I have an all – day workshop I will start with something called ‘Partners around the clock’. It’s an activity where they have to draw a clock, all 12 numbers on the clock, and I usually have them circle 12 o’clock, 3 o’clock, 6 o’clock and 9 o’clock, and then they have to go and find a partner for each of those hours. So, after they do that, I’ll say: Go to your 12 o’clock partner and I give them a question to discuss. Then I make them go to their six o’clock partner. And throughout the day I also do ‘Tell the partner’, at least every 10 minutes, to spark them with something they have to do, not just sitting.
Another thing I try to do is model good teaching, with a central idea, a focus question, a Can do statement, and then going back at the end to my central idea, my focus question, and my Can do statement. And I wrap it up. I work hard to model everything that I am saying in what I am doing.
TeachingAcademy: Any final thoughts and messages for teachers?
Professor Curtain: Try to make sure your activities are: intrinsically interesting, cognitively engaging, culturally connected, and communicatively purposeful. And when you see a nice activity, such as that fun teddy bear activity we did in the workshop, think about how you can expand it. Milk it and get a thousand activities.