Blanca Coma is an ESL instructor at Berkeley City College in California. She holds a BA in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley and a MA in TESOL from San Francisco State University. She is particularly interested in exploring multilingual approaches to TESOL, learner and teacher identity, and professional development. She is also involved in creating and leading workshops to promote professional equity in the field of TESOL. Website: http://equityadvocates.wordpress.com | March Interviewer: Todd Ruecker, University of New Mexico
Ruecker: I see that you came to the U.S. (specifically San Francisco) from Spain almost twenty years ago. Could you share a bit why you made this move and some of the challenges and successes you had in adapting to a new place and new language?
Coma: Many of my colleagues do not know this about me, but I used to be a professional ballet dancer. I originally came to the USA to dance for the San Francisco Ballet when I was almost 18 years old, and I had never studied English. At first, because dancing was my priority, I did not focus on learning English. San Francisco has a large Spanish-speaking population, and I just blended into it. However, as months went by, I became increasingly frustrated by my inability to communicate with others. My limited English impacted not only my dance career (for example, I couldn’t understand dance corrections, casting lists, or even chat with other dancers) but also my daily life, which was particularly difficult for me because I felt very isolated. I did not have a basic knowledge of the language, and everything felt awkward, from the handshakes to the conversations in which no one seemed to talk over others!
Even though English sounded like a stream of unintelligible sounds, I believe that my attitude toward learning languages is what helped me overcome the fear of learning a new language. I am from an area in Spain where we are bilingual (Spanish/Catalan). Although I was raised in a monolingual (Spanish) part of Spain, I grew up speaking Catalan at home. I believe my bilingual upbringing prepared me to be open to the idea that mastering other languages is absolutely possible. After a year in San Francisco, I started to understand and speak English and to work on pretending that I spoke English fluently. I remember saying “of course” every chance I got!
Ruecker: Your website says that you have a BA degree in Comparative Literature (Spanish and English) from UC Berkeley and a MA in TESOL from San Francisco State University. When and why did you begin pursuing the path of being an ESL teacher?
Coma: My interest in teaching has been there since I was born. I love facilitating learning and helping people achieve their goals. Becoming an ESL teacher has been a gradual process that I had not planned. I believe my personal process of learning the language while becoming more familiar with different cultural conventions showed me ways I could help others achieve their own language and life goals.
Unwittingly, each language learning experience brought me closer to my career as an ESL teacher. When I was learning English, I thought it would be a good idea to sign up for ESL classes. I was broke, so I could not afford an intensive program. However, a friend told me about the noncredit ESL program at City College of San Francisco, and I decided to try it. I took a placement test and placed at the lowest level. After attending a couple classes, I never returned. I felt I would never learn English in that classroom. At the time I did not know why I felt that way, but now I know it had to do with the lack of communicative practice and the focus on seldom used features of language. After that experience, I realized I would have to find my own way to fluency. I remember thinking there had to be a more efficient way of teaching English, but it never occurred to me that one day I would be an ESL teacher.
As I became more and more disenchanted with the professional dance world, I decided to pursue my academic interests. I have always loved school and having UC Berkeley across the Bay, I made it my goal to study there one day. The only problem was that I had never studied English, and I had no academic English experience. I enrolled at City College of San Francisco and took the placement test for credit classes. I took the English placement test because I did not know there was an ESL placement test, and I placed at English 1A, which is Freshman English. I noticed quickly I had been misplaced. The test played to my strengths (grammar and reading comprehension), but it did not assess my listening, rhetoric, writing process, or academic vocabulary. It took me three attempts to stay in and do well in English 1A. After this experience, I started to think about the need to have effective placement tests and interviews with students. I thought about the fact that learning a language goes beyond fluency because it depends on context and purpose. I was a fluent conversationalist, but I was not able to function in academic English. I realized academic English was something that had to be taught or at least noticed by students, so they could code switch when necessary.
When I transferred to UC Berkeley, I changed majors three times. None of the majors seemed to suit my interests until I found Comparative Literature. I switched from Women’s Studies, to Rhetoric, to English. While an English major, I went to the English department’s office to see if I could take classes that included literature in other Englishes. I could not understand why we had to limit our reading to what Kachru calls “the Inner Circle.” Having come across amazing literature in other Spanishes, I knew there had to be an extensive body of literature written in English by authors from all over the world. I was puzzled by the Department’s reluctance to offer those classes. By the end of our conversation, the secretary, who was probably a bit frustrated with me, told me I may be happier as a Comparative Literature major. She was right. I think my major helped me embrace my multilingual strengths and gave me the fire I needed to begin to help others achieve competence in the Englishes I know, “San Franciscan English” and academic English, while encouraging them to embrace their multi-cultural/lingual qualities.
All of these experiences together inspired me toward getting a MA in TESOL. I wanted to help others become efficient multilingual speakers of English.
Ruecker: You have been very active in NNEST advocacy, creating a Facebook page, website, and a workshop related to this topic. Were there any experiences in particular that drew you towards this activism?
Coma: Yes, some of my experiences in grad school and trying to find a job!
Although I found my MA TESOL program to be very valuable in preparing me to be an informed ESL teacher (and I would recommend the program to anyone who wants to delve deeper into TESOL), I did not like some of the treatment I and other NNESTs received from some of our classmates and some of our instructors. Of course, some instructors and students were respectful and wonderful and very knowledgeable. However, it is shocking to me that some people who want to be or are ESL/EFL teachers have such misinformed views about people who may have different accents, cultures, or experiences with language. A colleague of mine who studied in the same program has told me she had never felt as self-conscious about being an NNEST as when she was in her MA TESOL program. I concur. I think there is a lot of work that needs to be done to ensure inclusiveness, respect, and collaboration in our field. NNESTs need to be seen as capable professionals. I believe ignoring the problem will not make it go away, and I do my best to make sure the problem stays visible.
While I was in the program, I was told I needed to take an extra class because I was a non-native speaker of English. This class did not count toward graduation, and I felt I did not need it. I was upset about it because I felt singled out. Nevertheless, as it turns out, this became the best class I took in the program. The class was composed of non-native English speaking grad students from different disciplines, and it focused on genre. We learned to write for our disciplines. What made this class so important for me was that I had to read articles by Braine, Medgyes, and Matsuda, all of whom are prominent scholars in the NNEST movement. My instructor, Dr. Casey Keck, happened to introduce us to the NNEST movement by using those texts as our genre models. My view of myself and TESOL changed after that. Every chance I got, I wrote and researched about the NNEST movement. I made sure my class presentations and participation in class always included NNEST perspectives/issues. I felt professional equity advocacy was absolutely necessary if we were to have a rigorous professional field. In addition, as I was starting to look for work, the discrimination against NNEST in job postings was something that truly made me fight for equity because it affected my ability to make a living. I saw how other members of my cohort had more job options, simply because they were native speakers of English, and it made me more determined than ever to speak up.
Ruecker: One of the responses you’ve had to the inequality between NNEST and NEST in TESOL has been to create a professional equity workshop. Could you briefly describe the workshop and how it was received when you recently held it for the first time?
Coma: One of the issues I have with the NNEST movement is that, like most movements, it is only speaking to itself. That is, outside of the NNEST movement, the NS Fallacy continues to thrive. In my experience, many NESTs are completely unaware of the discrimination taking place in our field, and, if they are aware of it, they see it as an NNEST problem. In my opinion, we need to educate all of our professionals about professional equity issues because this is not an NNEST problem; This is a TESOL problem. My goal has been to figure out a way to engage not only NNESTs but also NESTs, so they become advocates for professional equity. The word “native” has hidden meanings that need to be discussed with everyone in the field of TESOL. We have to use the NNEST Lens (Mahboob, 2010) to engage everyone in the fight for equity. Discrimination is a relevant issue for everyone in the field, and our workshop breaks down how it affects all professionals in TESOL (NESTs and NNESTs).
I initially developed the workshop as my MA TESOL capstone project. At the time, I designed it as a 6-hour training seminar for students in MA TESOL programs. My rationale for this population was that they would be well-positioned to be the ones to effect change in the field from the ground up. Since then, I have begun to collaborate with Julia Schulte, and together we are adapting the workshop to fit different demographics, such as administrators, intensive English programs, and ESL/EFL students. We are also working on presentations and articles for publication.
So far, we have given the workshop at the International Language School of Canada—San Francisco. This is a private language school where I have taught. The Academic Program director, Jeannie Buso, had read my article in the NNEST Newsletter and asked me if I could offer a short version of the workshop as a professional development session for the school’s teachers. Julia and I jumped at the opportunity. Reviewing the feedback, the workshop was successful in raising awareness about the need for equity. The participants (most of whom were NESTs) were very receptive and engaged and said they found the workshop useful and relevant to their professional lives. Some of them expressed they had never noticed there was a problem with discrimination, but they now felt they had to fight for equity. We were very happy with the outcome. Now we are working on developing more versions of the workshop, so we can continue to spread the word. We are outlining conference presentations as well as workshops that can be adapted to different audiences, like administrators, in-service teachers, and students. We are also thinking about creating lesson plans that could be used in ESL and EFL classrooms.
Ruecker: I’ve been following activity on the Equity Advocates Facebook group you created where people routinely call out employers for discriminatory ad practices. What are typical responses from schools you contact? Without disclosing names, what are the most creative ways schools have used to avoid hiring NNESTs? Do you have any recommendations for others interested in contacting schools to call out discriminatory practices?
Coma: When I originally created the Facebook group, I envisioned it as an integral part of my workshop. I thought participants could use the group as a discussion board between sessions. However, this original purpose has evolved. Now, we are using the group, among other reasons, to encourage everyone to be ACTIVE advocates for equity. One of the things I love the most about the group is that it includes NESTs and NNESTs, and that NESTs feel comfortable enough to post discriminatory ads or articles they find and to be offended by them. I am very excited about the conversations and the advocacy I see taking place.
When a group member finds and shares a discriminatory ad, our response is to contact the school and/or the poster (sometimes TESOL.org) to make them aware that the language they use in the ad goes against TESOL’s best practices and is discriminatory. We either create our own letters or use George Braine’s template as a springboard.
The responses have been varied. When the ad appears in TESOL.org, the change happens quickly because it is in violation of the terms. When it appears on other sites, they may or may not change it, but I figure they will one day get tired of getting our emails and may change their ways. For example, there is a school in San Francisco that posted discriminatory ads on Craigslist and the TESOL career center. I contacted them back in May of 2012, but they did not change the ad on Craigslist. They changed the one on the TESOL site because Ana Wu contacted TESOL.org, and they made them change the ad. Recently, they posted the ad again. This time, it appeared only on Craigslist. Like before, the last requirement for the job applicant was to be a “native speaker.” This time, because of the group’s advocacy, more people contacted the school directly expressing their concerns about the ad. I kept checking the ad to see if there would be any change. I never received any direct response to my email, but after a month or so, they removed “native speaker” from their requirements. I was very pleased with the change. Of course, I don’t know if that means they will hire ESL teachers based on their merit instead of their native status, but at least there has been a shift in their language.
On TESOL.org’s career center there are several ads that avoid using “native speaker,” so they can get posted, but use other language to suggest they prefer native speakers from Inner Circle countries. One of my favorite job requirements is “neutral accent,” which suggests there is an accent that has no accent! On our website, there are some examples of these types of discriminatory language.
Discrimination in ads does not limit itself to “nativeness” though, and as a group, we hope to address all kinds of discrimination because a professional field needs to stand by a fair set of best practices.
Ruecker: I would like to turn to your teaching a bit. On your website, you write, “Although my main goal as a teacher is to promote fluency, I also emphasize language accuracy.” As a non-native user and teacher of English, how do you conceptualize language accuracy? Does it involve one’s accent and/or idiosyncratic speech?
Coma: One of the things that was most difficult when I was learning English was being able to say or write exactly what I meant. That is what I mean by “accuracy”: Being able to express exactly what you mean in ways that fit the purpose and context of the text or speech you produce. Fluency and accuracy do not have to follow a native speaker model, but they have to serve the needs of the speaker.
I will never be or sound like a native speaker. That is not my goal. My goal is to sound like myself, a multilingual being, and to be able to function successfully in English contexts. When I teach, I am not trying to help my students become native speakers of English. That would be impossible. The way I see it, as ESL/EFL teachers, we teach multilingualism, which, for us, includes becoming intelligible and precise in the Englishes we need for our contexts. Our particular accents signify we are multilingual (or from some specific place in the world) and do not affect my version of accuracy.
Ruecker: In your Teaching Philosophy, you note, “When I decided to become an English teacher, I knew my experience as a successful language learner would be extremely valuable in the classroom.” Has this turned out true for you? In what ways does being a successful language learner help you be a more effective ESL teacher?
Coma: Because I have an accent that “outs” me as an NNEST, I tend to tell students on the first day of class that I am not a native speaker of English and that I started learning English when I was 18 (after the Critical Period!). So far, I have never had a negative reaction to my revelation. I always ask if anyone has any concerns about being taught by a non-native speaker of English, and there has never been a negative comment. On the contrary, they have asked me, “How did you do it?” “What helped you?” I love those questions because it helps them see me as an ally in the classroom. I become an attainable model for language proficiency, and they can see that you can have an accent and be OK.
Whenever I teach specific language features or rhetoric moves, I share ways that helped me learn them. I tell them something like, “When I was learning how to use this structure, I struggled with …., but I figured out…, and that helped me. This may not work for you, but try it out!” I find that reminding them I can relate to their learning process helps me get their trust and in turn they participate more. Also, I like to share ways in which one can make him/herself look more proficient (strategic competence) because I feel it helped me function more easily in the USA.
Ruecker: In your teaching philosophy, you also talk about encouraging students to use their different languages in the classroom and encouraging students to “shuttle easily between languages.” What are some ways you do this in your classroom? What kind of activities do you organize?
Coma: This is difficult because most schools have an “English only” policy, and I have to follow it if I work there. However, because, like I said earlier, I believe we need to teach multilingualism, I like reminding students to make connections to what they already know, and they know other languages/cultures. Spending half hour explaining a vocabulary word in English when a simple translation into another language would help anchor the new one easily seems like a waste of time to me. I remember how frustrated I used to get when a teacher would not let me use a bilingual dictionary and instead told me to look up the definition in English. In general, the definition made no sense to me, but a word in another language brought up a semantic map to which I could anchor yet another word/concept. I think we need to rethink how we approach our teaching because we are not working with monolingual students.
The idea of “shuttling easily between languages” is inspired by Canagarajah’s (2006) work, and I hope to keep this concept alive in my teaching. So far, I haven’t worked in a school in which I am allowed to do activities that specifically promote active multilingualism, so what I do is little “guerrilla” attacks! For example, I allow for bilingual dictionaries and the use of words in other languages as needed. I provide written feedback that asks the students to think about other ways of saying something in another language and then reflect on other ways of saying it in English. I also allow annotation and brainstorming in other languages as long as the student can explain it to me in English when I need clarification. I feel I still have a lot of work to do in this area.
Ruecker: Thank you for taking the time to share your story and experiences with the readers of the NNEST Blog. Is there anything else that you would like to say to our readers?
Coma: First of all I would like to thank you for choosing me for this interview. I am proud to be the NNEST of the month! I have been reading these interviews for years now, and I find them very inspiring. I hope my thoughts inspire everyone to become true advocates for professional equity in TESOL.
I would also like to invite everyone to join our Facebook group and to contact me with any questions or suggestions.
Thanks for reading!
Canagarajah, A.S. (2006). Toward a writing pedagogy of shuttling between languages: Learning from multilingual writers. College English, 68(6), 589-604.
Mahboob, A. (2010). The NNEST lens. In Mahboob, A. (Ed.), The NNEST lens: non native English speakers in TESOL (pp. 1-17). UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.