The latest issue of Idiom, the newsletter of New York State Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Language (TESOL) contains an article by my friend and colleague Gwen Lowenheim. Congratulations Gwen!
The entire newsletter issue can be read here.
Magic Yet Mundane: The Social Creativity of Language By Gwen Lowenheim
As humans, we have the mundane yet magical capacity to be who-we-are and who-we-are-not simultaneously. Tapping into this capacity can enhance language learning. Let’s look at how we first learn language. No matter where we are born, we become speakers by playing with language and making meaning with adults and other speakers. Adults relate to babies as fellow makers of meaning before babies know how to speak. In other words, infants are related to as who-
they-are (non speakers) and who-they-are-becoming (speakers) simultaneously and infants join in by creatively imitating the speakers around them.
In this process, we suspend “reason” and talk to infants even though we know that they don’t understand us. This very ordinary activity is what is magical to me. It begins as relational, social performance with the experienced languager relating to the inexperienced languager as an “equal” player. It does not matter to us in the speaking community that we have no idea what a baby is saying or even if she is saying words. And it ends with a new speaker.
Likewise, in the TESOL classroom, we relate to students as both non-speakers of English (who-they-are) and fluent speakers of English (who-they-are-becoming).
Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)
Lev Vygotsky, the Russian developmental psychologist whose socio-cultural theory has been influential in language teaching called this kind of activity the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). Lois Holzman (2014) developmental
psychologist and linguist, characterizes the ZPD, as follows: “People construct “zones” – the space between who they are and who they are becoming – that allow them to become. What is new here…is the acceptance of, and attempt to understand human beings as both being-and-becoming. From this perspective, the ZPD is the ever emergent and continuously changing “distance” between being-and-becoming.”
Yet once children become adept at using language, they typically become alienated from this creative capacity.
According to Ken Robinson (2001), we do not grow into creativity. Rather we grow out of it. We are often we are educated out of it
My goal as a TESOL teacher is to reconnect my students to this creative capacity and put it to work. My classroom activities are designed to create ZPDs putting teachers and students in touch with our capacity to be who-we-are and who-we-are-not at one and the same time through performance and improvisation.
In the classroom: Let’s Improvise!
Picture what actors do on a stage. They become someone else, and at the same they never stop being themselves. Language teachers have long used performance-based approaches, particularly improvisation, for developing classroom interaction in the target language. I am suggesting that performance is more than a classroom technique; it is a lens for seeing our students and ourselves (like infants) not as only as acquirers of new vocabulary but as active social, relational, makers of meaning.
Improvisation is particularly valuable because it requires “creating the ensemble.” In my experience, this promotes an especially rich environment for harnessing students’ ability to do things they don’t know how to do, mitigating the fear of making a mistake becoming immersed in the moment and taking responsibility for the classroom “ensemble.” Together we create a stage (the ZPD) where linguistic risks are not avoided but embraced and celebrated.
Here’s one example of how I use this understanding of performance. On day one, I ask students, “how do babies learn to speak?” We investigate the environment co-created by speakers and non-speakers. We notice the support that the baby is given to be who they are -we express pleasure; we do not correct or get annoyed – and who they are becoming by continuing to speak to them. I tell them that the baby and the parents are creating a “stage” on which the baby can perform as a speaker. We consider the fact that babies are the best language learners we know and we explore what we can use from that early language learning performance to create our own language learning stage in class, which we rebuild each time we meet.
While they are not pretending to be babies and parents, they have the similar experience of creating a stage on which they can all perform as speakers of English! The teachers I have trained have found this new lens, and a wide array of activities designed for the classroom, to add to their expertise as instructors. They are able to co-create performatory, fun environments, which tap into students’ very early language learning experiences, and in very little time, they report that they are collectively creating new activities with their students. This always inspires me.
Connery, M., John-Steiner, V., Marjanovic-Shane, A. (2010). Vygotsky and Creativity. New York: Peter Lang.
Holzman, L. (2009). Vygotsky at work and play. London: Routledge.
Holzman, L. (2014). Vygostsky’s Zone of Proximal Development: The Human Activity Zone. Retrieved from http://eastsideinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Vygostskys-Zone-of-ProximalDevelopment.pdf
In the Reference and Resources sections, you will find academic as well as practical books, articles and websites about the approach, including activities such as, building ensembles in the classroom, making pronunciation fun, activating careful listening, and relating to academic essay writing as a pedagogical resource.
Lobman, C. and Lundquist, M. (2007). Unscripted Learning: Using Improv Activities across the K-8 Curriculum. New York: Teachers College Press.
Robinson, K. (2001). Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative. West Sussex: Capstone Publishing Limited. Vygotsky, L. S. (2004). Imagination and creativity in childhood. Journal of Russian & East
European Psychology, 42(1), 7-97. Resources:
East Side Institute
Improv Activities for Teachers of English Improv Encyclopedia – Classroom Activities Performing the World
Performance of a Lifetime
Gwen Lowenheim, M.S. Ed. teaches academic writing, listening and speaking in the English Language Institute at New York Institute of Technology. She is a teacher trainer and learning design specialist with the East Side Institute, an international training and research center. She is also an organizational consultant with Performance of a Lifetime, an executive education firm. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.