February 2016
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Sarina Chugani Molina, University of San Diego, San Diego, California, USA

My teaching journey began at the age of 16, when I served as a private tutor to a couple in their 30s in Osaka, Japan. As an Indian national, born and raised in Japan, and having attended an international school there, I was fluent in English. My proficiency in this language afforded me multiple opportunities to teach English to children and adults. Through my undergraduate and graduate programs, I began tutoring one-on-one and small groups, and as my qualifications increased, I began to teach in a variety of settings. I taught in university language programs and credit- and noncredit-bearing sectors in community colleges. Through my teaching experiences, I was able to work with a variety of student populations, from international students seeking to improve their English speaking skills to pursue higher education in the United States to working with communities seeking to improve their position in society. My most profound learning experiences about the notion of social justice emerged from my work with immigrant and migrant communities.

One summer, I was assigned to teach English to a group of migrant students in a noncredit community ESL program. While I had had various resources and technology other settings in which I taught in the past, in this small classroom in the second story of a church, I went back to basics with one marker and a portable white board as I sought to understand and meet the needs of my students. The students that came to this program worked long, hard days in the heat of the summer months in fields surrounding our community. We worked together from 6 to 10 p.m. every evening from Monday to Thursday.

I worked with the students to understand their needs and what they hoped to gain from this course, and we collaboratively came up with a project that I believed would help them share their voices. I provided them with disposable cameras to document what was important to them in their lives and experiences. For some students, I began working with the alphabet and taught them how to write their names, followed by simple sentences describing their pictures. For others, who were literate in their first language and had some foundation in English, I worked with them on writing paragraphs and developing their ideas.

As they were writing their own biographies, I provided mentor texts to support the development of their voice through the shared experiences of others who wrote about their own experiences as migrant farmers. One of the readings we used in class was an adapted version of Francisco Jiménez’s “The Circuit,” describing his experience moving from farm to farm with his family, his triumphs, and tribulations. Today, he is a professor at Santa Clara University and has written many books, which inspired many of my students.

As I reflected on my experiences and approach to teaching English, I began to realize that we engaged in many discussions about issues related to social justice in this particular context. I allowed the students to speak in Spanish and asked the more advanced students to translate for me so that I could listen, learn, and understand. As teaching moments transpired, I put pertinent vocabulary words on the board and helped students convey their ideas using English expressions without jeopardizing the flow of the discussion or their writing.

At the end of the term, they each shared their stories with the class. I compiled their written work, pictures, and images of themselves and what they valued in their lives into a class book, with all of their stories and histories combined. Through this experience, I learned about their lives, their struggles, and their triumphs and shared some of my own history, particularly the stories of my parents and the struggles they faced in trying to provide a better life for their children.

As a novice teacher, the idea of social responsibility did not strike me as profoundly as it did when I had the opportunity to work with these students. The work of Paolo Freire (2000), and more recently in our field, Crookes (2013) and Kumaravadivelu (2012), on critical language teaching began to resonate more deeply. I moved from transmitting knowledge to working for student needs and positioned myself as a learner alongside them. I started to begin theorizing about my teaching practice by confronting my understanding, my assumptions, and my vulnerabilities.

Crookes (2013) asserts,

Critical pedagogy is teaching for social justice, in ways that support the development of active, engaged citizens who will, as circumstances permit, critically inquire into why the lives of so many human beings, perhaps including their own, are materially, psychologically, socially, and spiritually inadequate—citizens who will be prepared to seek out solutions to the problems they define and encounter, and take action accordingly (Crookes, 2013, p. 8). 

Though we just began initial conversations in this classroom, I hope that these students were able to express themselves and discuss issues that matter to them beyond the classroom.


Crookes, G. V. (2013). Critical ELT in action: Foundations, promises, praxis. New York, NY: Routledge.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bedford, UK: Bloomsbury Academic.

Kumaravadivelu, B. (2012). Language teacher education for a global society: A modular model for knowing, analyzing, recognizing, doing, and seeing. New York, NY: Routledge.

Dr. Sarina Chugani Molina serves as an assistant professor and coordinator of the MEd in TESOL, literacy, and culture at the University of San Diego. She has worked with English language learners both in the United States and in international contexts for 20 years. Her research interests include teacher development in TESOL and teaching English as an international language.

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