June 2017
TESOL HOME Convention Jobs Book Store TESOL Community

Alexandra Guilamo, TaJu Educational Solutions, LLC, Chicago, Illinois, USA

It’s Tuesday evening when I walk into the Washington State Convention Center ballroom at the 2017 TESOL annual convention and notice that I’m sitting next to a couple of fellow TESOLers whom I met during registration. The opportunity to meet others engaged in the work of TESOL is one of my favorite parts about this conference. “Have you ever seen Sherman Alexie speak?” asked my newfound colleague before the opening session. “No,” I admitted. I had read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, but I had never seen the author speak.

“He is amazing. His words are so powerful. One minute you’ll be laughing and then he hits you with a truth that is almost uncomfortable,” she revealed.

It did not take long for me to grasp what she was talking about. I was engrossed in every word he uttered. Listening to his experience as a child growing up on the reservation resonated with me. Doctors had believed that his mother’s intuition could not possibly perceive hydrocephalus in such a small baby, but they were wrong. She may not have been able to put a name to what was wrong, but she sensed it; she knew it. His mother’s beliefs, what she knew about her own child, her experience—all were deemed to be wrong because of her identity, her accent, her zip code. He and his mother had to leave the reservation to get the assistance they needed. They had to leave in order to be heard. It almost cost him his life.

That he had to leave the reservation to be heard struck me intensely, considering my own experiences as a newcomer and language learner. Mr. Alexie is who he is because of his identity and his struggle, but he also had to leave his native context to create opportunities and be heard. As I sat there taking in his story, I started to think about that powerful reality of how language, struggle, and identity work together to create power, opportunities, and oppression. It reminded me of a recent incident in a classroom that caused me much internal struggle.

The classroom was filled with close to thirty 15-year-old monolingual and ESL students—less than ideal. I opened the door to the classroom, smile on my face, notebook ready. It was, after all, one of thousands of classroom visits that I’ve done over the years. I had spent the morning observing instruction, providing targeted feedback, and working with the staff to reach all students in language and literacy achievement. It is my favorite part of my job.

As I entered, I noticed a seat off to the side and briskly moved by a few students who stared at me. “Who is she?” they wondered with their eyes as I stepped past them and settled into the chair.

I sat back and watched the teacher work with students, moving from one and then to the next, working to reengage them, questioning them, determining whether their “heart” was truly in the book they were reading for the lesson that day. I looked, almost automatically, at the walls to observe the reminders and evidence of past learning. I talked with students, asking questions like “What are you reading?”, “What is your goal that you are working on?”, “How will that help you grow your English and grow yourself as a reader?” These are questions that I generally use because they seem to create a natural conversation with students. In fact, these “look fors” were regular staples of most observations and coaching conversations I had with teachers.

These staples had always helped to guide what strengths I could communicate and what goals we might set to move the work forward. As the class came to an end, I thought about how to start the conversation and what would make the most amount of difference for both this teacher’s professional practice and her students’ levels of achievement. However, she started the conversation for me, “These books are terrible; I can’t get them to read. And they don’t care about the read aloud. I tried to get approval to use a few different stories to really get them engaged in reading, but [the stories] didn’t get approved.” She shared this with great frustration.

“Why do you think it wasn’t approved?” I inquired.

“It was a little bit racy. It uses the ‘n-word’ a lot. But it’s not like they don’t hear that anyway. They [the board of education] just focused on that word and didn’t get that it’s a story about a boy who gets messed with by a White kid. A number of things happen, and in the end the White kid needs his help, and the main character decides to help him even though he’s been bullied the whole time. It’s kind of like the movie Crash,” she shared, almost lamenting. “Everyone is so worried about being PC [politically correct]…” she closed, as I worked hard not to visibly cringe.

Looking back at this moment, it now dawns on me the reason I became immediately uneasy. Language and the words we choose are powerful. But much like Sherman Alexie’s message of the powerful interconnection among language, struggle, and identity, I wonder if this teacher even understood her students’ beliefs, their knowledge, and their experience with that historically loaded word. Did she truly see them? My interaction with her students revealed something unlike a group of kids that simply wouldn’t read. The brief conversations I had with them showed me that they had texts they like to read, characters that moved them, and goals for themselves as readers and language users. These students were bright and willing to share of themselves with a stranger, and they had hopes to improve. Yet, the teacher seemed fixed on the deficits and thought that a racy text would be the solution.

I asked her if she thought any of her students might receive or interpret the text differently than she did, having noticed a number of African American and other culturally diverse students in the class, but she was certain they would not mind. We explored the idea that no one would “mind,” and I encouraged her to think about texts that would engage, inspire, empower, and also reinforce the connections among her incredibly diverse students. I also encouraged her to think about how the exchanges in any given text might foster and empower respect between cultures that exist all around her students. Though the conversation ended too soon, and without any lasting change that I’m aware of, it did lead me to wonder. What is teachers’ social responsibility in the texts they choose to embed in the curriculum?

Looking back on that Tuesday evening of the TESOL convention and thinking about language, struggle, and power, I realize that I could have given this teacher concrete strategies she could try to ensure her students were left with a feeling of value and safety. I should have told her the following:

  1. Get to know your students. Know what they like, who their families are, what they connect to, and their experiences as individuals. Knowing them as people helps you to know the types of texts they would respond well to.

  2. As you choose texts to include in your curriculum, ask yourself whose values the text represents and whether that set of values is worth teaching in the classroom.

  3. Take time to look at the language used to see if it is both sensible and allows students to feel empowered and culturally safe.

  4. Over the course of the year, work to include authentic texts from a range of genders, races, religions, and ancestral origins so that students experience literature as a window to learning and the world.

These recommendations come from the knowledge that texts are primarily driven by language, and language is powerful. Language is communication; it is a bridge between people. Especially in the case of English, it is also, as Peirce (1989) notes, “like all other languages…a site of struggle over meaning, access, and power” (p. 405). This ability to influence, sway, and move individuals through words, both in the very words that appear in a text and the way in which words are used to portray a person, a culture, or a set of values is what makes it so powerful. Consequently, we are all users of language, but for some individuals, we are also victims and perpetual casualties of imprudent language.

When it comes to English, in particular, which is often perceived and/or understood to be an international language, language can never be “value-free” (Pennycook, 2006). The stories we tell, the characters we mold, and the settings we paint are intrinsically tied to the culture, time, and values we know. For that reason, educators must be especially thoughtful in the texts they choose for students because texts don’t simply represent a vehicle for learning and an entry into engagement. Rather, we must recognize that the works we read with and to students are powerful and political, and represent vehicles with the power to both foster and devastate the psyche of culturally and linguistically diverse students. In this world of globalization, which Steger (2003) argues is “a multidimensional set of processes that create, multiply, stretch, and intensify worldwide social interdependencies and exchanges, while at the same time fostering in people a growing awareness of deepening connections between local and the distant” (p. 13), we must think about language, literacy, and power as critical factors at the core of globalization.

Considering text choice through this lens, I’m plagued with the question of what awareness the text in question would have fostered. Would it have created and intensified the students’ understanding of the interdependence of different people upon each other or created a deeper connection of each cultural group with the others? I cannot say that I know her students well enough to fairly answer those questions. However, in addition to thinking about how engaging a text might be, it is also our obligation to examine how the texts we choose impact the learners who consume them. Educators must explore more options than the two extremes: boring our students or using texts that are riddled with words weighted with historical, political, and oppressive power. Though it may not be in the job description, it is in our responsibility to ensure that each of our students feels valued and safe. After all, it is their right.


Peirce, B. N. (1989). Toward a pedagogy of possibility in the teaching of English internationally: People’s English in South Africa. TESOL Quarterly, 23, 401–20.

Pennycook, A. (2006). The myth of English as an international language. In S. B. Makoni & A. Pennycook (Eds.), Disinventing and reconstituting language (pp. 90–115). Clevedon, United Kingdom: Multilingual Matters.

Steger, M. 2003. Globalization: A very short introduction. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Alexandra Guilamo is a K–12 educational consultant who brings a wealth of knowledge and experience in the areas of English language acquisition, bilingual/dual language, literacy development, and school leadership. Alexandra has been supporting administrators, teachers, and students in the use of best literacy and language practices and formative assessment to promote literacy and language development in K–12 schools throughout the country.

« Previous Newsletter Home Print Article Next »
Post a CommentView Comments
 Rate This Article
Share LinkedIn Twitter Facebook
In This Issue
Search Back Issues
Forward to a Friend
Print Issue
RSS Feed
SRIS Survey
We are conducting a survey of our membership and your areas of expertise and passion within the umbrella of Social Responsibility. Please take it online here. Thanks to everyone who has completed it!
Next Issue's Theme: Identity, Inclusion, and Advocacy
How does your identity affect your involvement in social responsibility? What ideas do you have for inclusive classrooms? How do you include diverse voices in your advocacy? Submissions due 1 August.