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Book Review: Language Teaching Insights from Other Fields by Christopher Stillwell (2013)

Marsha Chan
by Kara Mac Donald and Federico Pomarici

Stillwell begin Chapter 1 by describing the wealth of experience teachers often have as many began careers in other fields or have taken courses in other disciplines as part of their teaching degrees. He preps the reader for the coming chapters, written by a variety of...
Stillwell begin Chapter 1 by describing the wealth of experience teachers often have as many began careers in other fields or have taken courses in other disciplines as part of their teaching degrees. He preps the reader for the coming chapters, written by a variety of different experts, by asking them to do a brainstorming exercise on what a teacher could gain from individuals from a variety of distinct professions.

In Chapter 2, the inquiry begins by examining what bartenders can offer in creating a comfortable and risk-taking social environment in the classroom. The role of the bartender goes far beyond serving drinks and involves creating an enjoyable atmosphere while responding to a variety of people’s needs. Recommendations for teachers are build rapport, address individual requests and remain positive by focusing on moments of success.

Insights from martial arts masters are examined in Chapter 3, describing the overlap of the principles of teaching language and teaching martial arts. The role of both foster an environment with clear expectations where learners track their individual mastery of skills and without comparing themselves to that of others. Suggestions for teachers are establish a routine framework, nurture a culture of respect, maintain an organized space, document progress, provide meaningful practice and disguise repetition among several others.

Chapter 4 draws on the experience of role-playing game (RPG) masters, where a RPG master sets up an engaging experience where the players work together to achieve their goals. In the classroom, teachers establish enticing activities and students willingly participate to achieve goals within established rules. Tips from the RPG master are engross students in an appealing pursuit, (i.e. quest), by having a meaningful set up of the activities where they have a personal stake and a reason to work together while making use of avatars, character tracking sheets and other roadmaps to document progress and engage learners.

Whitewater kayakers contribute their insights in Chapter 5, by describing how they constantly adapt to a continually changing environment like teachers. Also paddling is marked by stages of progress with pitfalls of letdowns and is community oriented. The whitewater paddler recommends teachers plan effectively, ‘paddle’ as a group, always have extra ‘tools’, interpret the current (i.e. environment) and remaining relaxed and alert.

Chapter 6 brings the reader to learn from the Zen master on fostering compassion and an honest interest in students. At the center of both is mindfulness, where the individual actively observes and interprets without judgement or assumptions. The Zen master proposes to perform the role of a teacher with true compassion and interest in students, to practice active awareness and cultivate respect and compassion in the classroom.

The author in Chapter 7 persuades the reader that, similarly to a restaurant reviewer, a teacher faced with students’ papers should focus on “reporting”, “describing” and “commenting” rather than “correcting”, “evaluating” and “grading”. The author zeroes in on teachers’ feedback strategies that will enhance students’ writing skills. This chapter will change the way teachers approach feedback not only in their writing class but also in their everyday teaching experience.

Chapter 8 applies the ski instructor methodologies to teach academic speaking. The chapter author digs into the principles of Kolb’s experiential learning, Vygotzky’s zone of proximal development and Roger’s humanistic approach to learning to make her case in favor of assessing students’ needs, warming-up before starting an activity, providing scaffolded support, presenting the same problem in different environments, visualizing issues to overcome obstacles, providing feedback and finally encouraging self-reflection. But the author goes beyond that by providing the reader with convincing activities that will please even the most suspicious teacher.

In Chapter 9, the author borrows ideas from his theater acting experience. He believes in teaching students improvisation skills to enhance their fluency, but also in the power of stories to attract students’ attention. The author also wants teachers, just like actors, to be conscious of their teaching objectives and their mutable audience.

Designing buildings as designing teaching materials is addressed in Chapter 10 and encourages teachers to use their creativity to motivate their students. The author, an architect himself, believes that representing knowledge and ideas through visual organizers enhances students’ reading skills by increasing content understanding, facilitating assessment, and also by fostering language production. It is about finding the right balance between aesthetic and function, and discovering alternatives that will please students of different learning preferences.

Readers don’t need to be basketball aficionados to appreciate Chapter 11. Speaking is an exercise of action and re-action, and just like basketball, it requires understanding the rules of time and space, and the importance of having a playbook. Similarly to basketball team players, good language speakers are those who are highly motivated and can utilize their options appropriately. Correspondingly, language teachers should prepare their students by presenting drills that will give them all the opportunity to “play” with the language and feel appreciated.

In Chapter 12, the author asks his readers to reflect on this question: “What can you do to promote social justice, equality, and democracy in your little part of the world?” The answer lies within the meaningful writing and speaking activities the author proposes to develop students’ critical thinking abilities. The author believes that using picture books and encouraging students to become documentary photographers will not only increase students’ language abilities, but also possibly, their awareness of global social issues.

What are the connections between language teaching and public speaking? The author answers the question in Chapter 13 by taking the reader into the corners of the matter. The messenger, the message and the audience is the author’s response. The chapter is a little compendium on self-awareness for the teacher who wants to become a more effective communicator in the classroom. Among the tips provided: be mindful of body-language, plan carefully, adapt content to class participants.

In the course of their careers, many teachers will sooner or later expand their role into those of curriculum developers, but also test and document designers. Chapter 14 is about the latter. The authors propose a very exhaustive set of tips to create documents that are less distressing for students, but also convenient for them to use. They also want to make teachers realize the importance of guiding students through the “rhetorical, visual, and language conventions” used in preparing materials, as a lack of this awareness could confuse students with different cultural backgrounds.

In a logical final step, Chapter 15 introduces teachers to the intricacies of the often feared course evaluations. According to the authors, the ultimate goal of course evaluations is that of improving the course along with the teachers’ own practices. And although they do not shy away from admitting the challenges that creating course evaluations presents for teachers, they successfully guide their readers through a structured, methodological design approach.

With the insights from a broad range of professions and disciplines, teachers are able to draw on different skills to improve their instructional practice, classroom logistics, interpersonal relations, material develop and more. It is an accessible resource for busy teachers that would like to re-conceptualize familiar practices from another view point.