Interview with Raul H. Sanchez, English Language Professor at New York University.
Helping adult students discover their own voices through a new language and culture is what excites Raul Sanchez, a language lecturer at New York University’s American Language Institute. It’s also something that humbles and challenges him, as Sanchez thinks up creative teaching strategies—by way of journalism, poetry, music and literature. Through his work, he helps adult learners not just overcome the challenges of learning the English language but to expand their minds and critical thinking skills as they adapt to a new way of speaking and a new way of life.
This passionate ESL professor holds a Master of Arts degree in Social Thought with a journalism concentration in Cultural Criticism and Reporting from New York University. He also holds a Bachelor’s degree in English language and literature from Ohio State University, with extensive training/certification in second language pedagogy and methodology. He recently received training for certification as an oral proficiency interview tester in the English language from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language Training (ACTFL), which will enhance the university’s English language proficiency assessments.
Sanchez has been at the forefront of the university’s American College Experience (ACE) program—an initiative he developed and coordinated for three years—which teaches students how to navigate the American college education system. A prolific writer on numerous ESL topics, Sanchez has authored several articles in a variety of publications, including ESL newsletters, magazines and newspapers. He has presented at both national and international ESL conferences.
Enjoy our interview with Raul Sanchez as he shares how creative writing and journalism have impacted his teaching approach.
GradSchools: Discuss your background and education. What led you to earn your Bachelors and Masters degrees and then go on to teach English to various levels of students?
I’ve always been passionate about teaching expression. Expression is the pivot of existence. All of my courses have been in Writing and Speech. Initially, I began my teaching career with journalism courses, creative writing, and business writing courses. I still remember when I was asked by my Program Director to teach an ESL Writing course because an instructor had suddenly become unavailable the week prior to the program.
When I began the ESL class, I learned something early on – my previous language teaching experience includes Spanish language teaching, yet unlike most beginner foreign language courses, where you simply teach the language for travel or basic social purposes, such as ordering food, asking for directions, and expressing preferences in higher level ESL courses, you are teaching students how to “become” themselves in a new language. It was a humbling and invigorating moment. The field of ESL was suddenly exciting to me in a different way, exciting in a more profound way than my experience teaching creative writing courses because you are getting at the core of expression, at someone completely discovering their voice in a new language and culture. This realization fueled my passion to continue teaching English language courses and I believe my creative writing and journalism background informed my teaching and pedagogical approach in a unique way. I have been teaching English language courses currently full time at NYU and previously at Baruch College of the City University of New York for a total of twelve years now and have been an ESL Program Coordinator at both institutions.
GradSchools: What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a teacher of students learning English?
One of the biggest challenges ESL teachers face is now being addressed in current education reform: that the role/value of an ESL teacher or ESL program in conjunction with other school programming and curriculum was often ambiguous. Now, ESL professionals and programs are becoming integral in working with common core standards, program development, and educational policy conversations. Although the expertise of ESL teachers has been well established, the role of the ESL teacher in both secondary and higher education systems was previously unclear to both ESL professionals and their counterparts within a school / institution.
Now, it is exciting to see content-area teachers and ESL teachers beginning to work together to develop programming critical to the academic success of international students. It was very rewarding for me to develop such a program at NYU, the Global Leadership Program, which combined professional English language instruction with specialized content training in the areas of Public Relations, Leadership & Human Capital Management, Entrepreneurship, and Business Law. The program faculty were comprised of English language instructors in the morning and content area specialists in the afternoon, in partnership with the McGhee Division at NYU’s School of Professional Studies. Nowadays, content area instructors are partnering with ESL experts to acquire the techniques necessary to reach international students in the classroom and instruct them effectively. ESL teachers, in turn, are also designing their instruction around content-specific standards so that international students can acquire the academic English language proficiency necessary to access that content and achieve in that content area.
GradSchools: Can you discuss the differences in teaching students at the high school level and those who are adults? How do the challenges differ?
The remarkable and inspiring thing about teaching high school students who are English Language Learners is that they are still discovering themselves—their passions, dreams, goals, and opinions. Teaching young adults can rekindle your own inner youth, questioning, and intellectual appetite. The challenge with high school students is to continually ensure that you develop material that is especially motivational. This challenge is highly motivational for you as a teacher as well, and, ultimately, makes you a better educator. As most high school students are still learning to become self-directed learners, it is important to select material that is contemporary, relevant, and engaging.
For example, when covering a unit on Euthanasia in a pre-college writing seminar, I had included an excerpt from an NPR segment, commentary from NY Times writers, and other cultural pieces. But it wasn’t until I included video of 20-year-old Brittany Maynard (a-right-to-die activist who broadcast her choice via viral videos on Facebook) and other video responses that the students fully engaged with the topic during a multimedia, in-class debate exercise.
The inspiring thing about teaching adult English Language Learners is that they possess the prerequisite knowledge to engage in rich and extended discourse on a variety of topics. The most exciting challenge is to find ways to remind them to tap into their passions, so that they do not only make academic/research inquiries and choices simply in light of a career, but in light of what will expand them as a person. I recall when I once gave an in-class writing assignment to respond to a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson “Passion rebuilds the world…it makes all things alive and significant.” I asked two groups of students to think of their one true passion - one class of high school students in a pre-college program and one class of adult learners. I asked the students, in light of Emerson’s quote, write about your passion -- what is it and why? Why does it make things significant to you? Is there something you hope to do about the world with your passion? Give reasons and details to support your answer.
When I gave the prompt to a class of adult professionals, many of them had questions about the task, especially about whether or not to tie it to their career choices. One man even informed me that he did not know what his passion was. However, when I gave the prompt to a freshman writing seminar class, all students began writing right away, even remaining after class to finish. The experience motivated me to make pedagogical choices that would provide opportunities for adult learners to expand their minds and critical thinking skills in a more holistic way, beyond their major and career choices.
GradSchools: What is an ‘acculturation program’? How does this program fit into the New York University American Language Institute?
The acculturation program at New York University, which I developed and coordinated for three years, is the American College Experience program (ACE). In the ACE acculturation program, international students learn cultural/language techniques and strategies for effective classroom participation, small group work, presentation skills, academic vocabulary, and note taking in terms of the U.S. education model. Students cover such topics as dealing with roommates, participating in student clubs, mastering trendy college idioms, acquiring academic vocabulary, participating in classroom discussions, and developing presentation skills.
Graduate students in the program also learn about specific aspects pertinent to their degree coursework, such as working with case studies. ACE curriculum topics focus on cultural matters not usually contained in a traditional college curriculum, such as resume writing, effective emailing, interviewing skills, and the college internship. Pedagogically, the acculturation program focuses on language instruction and the rich cultural contexts in which those linguistic structures occur, so that students can effectively integrate academically and socially into life at an American university.
GradSchools: Discuss some of the methods you use for teaching English to non-native speakers. How are you developing those methods as your experience builds?
First and foremost, I give students course activities that stir them to express their own inner fire, moving them to profound, exhilarating, and reflective response, by the careful selection of compelling texts, multimedia, and experiential assignments. For example, in-between rigorous academic essay assignments, I may ask the students to write an narrative essay beginning with the sentence “The Most Important Day in my life was ________” and then ensure that everything in the essay supports that sentence. Although the exercise is creative, it is also a thesis statement exercise, because all components in the essay are designed to support one key sentence. Process writing and the development of critical thinking skills are emphasized and I find that one of the most effective methods of teaching is to constantly make students feel comfortable with their own varying abilities in the writing process and with embracing the joyous progress that comes, even to the most experienced writer, of sculpting an idea.
I create opportunities for cooperative learning (small group and pair work) and organize classroom activities into not just academic, but social learning experiences as well. This focus on interactivity is not just from student to student, but also from instructor to student, so that we are both active participants in the learning process, working together in the pursuit of knowledge.
As a prism and teaching principle, the ancient Chinese proverb is often with me: “Tell me, I forget. Show me, I remember. Involve me, I understand.” Studies have shown that presenting information to students through more than one of the five senses enables students to better retain knowledge. Therefore, I strive to present information to the student through more than one sense (through a combination of articles, podcasts, video clips, lively vocabulary and lecture presentations) and tap into my passion to fully engage them with the material.
GradSchools: What made you decide to continue your education by pursuing an ‘Oral Proficiency Interview Tester in the English Language’ certification? What type of training did you do to earn it?
At NYU, we do Oral Language Proficiency Assessment Interviews each day, both in person and online, for placement in our level program and English language courses. I am now completing full certification as an Oral Proficiency Interview Tester in the English Language in order to enhance my oral English proficiency assessments at NYU. I wanted to develop professionally in the area of assessment and to enhance my interviewing skills as a language tester.
The training has been immensely rewarding and rigorous. It has enhanced how I teach and evaluate my students speaking skills. I apply the proficiency benchmarks to develop rubrics for speaking assignments/tasks in my Speech Communication courses. I’ve also employed those benchmarks to develop proficiency learning outcomes that are more tangible and practical. The first phase of the training was a four-day workshop led by Harvard University’s Virginia Maurer and sponsored by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language Training (ACTFL). The next phase will be multiple rounds of sample ratings to demonstrate that each trainee fully understands, has internalized, and can apply the ACTFL rating criteria for the final certification.
GradSchools: What is the most rewarding or exciting thing about the work you do?
The most rewarding part of language teaching is witnessing students use the English language for self-discovery and self-actualization. As a teacher, I strive to be a catalyst for thought, feeling, and ultimately, expression. When I am teaching writing and I witness a student tap into words to turn the page into a mirror for self-discovery or when I witness a student tap into the power of their voice as an instrument to spark change in others—these are the most rewarding moments for me as a teacher. In many ways, a good teacher is a good learner, and, it is rewarding to learn from my students each day while striving myself to impart learning to them in the most inspiring and effective way possible.
GradSchools: What are some avenues in life that have been opened to you through your career as an educator?
As an educator (and I believe most true and committed educators would agree), your students help you also rekindle your own passion for learning and creating in such remarkable ways. Teaching language courses always reinvigorates my own creative fire—in the active pursuit of their own goals, students remind you of your own ideals, dreams, and motivations, while also opening doors to possibilities you may never have previously conceived.
In terms of the field, in your career as an instructor of English to speakers of other languages, you can pursue many different roles. Being an instructor in writing and speech has opened avenues to me as a curriculum developer, conference speaker, teacher trainer, creative writer, journalist / cultural critic, faculty supervisor, student advisor, performer, and program coordinator. In higher education, partnership programs may be the key to discovering new interdisciplinary opportunities for teaching and program development. Such opportunities have currently led me to teach and work in new areas in addition to ESL, such as Leadership and Human Capital Management, Blogging, and Public Relations & Corporate Communications.
GradSchools: In your opinion, do you think it’s a good time to pursue a career teaching English? If so, why?
Absolutely. The most recent Open Doors Report reported that the number of international students studying in the U.S. grew by 8% over the prior year and is now at a record high at 886k. According to Open Doors Data, enrollment in Intensive English Programs has also been increasing steadily since 20041.
GradSchools: Do you think there are any specific qualities that help someone thrive as an English teacher to non-native speakers? If so, what are those qualities?
Passion is one of the most important qualities for a teacher to have. Passion allows you to place a spark in a student’s mind, to move material from information to inspiration, and to ensure a student leaves your classroom as a different person from who they were upon entering. Passion fuels you when you are on the hunt for additional resources, for more time in the day to give to your students, or for another way to present material so that it is more easily understood and relevant. Passion in any area allows you to develop an instinctual skill in that area, and this skill is especially helpful in the multifarious scope of second language pedagogy and curriculum design.
GradSchools: What advice do you have to students who are interested in pursuing an ESL/TESOL degree? What are the biggest challenges, and how can students prepare for them?
My advice to students interested in pursuing an ESL/TESOL degree is to also simultaneously develop a background in business, the humanities, or another professional studies content area (such as Marketing, Public Relations, Finance). This may help diversify your portfolio and open opportunities for you to pursue teaching in the new trend of cross-disciplinary language support and bridge programs. Also, developing a diverse specialization may allow you to enhance curriculum topics more fully and perhaps create new hybrid courses in your program—since ESL/TESOL instructors are often called upon to draw on a wealth of content topics as vehicles to teach the English language.
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