Studs Terkel for ELLs

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Article on Content-Based Learning using the works of Studs Terkel

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Studs Terkel for ELLs

  1. 1. Feature Articles Curiosity Didn’t Kill this Cat: Studs Terkel for English Language Learners SUSAN KELLY Shandong University of Science and Technology After years of studying academic English, many students are ready to move beyond language designed for the classroom, or what Yoshida (2001) calls ‘‘fishbowl’’ English, to the language of the ‘‘open sea.’’ As students develop beyond the beginner level, they are ready to read and discuss appropriate authentic texts. Even students who are unsure of themselves can make it in the ‘‘open sea’’ and navigate quite well with help from teachers and peers. Studs Terkel’s work is appropriate material that captures U.S. culture in all its vitality, complexity, and variety. With some scaffolding, teachers can use Terkel’s work to help students understand authentic English and gain insight into U.S. culture. To sharpen the focus of students’ study, I have created reading, writing, and discussion activities based on Terkel’s writing and oral history interviews with Americans with distinct perspectives and backgrounds, from factory workers to CEOs. Studying these individuals gives students living examples of the principles discussed in our text. doi: 10.5054/tj.2010.220147 In Korea, the college-level students in my classes have studied English for at least 6 years. As I plan my course and consider students’ needs, I reflect on Krashen’s (2004) assertion regarding delayed gratification: The Comprehension Hypothesis does not require delayed gratification. It claims that we can enjoy real language use right away: we can listen to stories, read books, and engage in interesting conversations as soon as they are comprehensible. The Comprehension Hypothesis, in fact, insists on pleasure from the beginning, on acquirers obtaining interesting, comprehensible TESOL Journal 1.2, June 2010 247
  2. 2. input right from the start. The path of pleasure is the only path. (para. 3) Students should not think that they must wait until their English is perfect until they enjoy the ‘‘real language’’ offered to native speakers. For this reason, and because I agree with Lightbown and Spada (2006), who assert that unless students use authentic materials, first with a teacher’s guidance and then on their own, they will remain dependent as English communicators, I include authentic materials in my intermediate university courses. Moreover, I find support from Berardo (2006), whose contention applies to listening as well as reading: One of the main reason[s] for using authentic materials in the classroom is once outside the ‘‘safe,’’ controlled language learning environment, the learner will not encounter the artificial language of the classroom but the real world and language how it is really used. The role of the teacher is not to delude the language learner but to prepare him, giving the awareness and necessary skills so as to understand how the language is actually used. (p. 60) Similarly, Nuttall (1996) notes that ‘‘authentic texts can be motivating because they are proof that the language is used for real- life purposes by real people’’ (p. 172). After years of reading texts in both Korean and English that are designed for young students and edited to ensure that they do not encounter any stylistic irregularities or controversial thoughts, students in my classes are eager to explore writing and conversation aimed directly at the real world as opposed to the classroom. Terkel’s work contains the slang, debate, inquiry, and energy found in the bar room, newsroom, and boardroom. The college students I teach are ready for a taste of such English, and I strive to meet this need with low- anxiety activities using authentic materials, as Krashen (1982) advocates. BACKGROUND Studs Terkel was not just an oral historian, music critic, radio personality, and writer. He was a national treasure. This vital, inquisitive, trenchant, down-to-earth man, dressed in his signature 248 TESOL Journal
  3. 3. red-checked shirt and red socks, represented the American spirit. When I started teaching a content-based U.S. culture EFL class in a South Korean university, I wove Terkel’s work into the curriculum to bring to life various U.S. traits, such as self-reliance, diversity, and creativity. Born in New York in 1912, Terkel grew up in the men’s hotel his family owned in Chicago. He described himself as a pet among the colorful residents (Gross, 2008). His life spanned two world wars, the Great Depression, McCarthyism, the Civil Rights movement, and the Internet age. He studied liberal arts and law at the University of Chicago, but never practiced law because he ‘‘couldn’t take the legalisms’’ (Gross, 2008). He worked for Works Progress Administration projects, wrote music reviews, and hosted radio and television programs before his first book was published in 1966. He lived out the themes of self-reliance, can-do spirit, creativity, social criticism, and bravery that students in my class read about in their textbook and discuss in class. Comments from listeners of radio station WFMT (available at www.wfmt.com/main. taf?p51,1,41,31,2) about Terkel’s impact demonstrate his legacy: After all the years I’ve been fortunate to have listened to and read Studs, I’ve received a priceless education on what it means to be Human. Something I could not have gotten anywhere at any price. Studs spirit lives on. (Jeff Wojnicki) I found Hard Times on the shelf of one of the families I babysat for. Thank you, Studs, for finally revealing why my father stores food and the source of so many aspects of our culture I hadn’t understood before. I wish I had such a talent for eliciting people’s stories because I want to know how people think, what makes our culture tick. Since I don’t, I thank goodness he did. (Anna Lehner) TEACHING CONTEXT I use Terkel’s writing and interviews in a semester-long English Through Culture course at university in Seoul. Intermediate- and advanced-level students take this 15-week content-based culture course that focuses on U.S. culture and explores topics such as family life, national values, business, government, and multicultural issues. In addition to reading Terkel’s work, students Curiosity Didn’t Kill this Cat 249
  4. 4. listen to and give ‘‘This I Believe’’ speeches, perform Internet research, conduct oral history interviews, and complete research and writing assignments, or a combination of these activities. I cannot include all of these activities in a single semester due to time constraints, but I always include a few as a means of adding challenge and variety to the course. Teachers can use many of these activities in adult ESL/EFL conversation or reading classes. Terkel’s ability to ask hard questions in a respectful, sometimes comic way is a useful model for interview technique. Moreover, the written and spoken interviews are an appropriate length for students who are ready to move beyond the sheltered English of graded readers and the CDs that accompany them to more authentic language. Terkel’s work covers a wide range of themes, including work, service, democracy, politics, education, economics, media trends, and race. I have found that many adult English language learners are often eager to exchange their opinions and question each other about these relevant topics. With sincerity and passion, Terkel interviews men and women from all fields in a way that makes readers and listeners feel part of the conversation. Moreover, Terkel’s writing and interviews fulfill Peters’ (1991) guidelines for authentic content because they N reflect important themes and ideas, N are consistent with curricular goals, N are rooted in real-world experience, N are sensitive to students’ development N allow students to engage in higher order thinking. Consequently, students of many ages find Terkel’s work compelling and feel a sense of accomplishment because, in reading and listening to them, they have succeeded in interacting with English designed for the wider English-speaking community. STARTING WITH A SEARCH In countries with widespread and readily available Internet access, having students conduct a web search is an effective way to promote learner autonomy and encourage habits for lifelong learning. I don’t provide a lecture on Studs Terkel’s background; rather, I have students find this information themselves. Because 250 TESOL Journal
  5. 5. these students have easy access to the Internet and thoroughly enjoy using it, I begin by asking them to search for information about Terkel, whose work we will listen to and discuss. Via e-mail, I ask students these questions and instruct them to provide me with their answers: N When did Studs Terkel live? N What was his name at birth? N Where did he live? N What was his educational background? N What jobs did he do? N Where is Bughouse Square? N Did he win any awards? N What did he look like? (Write a two- to three-sentence description.) N What web site(s) did you use? N Explain how you know the information is reliable. Although the Internet is an amazing source of information, students can easily access inaccurate and biased information. Consequently, I teach them not to blindly accept all they find on the web. I want students to develop good ‘‘habits of the mind’’ and often ask them, ‘‘How do you know what you know?’’ (Kohn, 2003). Because I teach students how to evaluate web sites and they expect to be asked about the source of the information that influenced their opinions, they are not surprised that I will ask them about the reliability of their sources when we discuss what they have learned about Terkel. Students bring their answers to class and we discuss the information that everyone has found, noting the different sources and comparing their findings. By having students investigate Terkel’s background rather than supplying it for them, I encourage students to develop their sense of agency and autonomy as learners. Terkel’s life and career is in itself an example of the complexity and richness of U.S. culture. His abandoning the practice of law to work in radio and his eventual career as an oral historian would be uncommon in Korean society, whereas so many people in the United States switch careers frequently. Such differences can make for vibrant discussion. I have the students save the information they have found, and their citation, for their final paper. Students find it interesting to compare sources with each other, thus discovering new web sites. I Curiosity Didn’t Kill this Cat 251
  6. 6. encourage them to move beyond Google and Wikipedia and try ipl2 (Drexel University, 2009) because this search engine is designed for educational research. In addition, if their college subscribes to an academic database, students may use that to search, thereby learning about their university’s resources. Many students do not even know about these resources and how they differ from more well-known and widely available search engines. DEEPLY HELD BELIEFS After discussing Terkel’s background, I introduce National Public Radio’s ‘‘This I Believe,’’ which revives Edward R. Murrow’s series of personal essays, which he introduced as such: The personal philosophies of thoughtful men and women in all walks of life. In this brief space, a banker or a butcher, a painter or a social worker, people of all kinds who need have nothing more in common than integrity, a real honesty, will write about the rules they live by, the things they have found to be the basic values in their lives. (Murrow, 2008) I distribute a sheet with vocabulary and a cloze version of Terkel’s essay ‘‘Community in Action.’’ Before we listen, I want to make sure students understand words such as evict and species and know who Thomas Paine was. I play the taped essay twice so that students can listen for the missing words and get Terkel’s main ideas. Afterward, in small groups students discuss their opinion of the importance of community and share any experiences or observations they have had with a community in action. After the discussion, I explain that each student will sign up for a day to share a brief ‘‘This I Believe’’ speech. They will prepare a two- to three-minute speech describing one of their deeply held beliefs and the experiences that helped them form that belief. To reinforce their understanding of Western rhetoric, I explain that the belief in this assignment is the thesis statement and the experience supports it by describing why they hold that belief. My objective is to provide each student with an opportunity to share with the class a belief that influences them. I see this as an activity that helps us get acquainted and builds community in the 252 TESOL Journal
  7. 7. classroom. To encourage students, I tell them that I did this activity for a writing class and. I also tell them that they don’t need to share their most intimate belief, but rather one that they feel is important and safe to discuss. I explain that in new settings, like a college course, one is not obligated to bare one’s soul. These students have learned that people in Western countries are often very direct, and I want to let them know that Westerners do not always pour out their emotions. I want students to choose safe topics and not mistakenly assume that I expect or require them to take bold emotional risks. Rather, they should carefully decide what is most appropriate to share. I have not had any problems with students choosing inappropriate or offensive topics. In other settings, teachers may have to set guidelines to ensure that appropriate topics are chosen. Reticent students will feel nervous. To alleviate their fears, I share my own feelings of shyness. I am intimately aware of what it is like to have butterflies in my stomach, and I have had to give speeches in Latin as well as do a ‘‘This I Believe’’ speech for a large group of writers. I find that this revelation is the most authentic, effective assistance I can provide to reluctant students. Each class starts with a student sharing a significant belief of his or her own choosing, and these can be quite powerful. Students have shared stories of discovering an unexpected friendship, overcoming a serious illness, reconciling with a sibling, or coming to terms with a great disappointment. By listening to these essays, our knowledge of each other grows. I use this activity to build community at the beginning of the semester, so I do not assess these speeches for a grade. Students receive authentic feedback from their peers through attention and applause. However, other instructors could choose criteria and formally assess the content and delivery of the speeches. INTERVIEWS Terkel is best known as an oral historian. His interviews are available from a variety of sources, including the Chicago History Museum’s (2002) web site and the Historical Voices web site (see Using Primary Sources to Learn of the Life of Studs Terkel, n.d.). Teachers can play segments of these interviews for students and ask students to summarize the interviews and discuss their impressions Curiosity Didn’t Kill this Cat 253
  8. 8. or opinions. (When in a classroom without Internet access, I use a CD of Terkel’s interviews.) Terkel sought out people from all walks of life—inner-city high school students, CEOs, atheists, priests, opera singers, folk singers, artists, authors, social workers, politicians. Even simply reading a list of the people Terkel has interviewed and listening to a few interviews expands students’ views of U.S. culture. Like Cauldwell (1998), I realize that a diet consisting purely of language recordings with slow, steady speech limits students’ listening development and may be ‘‘misdirected charity’’ because they fail to help students cross over from the controlled language designed for the classroom to the livelier language aimed at the public square. Thus I choose to use Terkel’s recordings for their authenticity and challenge. I can help students cross this bridge with repeated listening and cloze handouts, helping them attain independence with their English. After listening, students can discuss how Terkel conducted his interviews. I ask them to consider the following questions: N Who talks more, Terkel or his subject? N How does Terkel show that he’s listening? N How does he show his subject respect? N How does he encourage the guest to expound or clarify? I list Terkel’s techniques after students finish their small-group discussions. After gaining a better understanding of these techniques, students can conduct their own interviews. In an EFL setting they might interview older relatives or neighbors in English (or if that isn’t possible, in their first language) and then summarize the interviews to share in class. In the Korean context, I ask students to interview an older relative about how he or she overcame a hardship or what life was like when the relative was the students’ age. In another context, for example, a skills course with a unit on business, I could have students conduct interviews about different jobs, like those in Terkel’s (1974) Working. Because Terkel was a generalist, interview topics may vary greatly. In an ESL setting, students are likely to have access to native English speakers and they can interview friends, teachers, school administrators, or people in the community whose work or 254 TESOL Journal
  9. 9. experience intrigues them. Although I would prefer that all students conduct their interviews in English, I realize that in an EFL setting that is difficult for some students. Besides, bilingual professionals use one language for interviews and then translate their subject’s words into English, so translation is an authentic task of a nonnative English speaker. I would rather a student tell me that he or she interviewed a person in Korean and translated the responses than have the student mislead me. I realize that each setting differs and other teachers can require that students conduct their interviews in English. Before they conduct their interviews, I show students a video of Jon Stewart’s (2006) interview with Terkel in which Terkel admits that one of the reasons people open up to him with ease is that they see him as imperfect. He admits that he bumbles with his own tape recorder and his subjects must help him with it. I include this video to make Terkel real to the students and to reinforce the idea that mistakes are natural and that we should not feel shame when we make them. Terkel’s open admission of imperfection provides a good example for them. With a partner, students brainstorm questions and discuss whom they will interview. I start by suggesting that they consider what their relative has a passion for and then prepare thoroughly as Terkel did by collecting information on their relative’s career, hobbies, hometown, and friendships. I give the example of my interviewing my father’s aunt, my oldest relative. I list questions I would ask her about life during the Depression, being one of eight children with no father, her interest in football, and some general questions that might elicit interesting stories about, for example, what dating was like when she was a girl or how she got her first job. I show them the following list of questions that I might ask her: N What was your neighborhood like compared to what it’s like today? Can you tell me about the families near you? N I know your father left when you were young. How did your mother take care of all the children by herself? Did anyone help her? N I remember that Grandpa had a paper route. Did all the children have jobs? What were they? How much did they pay you? Did you like working? N What was school like for you? How many students were in your class? N How did your life change during World War I? Curiosity Didn’t Kill this Cat 255
  10. 10. Students can record these interview responses and later summarize them in a worksheet, paragraph, or essay, which will be shared in small groups during class. Because not all of the students in my class conduct their interviews in English, and some may do so over the phone, I assess them via Oral History Interview worksheets (Appendix A) and their own Oral History Self-Assessments (Appendix B). I evaluate both of these assignments based on idea development, word choice, sentence fluency, and grammar. If all the interviews are conducted in English, teachers can assess them based on preparation, research, the questions’ effectiveness and logical sequencing, and the interviewer’s ability to elicit information. For large classes, I suggest having students work with a partner on an interview because listening and assessing recordings is time-consuming. READING AND WRITING As a supplement to the chapter on ethnic and racial assimilation in their textbook, American Ways: An Introduction to American Culture (Datesman, Crandall, & Kearny, 2005), we read and discuss Terkel’s interview with C. P. Ellis, a man who went from being a member of the Ku Klux Klan to acknowledging and shedding his prejudices. Eventually, Ellis became an activist and union leader, who learned to respect and collaborate with African Americans. Ellis’s story of poverty and struggle, told with openness and humility, fascinates students. It is a portrait of a powerful and rare transformation. First, he responded to his hardship by blaming African Americans, but later, through his epiphany of shared hardship and the need to cooperate for better schools and work conditions, he realized that his prejudices were wrong and that he had to step up to join a community task force to improve the local schools. He had to put aside his prejudice and work with people whom the Ku Klux Klan had encouraged him to hate, which furthered his transformation. Although this reading includes a great deal of new vocabulary and is longer than the textbook assignments students had before this course, they complete it because it is so compelling. They enjoy discussing this challenging, powerful interview. By the last month of this semester-long course, students are ready to read more interviews. In South Korea, unless students have a high level 256 TESOL Journal
  11. 11. of learner autonomy and read English books on their own, they are typically not required to read a book written for native speakers. They have read passages in textbooks and possibly newspaper articles, but high school and freshman English readings are designed for EFL readers, and all students read what the teacher chooses. In Asia, outside major cities there are few bookstores with English language books. It can be daunting to move from reading one- or two-page passages with sheltered vocabulary to reading a work of fiction or nonfiction that is more than 100 pages long, as most books for adults are. However, students can read several pages of a nonfiction book such as Terkel’s Race (1992) or Working (1974). I feel it is important to give them choice in their reading, and this assignment provides that choice. Moreover, this choice encourages them to spend time skimming through Terkel’s work, noting the variety of cultural topics and viewpoints. The assignment also requires that they ‘‘conquer’’ an authentic text (Shepard, 2004). For their final paper students must read one interview from one of Terkel’s books, which I put on reserve at the university library such as: N Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (1974). Terkel interviews a CEO, movie stars, business owners, factory workers, a waitress, a social worker, allowing his subjects to reveal and examine their attitudes about work and U.S. society. N American Dreams: Lost and Found (1980). These interviews examine the idea of the American Dream. Subjects include a former beauty queen, Arnold Schwarzenegger before he became governor of California, Ted Turner, Jesse Helms, politicians, and many ‘‘regular’’ Americans. More than 100 people try to define the American Dream and explain how they pursue it—and how it evades them. N Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession (1992). This book features stories about racial attitudes and experiences in which race was a factor. Again, Terkel speaks with people from all segments of U.S. society. N Will the Circle Be Unbroken? (2001). Terkel offers an affirmative and uplifting collection of interviews with doctors, nurses, patients, undertakers, clergy, atheists, and survivors on death and life. To prepare students for complex vocabulary, I remind them that they should not look up each new word in the dictionary (Shepard, 2004) and that native speakers would not. Rather, they should use their ability to determine a word’s meaning from context, as they Curiosity Didn’t Kill this Cat 257
  12. 12. learned previously. I remind them that they will build vocabulary naturally by reading widely (Krashen, 2004). After reading a selection from one of Terkel’s books, students write a short paper that explains what struck them and made them choose a particular interview, summarizes it, and offers their reaction to it. Students also must include and cite at least two sources that explain who Terkel was or illuminate the content of the interview. For example, a student writing about Terkel’s interview with gospel singer Mahalia Jackson might decide to research more information on her achievements and the history of gospel music and include them in his or her paper. By teaching students to cite and paraphrase in this assignment, I am trying to prepare them for longer research projects. Two or three sources are a manageable number and give students a chance to practice appropriate citation. Moreover, this research is authentic. Good readers and thinkers frequently want to learn about a person or idea mentioned in an article. With access to the Internet or a nearby library, this task is simple to complete and encourages students to satisfy their curiosity through research. And this sort of project work, as Hutchinson (1996) maintains, is extremely motivating because it is personal, active work that allows for choice and creativity, in this case within the framework of an assignment similar to one that native-English-speaking students might perform. These projects not only require language skill, but call upon higher order thinking ability while challenging and adding to students’ understanding of U.S. culture. CONCLUSION Because Studs Terkel embodies a vital curiosity, students find him compelling. By reading and listening to his work, students not only improve their English conversation and literacy skills, but they see how they can better question and analyze their own culture and other cultures. Through Terkel’s interviews, students can uncover some of the rich, thoughtful conversations in and about the United States and its people’s ruminations on its history and its hopes. THE AUTHOR Susan Kelly is currently a visiting professor at Shandong University of Science and Technology, in China, and has also taught English 258 TESOL Journal
  13. 13. language in the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Indonesia. Her research interests include content-based instruction, literacy, and curriculum design. REFERENCES Berardo, S. A. (2006). The use of authentic materials in the teaching of reading. The Reading Matrix, 6(2), 60–69. Cauldwell, R. T. (1998). Faith, hope, and charity: The vices of listening comprehension. The Language Teacher, 22(6) Retrieved from http://www.jalt-publications.org/tlt/ Chicago History Museum. (2002). Studs Terkel Retrieved from http://www.studsterkel.org Datesman, M. K., Crandall, J., & Kearny, E. N. (2005). American ways: An introduction to American culture. White Plains, NY: Pearson ESL. Drexel University. (2009). ipl2. Retrieved from http://www.ipl.org/ Gross, T. (2008, November 7). Studs Terkel: ‘‘Hard Times’’ and other histories [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/ templates/story/story.php?storyId596724840 Hutchinson, T. (1996). Project work in language learning. The Language Teacher, 20(9). Retrieved from http://www.jalt- publications.org/tlt/ Kohn, A. (2003, March). What does it mean to be well educated? Principal Leadership. Retrieved from http://www.alfiekohn.org/ teaching/welleducated.htm Krashen, S. (1982). Principles and practice in second language acquisition. London, England: Prentice-Hall International. Krashen, S. (2004). Why support a delayed-gratification approach to language education? The Language Teacher, 28(7), 3–7. Retrieved from http://www.jalt-publications.org/tlt/ Lightbown, P. M., & Spada, N. (2006). How languages are learned (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Murrow, E. R. (2010). The 1951 introduction to ‘‘This I believe.’’. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story. php?storyId54566554 Nuttall, C. (1996). Teaching reading skills in a foreign language (new ed.). Oxford, England: Heinemann. Curiosity Didn’t Kill this Cat 259
  14. 14. Shepard, S. (2004). Using authentic materials. Retrieved from http://www. teachingenglish.org.uk/think/articles/using-authentic-materials Stewart, J. (2006, April 4). Studs Terkel [Television series clip]. Retrieved from http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/tue- april-4-2006/studs-terkel Using primary sources to learn of the life of Studs Terkel, his interviews, and individual stories of WWII veterans. (n.d.). http://www. historicalvoices.org/inner/teachers/studs1.html Peters, C. W. (1991). You can’t have authentic assessment without authentic content. Reading Teacher, 44, 590–591. Yoshida, K. (2001). From the fish bowl to the open seas: Taking a step toward the real world of communication. TESOL Matters, 12(1). Retrieved from http://www.tesol.org/s_tesol/seccss. asp?CID5189&DID51659 APPENDIX A ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW Name: Interviewed Person: Transcribe or summarize two of the questions and responses from your interview. Question: Person’s Response: Question: Person’s Response: APPENDIX B ORAL HISTORY SELF-ASSESSMENT Name: Answer the following in complete sentences. Who did you choose to interview and why? What did you learn from the interview subject that was most memorable? Did you experience any difficulties conducting the interview? Were you able to overcome them? What would you do next time to improve as an interviewer? 260 TESOL Journal

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