Cultural Biography of ESL Teacher Francisco R.

Self and Cultural and Language Learning History

Francisco was born in Havana, Cuba. During the famed Operation “Peter Pan” in 1961 (see, he abruptly left the island at the age of twelve. His parents put him on a plane to Miami, where he was then quickly rerouted to Libby, Montana, to stay with a foster family arranged through the Catholic Church. Francisco only lived in Montana for about a year. He then moved to Miami, Florida, where he lived for ten years, before moving on to Cincinnati, Ohio where he lived for another thirteen years. After stints in Chicago, California, New Jersey and Texas, Francisco finally returned to Miami, where he has resided for the last five years.

Francisco has one sister. His parents, who were teachers, are now both deceased. Francisco is now Baptist, having converted from Roman Catholicism in 1975. He earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in economics, both from the University of Miami. Francisco noted that he studied economics because he thought that degrees in that field would be useful. “Being a refugee, I had to be practical,” he added.

In considering his cultural identity, Francisco believes that he is “very Cuban” in the sense that, although he “lost his country” and in his own words his “heritage” at a young age, he has always tried to maintain his Spanish language skills and his connection to Hispanic culture. He believes that his bilingualism has helped him professionally, allowing him to travel to Spanish-speaking countries and expanding his overall career options. When asked directly, he strongly agreed that he has a hybrid culture.

Francisco’s persistent lifelong hobby has been learning languages. He studied French in high school and minored in French in college. He also studied Portuguese in college, Italian at a language school and German on his own (with the help of the BBC), in addition to studying Japanese at a local community school. He took Spanish for Spanish speakers in high school and some Spanish literature in courses in college. During his adult language studies, Francisco was exposed to a wide variety of instructional methodologies and materials. Those Portuguese classes at the University of Miami used authentic Portuguese-language music as the primary instructional medium, while his French courses incorporated strong literature and drama components. He decided to study both French and Portuguese because he aspired to a career in international banking (which never materialized) and thought that those particular languages would be particularly helpful in such a career.

Francisco’s first experience studying a foreign language involved learning English at the young age of four at a bilingual school in Havana. He proudly told me that he was completely fluent in English after only three months in the United States, which is all that seemed to be required after eight years of high quality instruction in Cuba. That instruction came by way of a bilingual education program in which children studied Spanish and the humanities and social sciences in Spanish during the mornings, along with English (including English grammar) and the physical sciences and mathematics in English in the afternoons.

Francisco has worked professionally in both English and Spanish his entire professional life. His main line of work before going into semi-retirement was as an editor in both languages; he specialized in Spanish and English language textbooks.

Francisco has obviously had to overcome many challenges in his life: he came to the United States on his own at a young age, ripped away from his parents only to be shuffled around the country from Miami to Montana and back to Miami again. He remembers clearly the first sign he saw as soon as he stepped off the plane from Havana, which read “Cuban children this way.” Despite the numerous obstacles he has had to overcome in life, however, Francisco has achieved great success in life and is a gifted teacher.

Language Teacher Motivation and Teaching Approach

Francisco only decided to become a full-time language teacher after he retired. He was “getting bored” with retirement and decided to explore teaching as a post-career option, just to “see to see what would happen.” He had taught some English classes during his prior work as a textbook editor with Berlitz and thought that since he had quite a bit of experience studying foreign languages himself, he would be able to empathize with his students’ learning experiences and challenges; based on my observation of his class, I can attest to his success in that regard. Francisco is currently working as an ESL instructor in an intensive English program at a private language school for adults in Miami. All of the students Francisco taught before coming to his current position were of middle school or high school age, so his current job is his first experience teaching adult learners. He has found most of the students at his current post to be highly motivated (after all, they do have to pay fairly high tuition fees, he pointed out). At the language school where he currently works, Francisco has also taught individual and small group tutorials, along with corporate executives at a French advertising agency whose Latin American headquarters are located in Miami.

Francisco describes his approach to teaching as “eclectic.” He told me that he uses a “communicative approach” to teaching in which his lessons mainly emphasize speaking and listening, although he also sometimes incorporates what he referred to as “straight grammar” into his lessons. He was quick to point out that he is constantly “diagnosing” his students to determine how best to help them individually, giving students special attention when needed. He has found that most of his students are really interested in conversation. “The rest comes in gradually, as it’s appropriate. When there’s a teachable moment, that’s when I stop the conversation to demonstrate a grammar structure,” he added. Francisco said that he tries to allow his students to do most of the talking. He corrects minimally to “avoid frustration.” Learning a language is a very difficult thing to do, he says, and in order to be successful, students must be persistent; otherwise, they drop out. “My greatest satisfaction here is that my students keep renewing their enrollments,” he noted. One challenge he brought up was “keeping the freshness up” for longer-term students, who tend to get bored more easily than newer students.

Francisco’s teaching philosophy has changed over time. According to Francisco, when he first started studying languages, the teaching methodologies relied mostly on repetition and rote memorization; however, he noted that the profession has changed dramatically during his lifetime. When he was in the publishing business, for example, the “translation method” was used, but now more “direct” or “communicative” methods seem to be in vogue. When I asked Francisco why he believes those older methods have been changed or abandoned, he provided a frank and terse response: “because they didn’t work.” Upon further probing, he added that they were also too difficult and “unrelated to real life.” For example, those older methods were not helping students to talk about practical, useful activities such as going to the bank, ordering food in a restaurant, or expressing needs to medical professionals. According to Francisco, those old methodologies “weren’t connecting with students’ needs in a functional way.”

Francisco had a lot to say about American attitudes toward learning languages in general. He believes that Americans are, by and large, “very culturally isolated,” which leads to an “affective filter” making it more difficult for them to adapt to cultural change in our globalized world (as an aside, upon hearing him use the term “affective filter” completely unprompted it struck me that Francisco, like I, must have also been brought up on Krashen’s theories during his prior applied linguistic studies). In his words, many Americans are “handicapped” by this cultural isolation and are very lucky that “their language” (i.e., English), is “the international language,” which makes it less necessary, from a purely practical standpoint, for Americans to gain fluency in other languages. The fact that Francisco chose the phrase “their language” instead of “our language” or simply “English” seems relevant here, as he appears to be distancing himself from Americans in this regard (I did not ask him about his citizenship, although I presumed that he is now a U.S. citizen, as are most Cubans who immigrated to the United States during the 1960s). He believes that the fact that “other foreigners have a greater need to learn English than Americans have to learn other languages” has led to complacency on the part of many in the United States.

Francisco insightfully observed that Americans tend to say things like “I took Spanish in high school” as if they had merely taken a vaccination–as if the dreadful process is now over and the experience is best forgotten, the language something they would never use. As we wrapped up this portion of the interview, Francisco shared an interesting story from his early experiences studying French. While in college, one of his French instructors had told the class that native German speakers from the Alsace-Lorraine region of northeastern France, along the German border, generally had a hard time learning the language because, being of Germanic stock, they believed themselves to be superior to the (generally Romano-Celtic) French and so they looked down on the French language and were generally unmotivated to learn it for this reason.

Teaching and Culture

When I asked Francisco about the steps he takes to understand and acknowledge his students’ cultural selves, he said that he tries to ensure that his students see him as an equal and that he seems them as equals as well. He provided several examples of how he accomplishes this. He started by informing me that since he has many students who are refugees or exiles (recently-exiled Cubans and Venezuelans are well represented in Miami), he lets them know that he himself was an exile. He wants his displaced students to know that he understands how hard it is to leave one’s country under “political stress” and that he can personally relate to their life experiences. When interacting with his students from Brazil (also quite numerous in Miami), Francisco makes sure to tell them that he has studied Portuguese so that they know he is interested in their language and culture. He always asks his new students where they are from and invites them to talk about their country or region of origin and their culture, and since he is a world traveler (having visited most of Latin American and Europe) he is often able to connect to his students based on his own life experiences.

Francisco emphasized repeatedly that he believes in the importance of making sure his students understand that he is as just as interested in their culture as they are interested in his. As a case in point, once while teaching an Italian couple he decided to conduct some research on Italian culture that led him to a funny, lighthearted book on the quirkiness of Italians, which he shared with his students as a springboard for discussion on Italian culture.

This Cuban-American teacher often jokes with his students about the difficulties of learning English in Miami, since Spanish is the primary language here. In order to help his students learn more about American culture, he encourages them to go to places like Boston Market (“to see the meatloaf and so forth…to understand that there are different types of foods that Americans eat, other than fast food,” he explained). He also invites them to explore American cultural traditions, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas. Since he has owned a vacation home in North Carolina for many years and is familiar with Southern culture (it should be pointed out that although Miami is technically located in the South from the purely geographical perspective, it is definitely no longer “Southern” from the culture perspective and is in that respect an excellent example of how culture is dynamic), Francisco likes to talk about American Southern culture as well during his classes. He revels in sharing his life experiences with his students, such as explaining how Robert E. Lee Day was once an official government holiday in Miami (the old Miami, that is) as a segue to comparing and contrasting Southern culture and what he refers to as “Yankee” culture.

Francisco believes in the importance of critically comparing American culture and society to that of his students. For example, he uses a cultural-historical perspective to explain to his students how the United States was once much more like their primary cultures, especially before the 1950s–a time when communities were closer, before the suburban lifestyle had become so prevalent and when there were no “big box” stores. He also makes it a point to find out which of his students are immigrants to the United States and which are just visiting Miami for a short period of time, and he takes this into account when teaching, as he believes that the needs of learners who plan to stay in the country permanently are often different from those who are learning English as an international language and plan to return home.

When asked what suggestions he has for others working with ESL/EFL students with regard to culture, Francisco recommended using realia (authentic objects and materials such as menus, public transportation maps and even Christmas tree ornaments) in the classroom whenever possible to spark cultural dialogue as well as using history as an entrée to teaching language. He strongly recommended using authentic texts and digital media such as popular and classic television shows and movies that portray American life. True to his cultural-historical orientation, Francisco also recommended comparing the present to the past (e.g., by having students watch an episode of I Love Lucy followed by an episode of Seinfeld or Friends) to help students better understand how American culture has changed so that they will realize that culture is dynamic.

Class Observation

I observed Francisco teach for approximately one hour (the final hour of a three-hour class which forms part of an intensive English program consisting of 19 hours of instruction per week). Francisco teaches at a private language school in Miami, Florida that serves English language learners from diverse national, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds of a wide age range and across the proficiency levels. The class I observed consisted of twelve students ranging from approximately twenty to fifty years of age and of diverse ethnicities and countries of origin (the students in the class hailed from Latin America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East) at a low-intermediate level of proficiency. Each of the students in the course had previously undergone formal testing at the language school, which had assessed their proficiency at level 2 of the ILR language proficiency scale (see, corresponding to level B1 of the CEFR (see  

I witnessed substantial and meaningful student involvement in the class. Most of the students appeared to be genuinely interested and motivated to participate in the lesson. The bulk of the hour-long segment of the class I observed consisted of meaning-based activities (idioms and phrasal verbs appeared to be the themes of the day), followed by a short form-based activity in which each student was called on in turn. The instructor was very enthusiastic and encouraging at all times, only minimally correcting student errors (a practice encouraged by a number of approaches to language instruction, including the Natural Approach and Communicative Approach, for students at this level, for whom an emphasis on meaning rather than form is recommended). It should be pointed out that the language school where Francisco works encourages its instructors to adopt such teaching methodologies.

Throughout the class, the instructor used his sense of humor to help him relate to his students and, true to his self-professed teaching style, he cited Anglo-American cultural references, including the popular American reality show American Idol and British history, in this case what he referred to as Winston Churchill’s famous “Never Give Up” speech. An explanatory conversation ensued after several younger students asked who Winston Churchill was. I also observed an interesting (and from my point of view, entertaining) foray into the competing uses of “grand” (e.g., “that watch costs three grand”) and “K” (e.g., “he makes 50 K per year”) to mean “one thousand dollars.” Based on the examples the students provided, it became clear to me that the younger students in the group have become well acquainted with hip hop culture.

At several time during the class, the instructor drew on his knowledge of some of his students’ native languages (in this case, Spanish and Portuguese) to accommodate their learning needs. At one point, when several students struggled to grasp the meaning of a certain phrasal verb, the instructor provided a short explanation in Spanish, which quickly and effectively moved the lesson forward. The class format included a substantial question-answer component (both instructor and student driven), which frequently led to additional questions or more in-depth coverage of the points under discussion.

The instructor utilized the immigrant experiences he shares with many of his students (drawing from his own funds of knowledge) to help him connect with them in class. For example, while exemplifying the idiom “get up and go,” Francisco said to a student, “you were unhappy with circumstances in your home country, so you got up and went” and then went on to note that he had experienced similar life circumstances. The instructor also demonstrated an understanding of cultural complexity and realism, telling his students that “at least in the United States, being a go getter is something good” during his presentation of the term.

In addition, the instructor often referenced his students’ personal experiences and wove them into the lesson in what I interpreted as his attempts to maintain a personal connection with his students. From jocularly alluding to one of the student’s apparently well-known proclivity to shop at an upscale department store on a regular basis to recalling a prior in-class conversation with a student about a difficult day she had experienced, the instructor repeatedly acknowledged and validated his students varying life experiences during the class.

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