The following is an interview between Victoria Fedorets (VF) and Rebecca Sachs (RS). Victoria is the Academic Coordinator for the School of Education at VIU. Rebecca Sachs is a full-time faculty member in the School of Education at VIU.
Victoria (VF): What parts of your life led you to the field of Linguistics?
Rebecca (RS): Well, my family is very multilingual; all of my grandparents or great-grandparents are from other countries. My grandfathers were from Vienna and Montreal; I had a great grandmother from Puerto Rico whose husband was French and a grandmother whose parents were from Ukraine. I also have a grandmother from Romania who lived in Israel for a while and speaks French and German in addition to Romanian and English. I didn’t grow up speaking any of those languages, unfortunately, but when I was in seventh grade, we were given the choice of studying either French or Spanish. I took French throughout junior high and high school and into college and loved it; I think I just got a lot of intrinsic enjoyment out of learning and speaking a different language, so I started taking Spanish in high school as well, then added German on top of those in college, and also took a course in American Sign Language. Then I studied abroad in Niamey, Niger, where the courses were taught in French, and I learned some Hausa and Zarma as well.
When I went to college, my idea was to become a multilingual speech pathologist, so that’s what first got me taking courses in linguistics, including clinical phonetics and semantics, and a course on the anatomy and physiology of the speech mechanism, which I found really interesting. My work-study job involved tutoring immigrants in English as part of Boston University’s Intergenerational Literacy Project, a really valuable program that offers language and literacy classes for adults while also providing language enrichment activities for their kids in another room so that the parents don’t need to worry about childcare. While in Niger, I had the chance to meet some pretty amazing Peace Corps volunteers, and I think that’s when I started thinking that I might go into language teaching instead. I applied for an MA TESOL program so that I would know what I was doing, and my advisor in the TESOL program encouraged me to go on to pursue a PhD in applied linguistics.
VF: Sounds like a life-long process around languages; interesting. Thank you.
VF: Thinking back to graduate school, what part of it did you enjoy the most? What do you remember as a significant moment of your life as a graduate student; what was your most memorable time?
RS: The most valuable aspect of my MA TESOL program, I think, was my teaching assistantship. I taught ESL classes for international students in MSU’s IEP (Michigan State University’s Intensive English Program) every day while I was also taking a full load of courses in the MA TESOL program, so from the very first semester, I was in charge of my own classes, and everything I was learning in my coursework I got to try out and apply and reflect on every day while teaching. It also helped me learn to prioritize and manage my time because every single day (well, except Wednesday since that was the day we were supposed to take students on field trips) I had to show up in both of the ESL classes I was teaching with new lesson plans and materials and graded assignments and everything. Then, of course, I had to do all of the readings and assignments and papers and projects for my own TESOL courses, plus serve on the curriculum committee, proctor and rate placement tests, participate in discussion groups with other TAs and mentor teachers, and so on. The challenge of juggling all of that was a great preparation not only for my PhD at Georgetown, but also for life as a teacher.
What made the MA TESOL program even more special and memorable was that there were several other graduate students in the same situation, so we were going through that tough but rewarding time together, and we built strong connections with each other. The more experienced instructors in the IEP were also an enormous help. They met with us regularly to help us problem-solve issues that were coming up in our classes and shared tons of creative and tried-and-true activities that we could use in our classes. So from the very beginning of our graduate coursework, we also had opportunities to form close collaborative professional relationships with mentors who were generous with their time and talents. That support and the experience as a whole was really transformative and helped to give me a lot of confidence early on in my career as a teacher.
VF: Wonderful. Thank you for sharing.
VF: You currently serve on the board of professional organizations such as WATESOL as well as Co-Chair of VIU’s IRB. So, what do you think it means to be a Teacher Leader today and are you a 21st-century English teacher? How would you envision and rate your approaches?
RS: A major part of being a 21st-century language teacher, whether you’re teaching English or any other language, is being multilingual and having international experience yourself (or at least knowing about other languages and having an international orientation). I have to say, I’m a bit envious of the students we have in our TESOL and Applied Linguistics programs here at VIU because they navigate so well between languages and cultures; it’s impressive and admirable! They come from so many different countries – Thailand, Vietnam, Korea, China, Mongolia, Nepal, Bangladesh, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Poland, Brazil, Colombia…. I’m sure I’m missing a few – but anyway, they interact with each other so fluidly, with such great cultural sensitivity; it’s uplifting to witness.
Speaking of the WATESOL Board and leadership, we have an NNEST Caucus which is working to raise awareness of the importance of professional expertise and the valuable benefits that so-called “Non-Native English-Speaking Teachers” can offer, including the fact that they can serve as relatable role models for their students – people who have been through similar processes and experiences and have succeeded. I’m excited for our students to graduate and start teaching or go back to teaching because I think they epitomize 21st-century English teachers better than I do!
VF: Thank you for sharing your vision on that. You are a wonderful teacher and being in this field for so long, and more than sure all your students nowadays look up to you as a role model.
VF: What do you primarily teach nowadays?
RS: There are about 7 or 8 courses that I teach regularly at VIU. Some of them are introductory courses in linguistics and language acquisition, whereas others are more practically oriented, such as a course on language curriculum and materials design and a course on pedagogical grammar for communicative classrooms. Among the more advanced courses I teach are a seminar on individual differences in language acquisition, a research methods course, and the TESOL practicum. I also serve as a mentor for the thesis course.
VF: Do you have any suggestions or initiatives in mind for the graduate students for the future, something you would like to wish them all.
RS: Sure! I would encourage them all to get involved in professional development opportunities outside the classroom. The School of Education offers so many PD opportunities, from our yearly Conference on Language, Learning, and Culture in April, to our monthly Voices from the Field speaker series. Local professional organizations such as WATESOL (the Washington, DC-area affiliate of TESOL International) also provide a variety of events throughout the year, many of which are free for members or volunteers. All of these are excellent chances not only to gain knowledge and exposure to different perspectives and practical tools, but also to network and build connections with other language education professionals in the community.
VF: You mentioned that in addition to in–service, in–house conference like CLLC, Voices from the field, you also participated in such events as SLRF, AAAL, WATESOL, and GURT. It is difficult to enumerate how many times you’ve shaped the community in profound way- but can you share your experience about what is the most exciting part of being a presenter at the events mentioned.
RS: Well, besides the excitement of getting exposed to cutting-edge research and having the opportunity to share my work and receive valuable feedback from others, it’s great to form new connections with people who attend my talks and whose talks I attend. It’s also a chance to reconnect with colleagues and friends from grad school who have since moved on to other universities across the US and around the world. We still collaborate on research, so we email each other and discuss our projects over Skype, but it can be so much more enjoyable and productive to meet in person. Plus, in the midst of a million other responsibilities, it’s very motivating to be able to take a step back, devote time to finding out about recent developments, get re-energized with excitement about the field, and make plans to explore new ideas.
VF: What are you currently working on, on some sort of research or project knowing you are always so busy while working on your professional development?
RS: I just finished drafting a chapter on reviewing manuscripts for academic journals that I was invited to write for an edited collection whose goal is to provide advice for graduate students and early-career faculty in the field of applied linguistics. During the school year, I gave conference presentations at SLRF (the Second Language Research Forum) and AAAL (the American Association for Applied Linguistics annual conference) on some research I have been doing on the relationships between individual differences, depth of processing, and language learning in instructional conditions that provide different types of feedback. I measured a variety of learner characteristics, including working memory capacity, visual short-term memory, grammatical sensitivity, metalinguistic knowledge, sensitivity to linguistic ambiguity, enjoyment of grammar, motivation, and others; asked half of the participants in each experimental group to speak their thoughts out loud while they were interacting with a computer-mediated language learning activity; and had all of the participants complete retrospective reflection questionnaires. Then, some colleagues and I transcribed and coded their comments to characterize the thought processes they were apparently engaging in, such as looking for patterns, testing hypotheses, formulating rules, drawing on prior knowledge, trying to memorize, and so on. We analyzed the data to see which individual differences predicted what sorts of cognitive processes, and which cognitive processes were associated with greater learning.
VF: Is that the new data that you are working on or you are collecting the prior available one?
RS: It’s all based on data I collected before I started working at VIU. But I’m collaborating with some colleagues from other universities on designing an experiment that we hope to conduct this summer. In studies of implicit learning, researchers sometimes use subjective measures to assess whether participants have become aware of a particular linguistic target – essentially just by asking them to indicate whether each response is based on a guess, intuition, memory, or a rule. Then, to see whether there’s evidence of implicit knowledge, they check whether participants’ accuracy is at a level that’s greater than chance when they report guessing. We have some doubts about the validity of that approach, and specifically also about whether participants are really guessing when they say they’re guessing, so we’ve come up with a way to try to test that and will also be measuring individual differences in locus of control to see if that’s related to how often participants report guessing, both in a condition where subjective measures are used in the traditional way and in an experimental condition where we try to improve on the method. We’ll also be interviewing the participants about their approaches.
VF: Thank you so much for sharing, Dr. Sachs, and for your time to share your professional experience and other ideas that you have worked and work and good luck on that.
RS: My pleasure! Thanks, Victoria.
VF: Thank you!