Understanding transnational identities of ELL students through the creation of digital stories (by Dr Jacqueline Ng)

Jacqueline Ng, our guest blogger this week, is an associate professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Linguistics and the director of the Open Learning Center at York University, Canada. She has extensive teaching and research experience in the EAP context. She is interested in exploring effective pedagogical practices to support ELL learners to improve academic literacy skills by investing their linguistic, cultural, and intellectual knowledge and identity through multimodal practices and experiential educational learning opportunities.

I used to experience this on the first day of my class: When I entered the classroom, most students were looking at me with their curious eyes and whispering with their blathering voices which seemed to express their doubt of having a non-native English instructor teaching an English for Academic Purposes (EAP) course in a Canadian university.

Taking their possible worries into consideration, I immediately introduced myself as a Chinese-Canadian, born and raised in British colonial Hong Kong with relevant educational and work experience in the EAP context. I intentionally highlighted that I myself was an English language learner (ELL) which would enable me to better understand the learning needs and expectations of my ELL students. I was even more excited to exchange perspectives of constructing transnational identities across geographic, cultural, social, and national borders with my students in order to help them unfold their dual or multiple identities (Zhang & Guo, 2015) and explore new possibilities of positioning themselves in a multicultural society.

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“But what is your real name?”: Honoring transnational students’ complex agentive acts of identity negotiations in (re)naming practices (by Dr Sunny Man Chu Lau)

For those who are Key and Peele[1] fans, or even if you are not, I’m sure you might have come across this comical and satirical classroom sketch where Key poses as a substitute teacher in a predominately white classroom and mispronounces all their names as he takes the register. The sarcasm of the skit is unmistakable – anyone who is familiar with urban educational contexts can immediately recognize the parody on classrooms where monolingual and ethnocentric English-speaking teachers ‘bastardize’ or mess up multicultural students’ names. Except in this case, Key the mix-raced substitute teacher is the one who mispronounces some very common English names, such as Jacqueline as /dʒæ·kwa:·lɪn/ (ja-kwa-lin) or Blake as /ba·la·kɪ/ (ba-la-ke). The hilarity builds up as the teacher sees the students’ efforts to correct his pronunciation as acts of defiance, typical of inner-city high-schoolers and is all ready to declare “war” on them. When one student, Denise, retorts repeatedly that her name be pronounced as /dəˈniːz/ rather than /dɪ·naɪs/ (de-nice), the teacher lets out his anger by snapping his roster clipboard into two. His indignation is only assuaged when the only ethnic student (played by Peele) in the class, Timothy, responds readily and gladly to the teacher’s call of his name as /tɪ·məʊ·θi/ (ti-mo-thi).

The bazarro classroom depicted in this Key and Peele’s sketch jolts us to confront ethnocentric teaching practices, such as carelessly mispronouncing multicultural students’ names or even changing or imposing on them a certain new name to better fit with the dominant linguistic and cultural practice. Naming practice has “the power to exclude, stereotype or disadvantage students” (Peterson, Gunn, Brice, & Alley, 2015), particularly in the case of foreign names that bear unfamiliar sounds. One BILD guest blogger Narjes اسم من نرجس است (April 15, 2019) expressed how she felt different and out of place when her teachers couldn’t say her name right and that no one seemed to be interested in knowing the story behind her name. With her name erased, she felt part of herself got erased as well. Stories such as this reminds us as educators that insensitivity towards multicultural students’ names and identities can cause indelible harm and compels us to be respectful of linguistic and cultural diversity and vigilant of any identity-rejection practices in class.

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