Francesca and Stevick

by Danielle L. Kurihara

Once in my life, I had the privilege to listen to Earl Stevick speak about learning and teaching languages. I was a graduate student at the university he helped found, on a mountain top in the New England countryside, a few miles up from Rudyard Kipling’s house. I never thought I would end up there to pursue a degree in teaching languages. Until then, I had loved my previous career as a translator. In any case, on that hot and still summer evening, I waited with my classmates for his lecture to start in the dim university hall. A hush descended over the audience as he entered and, accompanied by a chorus of crickets singing merrily outside the open windows, Stevick talked to us in a low-key voice, without props, without power point, without notes, about a philosophy of teaching languages.

Now I’m a language teacher who is also walking in the shoes of the person who lead me to Stevick. Without warning, she came into my life and stopped my fast-paced career as a translator in its tracks. As a functional illiterate she was far from living the life I enjoyed thanks to my education.

When I started my first career, translators in Canada could pick any job they wanted. I started working at Indian Affairs when the Indian Act was being amended to restore status lost because of sexual discrimination. I had no idea this was going on. Did I know any Aboriginal women? No. Did I meet any during my time at Indian Affairs? Not that I know of. Two years later, as a translator-reviser for a Ministry of Natural Resources, I was traveling all over the province organizing bilingual public events on bug epidemics or new hunting and fishing laws. Where would I go next? So many interesting opportunities opened up for a trilingual, educated, experienced and mobile person like me!

At the same time I started volunteering at a non-profit literacy organization in Toronto where they assigned me to a 22 year old Canadian woman of Italian origin who was, like the other students, a functional illiterate. That was her, Francesca! She was born in Toronto where her immigrant parents had settled. I don’t know much about her background but I imagine she lived in an Italian neighborhood and that her parents did not read or write English. She may have been from a working class family. All I know is that she was not dressed like a yuppy Torontonian with glossy hair and nice makeup and clothes. She was quite overweight too. It seems like she had slipped through the cracks of education, in a time when educational therapists were non-existent in schools. She may have been neglected by some teachers, just like my brother had been. In high school he had developed a deep love of mathematics, but when he most needed his teacher to give him just a little more attention to untangle problems and shoot to the next level, said teacher was very busy being inappropriate with female students. He became demotivated and it would take him years to recover.

Francesca was to take me into her approximate abstract world of reading and writing and on meeting her, I soon realized that she didn’t give a hoot about the Indian Act or budworms or my education. She wanted to learn how to read and write fluently and it was clear that she was her own boss of becoming literate. To my surprise, I was being “handled” and told exactly what to do. I thought I was the one holding the keys to education! That was the first time I experienced what Stevick calls “serving the learner”.

Francesca led me into the NPO’s library. She chose an illustrated children’s book with big font. With her finger on the page, she deciphered one word at a time. If she struggled too much or misread, I waited and then said it softly. She repeated the words several times to herself, her eyes on the page. One hour passed. Finally, she raised her head and looked at me, pleased with herself. “Now I want to write.” She copied words laboriously from the book in her wide-ruled notebook like a first grader. She never looked at me for attention or approval but I couldn’t take my eyes off her, mesmerized by her concentration and independence. It took so much effort to write sunny, brother, breakfast. At last, she showed me her notebook and I helped her to form her A’s and Q’s a little better, as she requested. At 8 PM, closing time, both of us tired, we said goodbye outside the doors of the NPO office and went our separate ways in the dark frozen winter evening.

At work the next day I kept revisiting my tutoring experience with Francesca. I had not chosen the kind of book, I had not chosen the content, I had not given her directives or instruction, I had not divided the two hours into reading and writing, I had not decided when we would finish. Such was her power. Carefully and almost reverentially, I had responded to Francesca’s request to read a word or form a letter for her, both of us looking at the page, the learning. Years later, I would participate in a workshop on The Silent Way, delivered by Gattegno’s widow: “Teachers should concentrate on how students learn, not on how to teach”, “Learning consists of trial and error, deliberate experimentation, suspending judgement, and revising conclusions”,“The teacher must not interfere with the learning process.”

My next meeting with Francesca was completely different. She decided we were going on a two-hour subway ride. She knew how to take it to get home but she wanted to be able to read the names of ALL the subway stops in Toronto! From St.Clair station, we rode south. At the next stop, we got off and Francesca traced the letters written on the wall with her finger while reading s-u-m-m-e-r-h-i-l-l. We travelled the subway stopping at Rosedale, Sherbourne, Bloor-Yonge, Wellesley, College, Dundas, Queen, King, Union, St. Andrew, Osgoode, St. Patrick, Queen’s Park, Museum and St. George. As I would later learn from Stevick, “Teach and get out of the way”, or rather, in this case, get on and off the subway after the learner!

Months later I was invited to Francesca’s first year graduation at the NPO. Many learners were celebrating the same milestone and the room was full with tutors, parents and friends. Francesca stood proudly on the podium in front of her many tutors, 25 kg lighter than a year ago, reading her speech from her notebook in a clear voice. As she had learned to read and write more fluently, she had shed unnecessary weight. I thought to myself: who had been the teacher and who had been the learner?

From then on, I wanted to be in the presence of learners. In the daytime I translated and in the evening I taught a French class to adults at a college. The learner sitting the closest to me, the one watching me intently, had impaired hearing and a speech impediment. He did not care about that, he just wanted to learn French! The focus was on the learning. Every time I would ask the learners to form pairs, a student sitting at the back, a young policeman, gestured that he wanted to do the speaking activity with him. Didn’t Stevick believe that “what is really important is what goes on inside and between the people in the classroom”?

Becoming a seasoned translator at the top of my game paled in comparison to the learning experience I had had with Francesca. To see her take full charge of her literacy changed my path. Learners taking action in the classroom and helping each other in the name of learning pushed me forward. Because of them I quit translation to become a language teacher, received an M.A. from a humanistic university and developed a philosophy of teaching as being one of service instead of imposition. After working in Canada, Taiwan and Thailand, I settled in Japan where I teach English and French at university.

I may be educated enough to teach other people to read, write, understand and speak in a foreign language, and I may be trilingual but I am also, in reality, a functional illiterate as an immigrant in Japan. I can communicate in basic Japanese with my neighbors and my colleagues, answer the phone, go to the doctor or dentist, and try my best to accompany my son through the rough Japanese school system. Thankfully, subway station names and road panels are written in alphabet. As a functional illiterate though, I have to ask my close ones to read all important school, pension, neighborhood, mortgage, insurance and medical documents. They are technical and specialized and take much time to decipher with Google Translate. I have to ask nurses and clerks to fill out documents for me. I’m too embarrassed to write my family name in kanji and my first name in katagana because they appear in big maladroit letters like a school child. I know how it feels to be a functional illiterate: powerless, childish and ashamed. I have a feeling that my students may also feel somewhat overwhelmed when they start English classes at university. I’m glad Stevick and Francesca are by my side guiding me in teaching and learning in an educational system that is not my own.