Scholar researching ways to connect TESOL educators with students, communities

Jeff Rice
December 10, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Rose Sharp wants to teach abroad when she graduates from Penn State. Until then, the Schreyer Scholar is conducting research that will help other teachers who enter foreign environments.

As part of her honors thesis, the secondary education major conducted a literature review and is developing a research-based curriculum for English language learners that will help those who teach English to speakers of other languages (TESOL) use culturally responsive pedagogy in the classroom and become part of the communities in which they teach.

“When I initially set out, my main goal was to create or find out what a teacher would need to be able to go to another country where English is not the first language and understand the classroom culture of that society, and then use that information to teach,” Sharp said. “My second goal was to look at a couple of specific countries and then develop curriculum based on that. What are the classroom practices that are deemed acceptable in those countries? How can you adjust what you’ve learned in school to really meet the needs of your students and what will be the most effective teaching for them?”

Sharp, of Downingtown, Pennsylvania, was born in Bolivia and adopted at a young age. Her family supports schools in Bolivia and in Ethiopia and she was encouraged to have a global outlook on education. Sharp and her siblings were home-schooled, and growing up, she researched different types of school systems from around the world and how they were affected by culture.

In Eastern nations such as Korea or Japan, she learned, the onus is on students to connect with their instructors — not the other way around, as is the case in American schools. Class sizes are typically larger in those countries than those in the United States, students rarely if ever work in small groups, and it is considered disrespectful for a student to raise a hand to ask a teacher a question. All of these differences can make it difficult for ESL teachers educated in the United States to connect with students. Sharp hopes to emphasize in her thesis that there isn’t a right way or a wrong way to teach but merely to identify and acknowledge the differences to better inform instructors.

She has found in her studies that the theories of “language as a resource” and “culturally responsive pedagogy” have been developed over the last several years but have been largely ignored, often due to budget constraints or a lack of communication.

“We rarely talk about multiculturalism,” Sharp said. “This gap in the literature and in practice significantly affects students stateside (ESL), and will continue to, and as programs (third-party, online certifications) continue to bootcamp train TESOL educators to work abroad, it will inevitably affect their ability to teach and gain the experience that working abroad offers.”

Sharp is currently virtually teaching English to third-grade students in China as part of pre-service teaching and has seen some of those cultural differences firsthand.

“My students don’t really ask questions that much,” she said. “I need to read their body language as much as I can over camera to see if I need to clarify or re-state something. That’s been good for me because, as a teacher, I want to work on how I interact and how I observe my students so that I know when to give them extra support and when I can move to a new topic.”

As part of her thesis work, Sharp also hopes to help English-language instructors gain a better understanding of the relational culture of the countries where they teach in addition to the classroom culture.

“For a teacher stepping outside of the U.S., for her to know how to reach her students in a way that they will find her teaching meaningful, she has to understand who they are and what they bring to that classroom,” said Sharon Childs, an associate teaching professor of applied linguistics at Penn State and Sharp’s thesis supervisor. “Becoming comfortable in that space and part of the community, understanding the surface culture all the way to the deep culture that is their attitudes and their beliefs and the values that drive people in that community, it’s really important for them to know those things so they can design lessons that will be meaningful to those students.”

Sharp enrolled at Penn State as an architecture student, and also briefly considered studying engineering before deciding to focus on education and linguistics during her first year. She designed a writing course for high school students learning English as a second language as part of a project for Childs’ applied linguistics course, which helped inspire her thesis topic. She also had a desire to focus her thesis on something she would be able to use after graduation, and so far it has gone to plan.

“The project is going to be quite big, because we’re still going to be pursuing writing an actual curriculum,” she said. “Just the research that I’ll be doing will constitute a thesis, but this extra component is something I’m passionate about.”

About the Schreyer Honors College

The Schreyer Honors College promotes academic excellence with integrity, the building of a global perspective, and creation of opportunities for leadership and civic engagement. Schreyer Honors Scholars total nearly 2,000 students at University Park and 20 Commonwealth Campuses and represent 38 states and 27 countries. More than 15,000 Scholars have graduated with honors from Penn State since 1980.

  • Schreyer Scholar Rose Sharp

    Schreyer Scholar Rose Sharp hopes to help TESOL teachers adjust to the needs of their students by helping them learn about their students' culture.

    IMAGE: Photo provided
Last Updated December 16, 2020