Student Spotlight: Janalyn Sheetz and some thoughts on education and transformation

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San Juan blog2.jpgOne of the things that almost all of us in the profession are asked to do periodically is to provide a statement of our teaching philosophy. It's a task that can be extremely challenging, because in order to do it right, at least from my perspective, the challenge involves both articulating the philosophical underpinnings of our approach to teaching and mentoring while at the same time demonstrating how we, as educators, translate our core beliefs into the actual practice of teaching. Perhaps not surprisingly, many things can get lost in translation!

In my case, there are a number of core commitments that I have made to myself as a teacher, and one of these is that education should be a transformative experience for students, in which the process is in large measure the goal. By referring to process, what I mean is that although it goes without saying that learning should involve tangible, domain-relevant outcomes, how those outcomes are reached is really what lies at the core of the best educational experiences.

That's where the transformative comes in. What I think makes education transformative, at its best, is when we as educators supply our students with the skills and opportunities to become the agents of their own intellectual development. This can be accomplished in many ways, depending on the circumstances, but for me the magic of it all emerges when we manage to challenge students to push themselves beyond their comfort zones by 1) expecting great things from them and 2) trusting them to make their way with the tools with which we provide them.

It all sounds pretty abstract when talked about this way. So, here's a much better way of trying to show what I mean. What follows is a short essay by my honors and Bachelor of Philosophy student, Janalyn Sheetz, who just capped a stellar career here at Penn State with an honors project based on her field work on a variety of Mixtec, an endangered language family in Mexico. Janalyn's own, concrete explanation does a better job of putting it all in perspective. (In fact, I'm not even doing Janalyn justice, because in addition to her B.Phil, her honors thesis, her Spanish major, and her International Studies major, Janalyn also completed her MA in Spanish as part of an integrated BA/MA degree. Congratulations, Janalyn, on a wonderful project and a wonderful PSU experience!)

In Janalyn's words:

"One of the most terrifying days of my life was the one in which I woke up in the small village of San Juan Coatzospan, Mexico, and realized that I had little idea of how to collect data for my undergraduate thesis.  My honors advisor is a defender of the rather underappreciated mantra of "Learn by Doing," and while he helped to prepare me in some ways for my first day of linguistic fieldwork, he strongly believed that I would learn best by hands-on trial and error.   In that moment, alone and highly aware of my complete lack of research qualifications, I did not see the wisdom of his advising approach, nor did I feel particularly fond of it.  Nonetheless the rewards of the struggle of learning for myself during the composition of my thesis have proved invaluable.

The sweat and toil was more than worth it.  Traveling to the remote mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico and living with a Coatzospan Mixtecan family during the summer of 2008 proved to be one of the defining experiences of my life.  With limited access to a computer and no experienced linguistic researchers on hand, I had to learn the ropes for myself.  The people who worked with me graciously over-looked technological problems such as dead microphones and cantankerous recording devices, recommended aspects of the language to record and include in my research, and taught me Coatzospan Mixtec lessons daily, even though my accent left something to be desired.  But while learning to collect linguistic data toward the goal of writing a thesis and making an academic contribution, I became aware of something bigger than these worthy goals--an issue that affects millions of people to their core.  I caught a glimpse, first-hand, of the steady erosion of an endangered language and culture due to an influx of the Spanish language and western societal norms.

Hundreds of the world's languages are spoken in small communities such as San Juan Coatzospan.  With each passing generation, these groups face the growing threat of permanent linguistic and cultural assimilation.  Languages are forgotten by both academics and native speakers, and as each endangered language disappears, so too is lost a culture and a people that once made up a vital part of our global community.

Seeing this pattern unfold before my eyes while working with the Coatzospan Mixtec people inspires me to continue the work I started in writing my thesis.  With the help of my advisor, I plan to publish a portion of my thesis findings in the hope that a wider audience will hear of the threat of impending language loss.  In  coming years I plan to expand my research toward future doctoral work by further study of the tone system of Coatzospan Mixtec and investigation of the effects of its extensive linguistic contact with Spanish.  These efforts, while small, will contribute to the world's knowledge of endangered languages and communities, and, I hope, will inspire all of us to better appreciate their value.

To have worked and investigated Coatzospan Mixtec tone during my years at Penn State is resoundingly my proudest accomplishment.  Not only did I successfully "Learn by Doing" in the realm of linguistic research, I grew personally and intellectually while living among the Coatzospan Mixtec people in ways I could not have foreseen when I walked onto Penn State's campus in 2005.  My thesis molded my academic and cultural interests, identified the research areas I care most about, and expanded my appreciation for the intricacy of linguistic systems.  Most importantly, however, this project has exposed me, in a deeply personal way, to the crisis facing each of the world's endangered languages."
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One of the remarkable things about the transformative power of education is that it is capable of turning students into teachers.

By putting words to your experience, Janalyn, you have taught me some important things about endangered languages, the importance of indigenous cultures and, indeed, the integrity and courage of a student willing to venture out of her comfort zone to open herself to a new and deeper understanding of the world.

Thank you and congratulations!

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