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The Complexity of Language: Joshua Willis, L&L'14

Josh WillisWhen teaching English in a rural public school district in Nagasaki, Japan, Joshua Willis witnessed firsthand the struggles that some students face in learning new languages.

“Although this experience was very rewarding, it was also deeply frustrating, as many of my students made only marginal progress under my tutelage,” says Willis. “I enrolled at HGSE because I wanted to understand why some people seem to learn languages so easily while others struggle.”

During his time in the Language and Literacy (L&L) Program, Willis has come to understand just how complex language acquisition is and is leaving determined to create learning experiences for children that will be conducive to this acquisition and promote language and literacy development. Although his post-HGSE plans aren’t yet set, Willis describes his dream job as one that would involve working to change the perception of bilingualism in the United States. “I believe our society needs to actively embrace its own linguistic diversity as never before,” he says.

“Poet Rainer Maria Wilke wrote: Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. Josh embodies much of this spirit,” says Lecturer Pamela Mason, faculty director of L&L. “He came to the Language and Literacy Program after teaching English for a year in Japan, with questions about his pedagogical style and his knowledge about literacy development. He felt that his teaching in Japan was fun and engaging, but came to HGSE to really study ways that he could truly deliver quality English Language instruction and measure effective language and literacy growth in his students. Josh took what he perceived to be his limitations – and worked to resolve those questions by engaging fully in his study, always asking great questions. Not only did he enthusiastically embrace his learning, but he inspired his cohort and brought his upbeat, delightful personality to everything he did.”

Upon learning that he had been honored with the Intellectual Contribution/Faculty Tribute Award for Language and Literacy, Willis answered some questions about his time at the Ed School and beyond.

What is something that you learned at HGSE that you will take with you throughout your career in education?  I used to believe that incentives were the key to motivating students. Whenever and wherever students misbehaved, I was certain that misaligned incentives were to blame, and that a thoughtful recalibration of rewards and punishments would inevitably result in better behavior. Alfie Kohn, the author of Punished by Rewards, utterly problematized this perspective for me. Now, after hearing him speak in Karen Brennan’s “Designing for Learning by Creating” last fall, I recognize that motivating students — or people, for that matter — is not as simple as providing them with the right incentives. Tapping into the intrinsic motivations of an individual involves an approach beyond mere sticks and carrots.

How did you stay inspired throughout the year? At HGSE, inspiration is easy to find, because the people here provide an endless supply of positive energy. I marvel every day at the talent, passion, and perseverance of my colleagues, and I look to them for motivation whenever I feel myself drifting.

What advice do you have for next year’s students going through your program? Even if you’re a practicum student, try to take some classes outside of the department. I love my L&L family, but there are so many amazing people at HGSE that I wouldn’t have met if I had only taken classes with my cohort.

What will you change in education and why? I feel like this question demands a presumptuous answer, so I’m a little reluctant to respond. I guess I would like to see educational institutions adopt language policies and practices that explicitly establish the value of all languages equally. Right now, the implicit message that we often send to language minority students is that their language is inferior. Whether intended or not, this message has powerful consequences for children, families, and society as a whole. A democratic society cannot tolerate linguistic inequality any more than it can abide racial inequality.

If you could transport one person/place/thing from HGSE to your next destination, what would it be? I wish I could take Dr. Pamela Mason, director of L&L, with me. As a source of advice, understanding, and freshly baked cookies, she will be sorely missed.