“There are a lot of people in this world that don’t feel like they belong and they feel like they’re on the sidelines, and I don’t think anyone should ever feel that way. I want everyone to feel wanted and accepted and included. And to me, that can start right in the classroom every single day.”
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Because language and culture are key aspects of human identity, they often signal who is to be included in “our group,” and who not.
While everyone is capable of noticing this inclusionary/exclusionary aspect of humans, language educators are by training (and often by temperament) more attuned to it. Thus it is that I frequently invite language educators to be guests on this podcast, since each brings a practical, life-experience perspective on how language can expand the circle of connection and trust between and among people. Today’s guest, Ricky Adamson, offers such a perspective.
Language education: we are not just talking here about the excitement and slightly exotic thrill of learning about fascinating sounds coming out of others’ mouths, or the cultural predicts, practices, and perspective of members of far-flung global societies. Not “just” – though we certainly are talking about all that novelty and excitement, too!
We are talking about expanding our linguistic and cultural connections within our own countries; connecting to those heritage groups, ancient and modern, that differ from our own “tribe.” We’re talking about going beyond “foods and festivals” to understand history, perspectives, group triumphs and tragedies, group philosophies and attitudes. We are talking about connecting, not only with those who clearly look, sound, or dress differently from us, but also with those whose culture and language might lead us, if we are not careful, to assume the common words and practices mean they think like us, too.
When I was growing up, it wasn’t until I went into another culture that I realized I had one of my own. When I became a language educator, I found that was true for the young people in my courses, too. To have perspective on ourselves, we need to look not in a mirror, but at each other. To have access to that perpective, that understanding, those personal breakthroughs, we must include others and connect with them, look at them, listen to them.
When we broaden our circle of inclusion through learning the language and culture of others, we expand our knowledge and appreciation of ourselves, the beliefs that we choose, and the perspective we bring to every aspect of life. That is, we grow.
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Norah Jones: My great pleasure to welcome Ricky Adamson to the podcast today. Hi Ricky.
Ricky Adamson: Hi Norah, how are you?
Norah Jones: I’m well, thank you. And here’s to you presenting to us today some of the insights that you have as a lifelong teacher, supervisor of world languages, working in publishing. So, many things that includes So, many people, students and teachers alike in the language and culture learning enterprise. How did you get into that anyway?
Ricky Adamson: Well, we’ll start with how I got into teaching, which actually started in kindergarten.
Norah Jones: Oh boy.
Ricky Adamson: From kindergarten I knew I wanted to be a teacher and it just continued to grow year after year. And I was the kid that a lot of people might call me a nerd, which is fine. It doesn’t bother me, but I was the kid that not only was I watching my teachers as they taught me content, I was watching how they taught me.
Ricky Adamson: I was watching them with their teacher’s editions up there in the front of the room. And eventually I started kind of helping the teachers choose new textbooks along the way, or I wouldn’t make a decision, but they would let me look at all the samples.
Norah Jones: Wow.
Ricky Adamson: So, by the time I was in eighth grade, though, I was given the opportunity to be in the one section of French offered at my middle school. So, 15 students out of 332 or something like that were given this opportunity. And I fell in love with French. And I thank my teacher for that, Ms. Craner. And it just continued to grow.
Ricky Adamson: So, when I got to high school with Madame Jeffers, it continued to grow even more. And I completed high school and I majored in it in college with the intent to be a teacher. And so, all of that journey began all those years ago. And then when I finally made it into my own classroom, obviously that first year can be a little rough on you.
Ricky Adamson: You’re still learning. Well, the first few years can because you never stop learning. And so, as I kept learning, as I kept teaching, I got to the point, I wanted to share what I had learned with other teachers.
Ricky Adamson: So, thanks to my high school principal that I taught under, she gave me the opportunities to do professional development for the teachers in the district across content areas. And I enjoyed doing that. And then it got me to thinking oh, I would love to do this for teachers. I would love to present professional development to teachers and work with them.
Ricky Adamson: And so, that of drove my career path as I moved forward. When I worked on my graduate degrees, I had opportunities. I even ended up out of the classroom and as a campus-based, they were called academic facilitators, but I provided on-site professional development across content areas. That was my job. Which is a really nice, a great job to have. And then when I finished with my degree, I moved west from Arkansas.
Ricky Adamson: I moved west to Dallas. And then I was focused completely on languages. I was an instructional specialist for world languages. So, I was able to work with those teachers. And we had about 200 teachers across the languages. And eventually I became director, but as these different things happened, I still continued to grow in that area of really wanting to provide language teachers substantial, rich professional development for them.
Ricky Adamson: And in publishing, I’ve had that opportunity. So, it’s just kind of continued to grow, even as I’ve moved farther west. Much farther I guess I can go into the ocean, but-
Norah Jones: You can go Hawaii, but I don’t know…
Ricky Adamson: Right, I can go to Hawaii, but yeah. So, that’s kind of how my journey has taken me and where that passion originated and where it has led me to some 40 years later.
Norah Jones: That’s fascinating. Now the language experience, the cultural experience is one that touches a lot as we know on identity and how people see themselves and whether they feel included or excluded. What’s some of the directions, because you’re a powerhouse presenter, you really bring people alive in a room when you are presenting to them and training them. How does that play a role for you that awareness, that nature of language and culture itself?
Ricky Adamson: Yeah, and I thank you for the kind words, but for me when I go into present to world language teachers, I realize from the get-go that for some of them, this is the only chance that they’re going to be in a language specific or a world language specific session. And I want them to have those great experiences.
Ricky Adamson: I want them to leave with strategies, with renewed vigor and enthusiasm for what they do. So, I want all of them, all of the teachers that are in there to feel as if this truly is about them, they’re included in it. They’re not for lack of a better term, been just sitting on the sidelines while everyone learns about science content or everyone learns about the Pythagorean Theorem or whatever because they’ve been told to go to another content area.
Ricky Adamson: And to that end, I also try to impress on teachers the importance that their students immediately feel as if language and culture is about we and us, students included, than it is about them over there, those over there. As about other because the research shows that students, if they don’t feel connected to the content, if they don’t feel as if they are represented in the curriculum or even in the classroom the way it’s set up, they’ll take a negative view of that particular content area or that course and it kind of turned them off.
Ricky Adamson: And then they don’t really have that motivation to learn it or to keep learning it or to excel in it. And I believe that language teachers of all teachers have the greatest opportunity to show students that they belong. That yes, we may be learning French and we may be studying cultures across French-speaking Africa, Europe, the Caribbean and different places, but we can let them see themselves in that.
Ricky Adamson: As opposed to just teaching them about something going on somewhere across the ocean or whatever the case may be, So, that they truly do learn that, you know what? Language is about me. It’s about me. It’s about my experiences, just as much as it’s about the experiences that other people are having and the similarities in those experiences.
Ricky Adamson: So, there are just subtle things that teachers that we all can do to make sure that even from the day students walk in your classroom for the first time, they immediately feel as if, oh, this relates to me. This is about me. It can be as simple as each of the posters you have on the wall.
Ricky Adamson: Do your students, can they look at those posters and can they see themselves reflected in it? Can they see their multicultural characteristics reflected? Do they see students that look like them? Do they see students who, even in the curriculum who come from a similar background based on ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status?
Ricky Adamson: Because if the students see themselves immediately and feel welcomed, they know it’s about them. And it’s just a subtle way, but powerful.
Norah Jones: Certainly seems so. I’m going to ask you a two-part question or two view. One is the impact clearly your research has shown and the actions in the classrooms have shown that representation engages students. As you speak a little bit more about what representation does to specifically empower students’ engagement, broaden it also, please, into what the implications are for language and cultural understanding in society as a whole. Especially frankly, in the United States.
Ricky Adamson: To speak to how the first part about what you said last about how does it speak to society in the United States? In the US right now, we know that we’re divided in a lot of ways. And I feel like as language teachers with language and culture, we have a chance to be that bridge.
Ricky Adamson: Because what we do is we celebrate language. We celebrate culture. We celebrate the differences and the similarities and we show students and we teach them that it’s not a situation of people. It’s a situation of us collectively, and language and culture bridges that divide.
Ricky Adamson: Because if you think about it, a lot of us as language teachers, our outlook on the world comes from our experiences with language and culture with, for me, for French and French cultures from around the world and the people I’ve met within those cultures that have given me the opportunity to enrich my experience by knowing them and learning their cultures and becoming friends with them.
Ricky Adamson: So, the implication for me is that those little subtle things we do that show that they’re part of it and that we celebrate those differences at the same time that we’re similarities and that society in general is going to become a better place. It’s going to be better for us all because I feel if, and forgive what I’m about to say, but I just feel as if we had as a society in general and appreciation for other cultures, then we wouldn’t have so much dissension.
Ricky Adamson: And as I just keep reiterating language teachers, they’re at the forefront of bridging the great divide, of bridging cultures of showing that different is cool. That it’s not wrong. That just because someone’s culture is different from yours, does not make it wrong. It just makes it different.
Ricky Adamson: And it makes it something to kind of intrigue you and to want to know more about it and to learn more about it. And as far as in the classroom, some of the ways that when students feel as if they’re part of the conversation and as if it’s for them, that their performance in class will improve. One of the things that when I was doing my research, I found this study and although it’s not language specific, it’s powerful because it does have implications for the language classroom.
Ricky Adamson: There was a study where they took a group of students or two groups of students, very similar groups. And they gave one group a lesson from a science textbook or something with the images included. And it had typical white male scientists and things like that.
Ricky Adamson: And they gave the exact same lesson, the wording, but everything that’s in it with a change in the images and illustrations to female scientists. And as a whole, students actually did better, those students, because your female students that were in the class, they saw that, oh, science is about me. Science is for me, I can do this. I can be a scientist.
Ricky Adamson: And the implication is for languages and cultures is for students to say, “Oh, I can learn French. I can learn Spanish. I can learn Chinese. I can learn the culture that goes with it and immerse myself in it and enjoy it and seek it out.” So, the applications across the board go from just within those four walls of the classroom to the world.
Norah Jones: Phenomenal. It’s interesting, you once told me about the story of Happy Hazel’s bus, which seems like an interesting segue from the very powerful statement that you just made, but there is a connection. Who’s Happy Hazel and what about this bus? And what about seeing themselves or feeling welcome? Tie those together, please.
Ricky Adamson: Okay. So, Happy Hazel is actually my grandmother and growing up, my grandparents, my grandmother and my grandfather drove school buses and they kept their buses at home because their routes, they lived out in the country as we say in the south. And they kept their buses at home because that’s where their routes started and ended each day.
Ricky Adamson: And So, I grew up playing on those buses and I grew up hearing their stories and asking for their stories of driving the bus and different things over the years. And so, I myself became a school bus driver when I was teaching. I taught and drove a school bus. And few years ago, I decided to write some children’s stories about my grandparents’ experience.
Ricky Adamson: So, I renamed my grandmother to Happy Hazel and my grandfather to Jolly Jim. And the first book, it was published a little over a year ago and Happy Hazel and Jolly Jim’s School Bus Adventures.
Ricky Adamson: And the whole premise of it is that there’s a new student. It’s the beginning of the school year. And a new student is going to start riding Happy Hazel’s bus. And this student, he has a crutch and he’s afraid that the students on Happy Hazel’s bus are going to be mean to him or make fun of him because he’s different.
Ricky Adamson: And the whole premise and moral of the story by the end is that he had a great day riding Happy Hazel’s bus. He gets off the bus happy and excited because he found that everyone on Happy Hazel’s bus welcomed him. They celebrated his differences. And I made a point when the book was published as the illustrations that went in it and everything, I made a point that I wanted all kids to see themselves in it.
Ricky Adamson: So, I made a point of making sure that although Happy Hazel and Jolly Jim are white, on the bus, you see African-American kids, you see girls, you see Hispanic in the book itself as it goes because it truly is an experience that everyone has in some way.
Ricky Adamson: And it’s a similarity that we all share. That nervousness about being accepted. And even if we’re different and things of that nature. So, I took that story and I put it in a book and my grandmother, she’s 90 years old. So, she was excited that there’s a book about her driving the school bus and the way it relates to me for language and culture is as I was mentioning earlier.
Ricky Adamson: Celebrate the differences and enjoy the differences and realize that it’s okay to be different. You still belong. We all still belong.
Norah Jones: That’s powerful, Ricky. And you’ve taken me indeed back to the implication for your work in professional, in education. You touch on students directly through teaching them. You touch on teachers directly through training and workshops and professional development. You have currently have taken a job with another of a series of publishers providing world language educational materials.
Norah Jones: So, when you turn to society and you see the young people in particular, but basically anyone that’s left out or feels like they’re being left out, these are all pathways that you can take to improve that situation. What are some of the ways that you do that? Can provide us a little bit more of an insight and what are ways that since you know this that you encourage others to find their pathways to doing the same thing?
Ricky Adamson: So, let’s just take for example in a professional development session if I’m leading it and you have teachers that are taking part and you have other teachers that maybe seem a little shy or a little frustrated, you take time to go to them. You take time to get to know them. You take time to ask about their experiences. And it may seem like a small or a small gesture, but it has a large impact.
Ricky Adamson: And that’s the same is true with students. When I was driving a school bus, I had kids from all economic backgrounds and it was a very diverse group of students, but you can always pick out the kids that feel left behind. They kind of stay to themselves or they spend a lot of time sitting on the front seat.
Ricky Adamson: Not because they’re in trouble, but because they want to talk to you. And I would take that time to talk to them. I would take that time to get to know them and to give them that encouraging word, that smile each morning when they got on the bus and in the afternoon when they got off the bus and to find out how their day went.
Ricky Adamson: And it’s the same for teachers in the classroom. I used to stand, we were required to, but I actually enjoyed standing outside my door between class periods and getting to know the kids, not just while they’re in my room, but when they pass by smile and say, “Hello,” acknowledge them. And interestingly, I learned a powerful lesson myself from that because I had a student or a couple of different students, they would stop and talk to me and they weren’t even in my class.
Ricky Adamson: And I asked one day, I said, “You’re not in my class. So, why did you want to stop and talk to me each day or when you’re passing by my classroom?” And they said, “Because you’re nice and you care and it shows.”
Norah Jones: Wow.
Ricky Adamson: So, that meant a lot to me. And it was a lesson that I’ve tried to carry forward with me everywhere I go, even here in Los Angeles. A city of millions of people. When I go out and I go running, I get crazy looks sometimes, but I actually, I will acknowledge people and say hello or smile. And because I don’t know what kind of day they’re having. And that might be the one time that someone acknowledges them or smiles at them. It’s a small gesture on my part that may have a big impact.
Ricky Adamson: I don’t know whether it does or not, but that’s okay. I don’t do it to find out, oh, I made that person’s day. I do. If I made their day, I’m glad. If I didn’t, I hope somebody does the same some sort of thing. And I think the same can be true when we talk about languages and cultures is when we see people from other cultures or that speak other languages than us, if we take that moment to acknowledge them, to say hello, to just appreciate that they’re there, goes a long way.
Ricky Adamson: Because to me, there are a lot of people in this world that don’t feel like they belong and they feel like they’re on the sidelines and I don’t think anyone should ever feel that way. I hope I’m not getting on my soap box here, but I just don’t want anyone to feel that way. I want everyone to feel wanted and accepted and included. And to me, that can start right in the classroom every single day.
Norah Jones: You just did PD for the nation, Ricky. You demonstrate it in your everyday life, but you’ve also exhorted folks to act that way in their lives. And also of course, in the classroom. We have talked in previous podcasts about the role of educational publishing. What kind of role do you see for yourself or if you wish to broaden it out for educational publishing in general, to help to bring that message of inclusion, welcome, acceptance and growth?
Ricky Adamson: I believe that in educational publishing, we have a great opportunity to be the ones that show students that they’re included. And that’s as simple as being included in the illustrations and images in the textbook. That goes back to those subtle messages. It goes back to in the textbook, the scenarios we see and the activities we see are relevant and real life and things that the students are like, “Oh, I get this. I’ve done that before.” Or, “I could see me doing that.”
Ricky Adamson: And then if you take it down to the teaching level or as someone delivering professional development, making sure that what you’re doing in professional development that teachers, they see themselves in it. That they’re not turned off by it. And thinking, “Well, you don’t know my experience. You don’t know what I’m going through. You don’t know. You haven’t been here.”
Ricky Adamson: And finding ways to pull in their experiences to help them grow as teachers to really personalize it for them. You may have 30, 50 people, whatever, in a professional development session. But if you find those little ways to help them personalize it for what they’re experiencing and their needs and their students’ needs, it’ll go a long way.
Ricky Adamson: And for teachers then, they take that back and they they’re able to then think of that as they’re planning their lessons for their students, that, okay, what do I need to do to make sure every kid sitting in this class understands why we’re doing this and how they are included in this and how they’re a part of it.
Ricky Adamson: And like I said earlier, teachers can do little simple things, like change the posters on the wall to have things that include everyone. And imagine how this could be if as publishers and professional development providers were doing those things, and then it’s going to the teachers and the teachers then are doing those things for students, then students go out into the world and they’re doing those things.
Ricky Adamson: We really are, as publishers, as teachers, we really have a great opportunity to really kind of change the message So, to speak or add to the narrative. And I think we need to remember that I think.
Norah Jones: Powerful. Ricky, one of the aspects we’ve actually been talking about in language education and the message here in this podcast has been so much about inclusion and representation and welcome. When we talk about, then, the power of language itself, what kind of role does the understanding of what proficiency means and what doors it opens, how does that relate to what you’re speaking about here? Behaviorally and visually.
Ricky Adamson: Right. So, the great thing about when we learn a language is that, think of how many more people we then can get to know and we can learn about them and that we can go to them and speak in their language and think about the times we’ve all have done that. And we all know there have been times that the other person that we’re speaking to their face lights up because you’re someone that’s coming to them and speaking their language.
Ricky Adamson: Which in and of itself is saying, “I value you. I value your language. I value your culture. I find it important. I find you important.” And so, with language, we have those opportunities and whether we go and use that language every day or whether we use it to get to know people in our community or in business or just our personal lives, wherever we’re going, it’s powerful for the person that you’re speaking to for you to be able to speak their language.
Ricky Adamson: Because once again, subtly to me you’re saying to that person, “You matter. You matter enough that I want to speak in your language So, that we can understand each other and I can get to know you. And the same is true if we’re somewhere where maybe we don’t know the language, when someone realizes that and they began speaking our language to us, think of how it makes us feel.
Ricky Adamson: And language to me, language and culture, that’s the ultimate bridge. It is the ultimate bridge and we just have to find that language has purpose beyond my life that’s in high school or whatever the case is…. that language changes the world.
Ricky Adamson: And we, as a motivator as we’re learning languages and we want to know people and we want other cultures that in itself is going to drive us to try to get to higher levels of proficiency and to reach those goals that we have.
Norah Jones: How does this relate to young people that are in the country or even adults that have come in, immigrants, those whose native languages are already developed that then are learning English as an additional language, how does this relate to their experience?
Ricky Adamson: Well, for them, it lets them know that they’re welcome. If I am out in public somewhere wherever that may be, and someone is struggling to communicate something to someone else because the other person doesn’t understand if I can step up and help them and use both languages, three languages, whatever the case is, it sends a message. You’re putting a helping hand out and you’re saying, “I’m here for you. I value you. And you matter and your culture matters. And yes, you are trying to learn English and I’m willing to help you on that journey too, but at the same time, if I can speak to you in your native language, it’s a comfort.”
Ricky Adamson: And I think as language teachers, we’re good at doing that. But I think we need to impress that on our students. That language is not just across the world. It’s not just let’s use French for example. It’s not just me saying, “Oh, I want to learn French So, I can go to Senegal.”
Ricky Adamson: It’s me learning French and saying, “You know what? There may be someone from Senegal, here from France, from Quebec, from Guadalupe, from wherever the case may be and I can use it, right in my own community.” And the same with Spanish, with Chinese, German, again, any number of languages. I could go on and on with the languages, but I think we have to impress on young people that language is in here and now.
Ricky Adamson: It’s not in me when I go somewhere else. It’s here and embrace it and use it. Use it to better the world. Use it to better your own community. Use it to better someone else’s community. And I use my own teaching experiences as this. You spend a lot of time, like I spent a lot of time talking about France and different things in France and this and that.
Ricky Adamson: When now I would kind of wish I could go back in time and kind of rephrase things and not just not neglect France, not neglect the French-speaking world, but maybe provide students those opportunities and scenarios that they may experience right here in the United States when they encounter someone from a French-speaking country or if you’re a Spanish teacher from a Spanish-speaking country or from Korea, from China, from Japan.
Ricky Adamson: I think that in and of itself helps send a message to students too, that, oh yeah, this really is about me. It’s about me where I am and time and place at this moment.
Norah Jones: Right now. Right now. That’s very powerful indeed. Well, speaking of right now, here’s what I’d like you to do right now, please.
Ricky Adamson: Okay.
Norah Jones: I’d like you to imagine the listeners to this podcast, if you can turn to them visually as it were, one last exhortation or invitation or warning or however you would like to express it, what do you want to make sure that the listeners hear?
Ricky Adamson: I want the listeners, if anything, to go away being a little more cognizant and knowing that there are small things that are subtle messages that have a large impact. Make sure everyone you’re around feels included and not excluded. In whatever that situation is in your classroom. And if you’re teaching a university setting in a university setting.
Ricky Adamson: If you’re standing in the hallway, the kids passing by, if you’re in a professional development with teachers you don’t know, make them feel welcome too. The whole thing here is, validate someone’s existence… that they deserve respect and that you’re going to give it.
Norah Jones: Validate those folks no matter where you find them. A powerful message indeed. Ricky, thank you so much.
Ricky Adamson: Oh, thank you.
Norah Jones: It’s fascinating, really the passion and the dedication and the sensitivity that you have. Thank you so much for sharing that with us today, Ricky.
Ricky Adamson: Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thank you for giving me a chance to talk about it.
Norah Jones: You bet. And good luck with the next stage of your career and keep on passing on that great inclusion and validation everywhere you go, as you have been.
Ricky Adamson: Yes. Thank you so, much.
Norah Jones: Okay. Take care.
Ricky Adamson: I will do that. You too.Become a Sponsor