The research described here is based on a qualitative study conducted in Puerto Rico, with the participation of ten middle school students attending a Laboratory school in metropolitan San Juan. The students answered questions relating to their perceptions about learning English as a second language under colonial conditions in Puerto Rico. Participants also analyzed, discussed, challenged and constructed their own meanings concerning the images and content in the stories contained within U.S. made textbooks utilized in their English class. Moreover, they had the opportunity to discuss, analyze, and contest images of themselves and their countrymen as portrayed in English stories written by both Puerto Rican and non-Puerto Rican authors.
By utilizing the Case Study research method, I was able to explore, in depth, how this group of children perceived the learning of the English language and its didactic material, i.e. textbooks under colonial conditions, and how perceptions were related to their own culture and national identity. This research method encouraged the inclusion of the researcher’s personal perspective into the interpretation; allowing reflection on both my role as an ESL teacher in Puerto Rico and on my personal educational philosophy while discussing English language issues from the students’ perspective. The theoretical framework for this study was based on colonial/postcolonial theories, following the views of Pennycook (2001), Loomba (1998), Dimitriadis/McCarthy (2001), and Phillipson (1998), and includes critical pedagogy as described by Freire (1998) and Canagarajah (1999). Colonial/postcolonial theories helped in providing a framework for understanding the complex context in which the research project took place: English is a compulsory subject that students love, hate, and may also resist in the educational system current within Puerto Rico. A critical pedagogical perspective provided the study participants the opportunity to challenge and question the agenda of the U.S. dominant culture promoting the ESL program in Puerto Rico, and those English textbooks utilized in the program which usually reflect the predominately white middle class values and beliefs existent in the US. One of the main objectives of this study was to provide an environment for the participants in which to feel safe to freely express their honest and genuine opinions toward the imposition of the English language in Puerto Rico, taking into consideration the colonial context. Another objective was to critically examine and discuss all images and story content contained within the English textbooks. From my position as postcolonial researcher, my objective was to make students aware of their own voice and to assist them in exercising their power as critical thinkers. The results of this research project revealed the complex colonial/postcolonial mentality that still prevails in Puerto Rico today, congruent with a mental ambivalence common among colonial subjects who are simultaneously under the influence of two different cultures. Participants were allowed and encouraged to express their genuine concerns, (and occasionally contradicting opinions), about the ESL program in Puerto Rican schools and any connections between content and the colonial political status of the island. They also challenged and expressed strong and conflictive assumptions about the U.S. Empire, its dominant culture, and its power over the island. Additionally, they questioned the representations of themselves by Puerto Rican and non-Puerto Rican authors embedded in the English stories and were able to identify different kinds of interesting stereotypes concerning the U.S. culture as well as the Puerto Rican and Latino culture in both illustrations and story content.
The results of this study demonstrate that when students have the opportunity to make their voices heard within a safe and respectable environment, they are capable of exercising their power and of utilizing higher level critical-thinking skills.
A significant landmark would be to develop ESL and ELT curriculum that includes the perspective of a critical pedagogy in which students, as well as future ESL teachers, could reflect and discuss within the English class environment, the reality and the agenda behind the ESL program in the context of Puerto Rico. A critical pedagogy curriculum could help in empowering both students and future ESL teachers as Puerto Rican individuals who are currently studying under a colonized mainstream educational system to reflect on their own uniqueness in opposition to the images imposed on them, to become critical thinkers who could challenge the actual system, and to position themselves to bring about change in society.