A Review: On Intersectionality and Academic Drag

The abstract for Elizabeth Coleman’s presentation, “On Intersectionality and Academic Drag,” stood out from the SL Pathways that Inspire Us conference program. It was not your everyday conference presentation title in ELT, and a topic, rarely, if ever, explored in EFL teaching contexts in Turkey. I had the opportunity to both attend the presentation and later interview Ms. Coleman as part of our SL conference May 4-5, 2018. I offer a review here of her presentation for those who were not in attendance, recognizing a need and an urgency to be part of creating opportunities for the discussions started in Ms. Coleman’s presentation to continue.

Coleman based her presentation on Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of “Intersectionality” and shared a brief introduction to the concept. She pointed out that although this is a theory unfamiliar to most educators, an intersectional approach could really help us unpack and understand the tensions that arise between groups. By understanding how multiple identities interact and/or combine within one individual and how our needs to assert those identities come into play in group politics, educators are better equipped to address the sociocultural needs of our learners. While Crenshaw’s theory of Intersectionality was feminist critique of legal theory and the inadequacy of anti-discrimination laws to address the particular and complex ways that women of color were discriminated against (both as women and as black women); Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality has been adopted in various academic disciplines and movements to explore a range of intersecting and overlapping identities, and how our identifications create a set of unique experiences and inform our individual needs and perspectives on the world.

Coleman defined the term “academic drag” as a constructed image of professionalism teachers don and perform. As employees of institutions that value an image of teacher devoid from individuality and/or uniqueness, we must convincingly perform the role of teacher in ways that fit the rules of appropriate identities as determined by the academy. Putting on this academic drag, we deny the multifaceted nature of our identity, and learn to silence and/or subdue those dimensions deemed unacceptable to the academy. Drawing a connection between Intersectionality and academic drag, Coleman pointed to how an intersectional approach can provide ways to help us bring our whole selves, or full identity, as Coleman put it, into our professional contexts.

To stress the importance of the expression of a full identity, Coleman mentioned researchers Cynthia Nelson — who examined queer students’ experiences, and the effects that hiding parts of their identities had on them, and Gust Yep — who looked at the harm caused by heteronormativity and used the term “soul murder” to describe the suppression and denial of the many parts of ourselves. Coleman pointed out that adhering to academic drag might mean that teachers choose not to deal with or address problematic gendered social attitudes and situations when they arise in our classrooms, but continue teaching instead, effectively forcing compliance with heteronormative hegemony.

Taking the present sociopolitical climate in Turkey into consideration, Coleman reflected on her own experience of teaching in a post-Gezi, pre-coup Turkey and how much she enjoyed giving students the task to write stories for imaginary couples that included more homosexual than heterosexual couples. From the positive reactions and the tone in which students wrote their stories, Coleman’s conclusion was that we can trust our learners to investigate norms they are told to comply with, and we can also trust ourselves to subvert those narratives. While I am in agreement that it has become more difficult and uncomfortable to challenge hegemonic/oppressive narratives, there is no time like the present. It is important to persist in raising consciousness in ways that call into question the academic drag we simply assume that we have to wear in order to be professionals.

To help her presentation attendees reflect, Coleman posed the question “Who are you?” to the audience. She then asked us to make a list of our identities, and to find points of both intersections and diversions in an effort to guide us into noticing the ones we hide as part of our academic drag. She talked about some of the identities she herself hides, and how all of her identities and experiences affect her interactions with students. As a minor point of critique, I think Coleman might perhaps have facilitated this list-making process differently in order to make it more accessible to all the participants in the audience (some people may not be accustomed to categorizing themselves with identity labels). For instance, asking participants to consider the various roles they play in life, and then perhaps facilitating the rest of her steps in ways that were experiential. I am stressing this not because I do not believe in asserting our identities, but because of the need to consider the existence of a broad spectrum of knowing and knowledge on the subject that the audience may bring.

Coleman ended her presentation with the suggestion to us educators to find ways to blend our identities with our academic drag, and challenged us to make our everyday academic drag more representative of us.

My take away? Hiding parts of our identities as teachers results in a denial of the pieces of our human existence not only to ourselves but to our students and colleagues. As long-time educator and writer Parker J. Palmer has passionately pointed out, if teachers are not supported to explore their own inner life, they cannot bring their full selves to the learning environment (2007, p.6). This creates what Palmer (p.65) calls a “culture of disconnection,” if we look at it from the perspective of a culture that places a higher value on analyzing by ‘thinking the world apart’ instead of ‘thinking the world together.’ Palmer explains that the latter would mean to “develop a more capacious habit of mind that supports the capacity for connectedness on which good teaching depends.”

It is exciting that SL was willing to open up space for discussion on queer topics in the Turkish EFL context. Acceptance and a ground for inclusiveness of all of the parts of our intersecting identities — in both ourselves as teachers and administrators, as well as our students — creates smarter, funnier, kinder, more human institutions that we can all thrive in. Having these conversations is integral to learning and teaching.

Many thanks to SL for acknowledging and recognizing the importance of discussing these issues, and to Elizabeth Coleman for starting the conversation. Here is to the hope that the ripple effect of inclusivity will continue to widen, wave, and ripple out some more.

Lukka (S.) Akarçay
May 2018


Palmer, J. P. (2007). The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco, Calif: Jossey-Bass.


Link to SL Blog: A Review: On Intersectionality and Academic Drag


Cultural Awareness Workshop at Putney

ESOL Workshop and Teacher Orientations at The Putney School Summer Program

This summer, I’m going to be teaching an ESOL workshop to a small group of international high school students at The Putney School Summer Program in Southern Vermont. The ESOL workshop aims to provide international students an immersive language learning experience. They will take various art studio classes with American students during the afternoons and have English language classes in the mornings to practice and work on developing their English language skills.

The summer faculty, bringing a diversity of experiences and art practices, arrived at The Putney School from a variety of locations: California, Maryland, North Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Northampton, Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont. While some of the faculty will be teaching at the Summer Programs for the first time, others are returning for another summer.

The Putney School is a private high school located in a peaceful, green and inspiring hilltop at Putney, Vermont that houses its own working dairy farm, horse barn and several gardens which some of the food on campus is supplied from.

Cultural Awareness Workshop

I recently attended two days of the orientation for faculty where I had the chance to explore the Putney hiking trails, meet and chat with most of the faculty, and enjoy delicious food both on campus and at the Putney Mountain trail head. Hiking to the summit, much to my happy surprise momentarily reminded me of the Mediterranean landscape features on the Lycian Way in the South of Turkey. I was transported, in one instance, by stepping on largish rock structures right near the summit!

As part of the orientations, I was asked to lead a twenty – thirty minute workshop on cultural awareness for teachers and staff. To understand cross-cultural contact and competence, it is helpful to reference the iceberg metaphor for culture. Many cultural elements are easily visible and sit at the tip of the iceberg while several are hidden from plain sight, living deep below the water/surface of the iceberg. Cross-cultural contact can occur by means of language such as in intonation, idiomatic expressions, register (formality versus informality), pronunciation, direct or indirect style of communication, and listening. Social norms, relationship to personal space, relationship to time and schedules, non-verbal interaction and cues such as facial expressions and levels of eye contact are some other ways by which cross-cultural contact, differences and communication breakdowns may emerge.

The main aim of this workshop was to provide participant teachers and staff ways to explore cross-cultural contact by utilizing three experiential activities* focusing on the areas of language and social norms that explore encounters with names, expressions and cross-cultural differences.

The following is the outline for the workshop:

Experiential Activity 1: Encounters with Names and their Meanings

Participants are divided into groups of five/six and are asked to imagine a scenario where they are at the grand opening of an international art exhibition, a biennial. Some artists are exhibiting at the biennial, while some are perhaps aspiring artists and are eager to meet other artists.

Each participant takes a slip of paper that has an English translation of the meaning of a Turkish name. The participants are not told this fact until the whole group reflection session.

Names on slips of paper
Waterfall War Leaf September
Island Hope May I always be remembered Loved from the heart
Thunderbolt Loving moon Revolution Cute like a child
Ruler of the seas Invitation Mystery The queen of roses
Dew Offshore breeze Flood of light Full moon
Story Early morning wind Volcano

The task is to mingle for four-five minutes and meet as many artists and to remember as many of those names as possible.

Reflection: In order to help make the interactions a little challenging and move beyond just exchanging names, one thing that could have been helpful was to include an extra set of instructions. One way this could have been done was by giving talking points. Talking points such as the following could be included and participants could be asked to utilize at least one talking point before moving on to another interaction:

  • Ask/describe what his/her work is about.
  • Share thoughts on the exhibition in general.
  • Ask/describe what her/his art process is like.

Feedback: Once the mingle ends, participants get back to their initial groups and spend three-four minutes talking about:

  • who they met, what their names were
  • what they observed about these interactions

Experiential Activity 2: Encounters with Expressions

In this activity, participants stay in the same groups or form new groups of five/six. One volunteer from each group receives a slip of paper with a French expression** translated into English. The volunteers are the only people who should know what is written on their papers. In this four-five minute conversation activity, the volunteer’s task is to initiate a conversation with her/his group on a topic of his/her choice. S/he should use the expression during the conversation, but should not translate the meaning.

Expressions on slips of paper
Use this expression in conversation. Don’t explain the meaning. “I’m not in my plate.” (Meaning: to feel bad)
Use this expression in conversation. Don’t explain the meaning. “It’s taking my head.” (Meaning: It drives me crazy)
Use this expression in conversation. Don’t explain the meaning. “I’m struck by lightning.” (Meaning: falling madly in love)
Use this expression in conversation. Don’t explain the meaning. “I have bread on the board.” (Meaning: I have a lot on my plate)
Use this expression in conversation. Don’t explain the meaning. “I have a blue fear.” (Meaning: to be afraid of something)
Use this expression in conversation. Don’t explain the meaning. “I have a bowl full of it.” (Meaning: fed up with something)

Feedback: Once the conversation ends, participants reflect on the experience by sharing their observations with one another in their small groups.

Experiential Activity 3: Meeting Cross-Cultural Differences

This time the participants are split into two big groups. One group is given a set of instructions reflective of a low context culture while the other group is given a set of instructions reflective of a high context culture.

Group A’s Set of Instructions Group B’s Set of Instructions
A.   High Context Culture B.   Low Context Culture

·A meeting needs to start with connecting. Offer some tea, make chit chat before talking about anything work related.

·Make little or no eye contact.

·Sit or stand very close to the other person.

·Things don’t need to be spelled out explicitly. Communicate in indirect ways.

·A meeting needs to start on time and end on time.

·Make direct eye contact.

·Maintain an arms length of distance.

·Things need to be fully spelled out. Communicate in direct ways.

They are asked to imagine a scenario where they need to have a short meeting (four-five minutes) with a new colleague. In the Putney School context, I asked the participants to think about the teacher and apprentice teacher meetings they were going to have later on that day.

Once everyone understood their role, they were given the option to choose to role-play one or all four of the norms listed in the instructions. Each person is to then pair up with one person from the other group and start his/her meeting.

Feedback: Once the conversation ends, participants get into groups of five/six and

  • reflect on the experience by sharing their observations with one another and
  • brainstorm top three strategies for dealing with cross-cultural contact.

In the wrap-up, participants share with the whole group the feedback discussions they had within their smaller group.

Variation 1: The workshop could end with a discussion about the culture iceberg and locating these cross-cultural contact experiences within the iceberg.

Variation 2: The workshop could end with a written component asking participants to share strategies for dealing with cross-cultural contact and/or provide feedback on the workshop.

Observations and Reflection

Overall, the activities flowed well and allowed the participants to engage in cross-cultural contact in lighthearted and non-threatening ways. Verbal feedback from participants regarding the activities was positive. One feedback about the ‘Encounters with Expressions’ activity was that all group members organically started using the translated expression in their conversation.

The meaning of a name could presumably carry many sociocultural layers and provide a deeper understanding of a culture, the society and possibly the naming traditions of that culture. In a cross-cultural experience, these layers may not be immediately noticeable. A name, highly visible, sits on the tip of the iceberg. Perceiving the meaning of a name, through further connection and dialog, allows us to see what may be hidden and below the surface of the iceberg.

One point to consider is the inclusion of a set of reflection questions for the final whole group discussion in order to give the group enough reflective time to discuss strategies for dealing with cross-cultural contact.

During this experiential activity, the participants did not know that they were sharing the meanings of some Turkish names translated into English. Most Turkish names have meanings and a lot are nature-based such as a name meaning ‘offshore breeze.’ As a Turkish person facilitating this workshop and coming from what could be considered a high context culture, the aim was to raise awareness and noticing of the meanings and cultural layers involved in names/name giving in a fun way. A set of reflection questions could follow this activity:

  • What happened when you exchanged names?
  • How did people react / respond to your name? How did you react / respond to other people’s names?
  • What did you notice about the names you heard?

At the end, I shared with the participants that one of these names was the translation of the meaning of my own name (loving moon) and that all were translations of meanings of Turkish names. One way to conclude could have been to ask everyone to share with the group their assigned name and invite reflections:

  • What did you notice about the meanings of these names?
  • How could this insight help you in cross-cultural contact?

To conclude, as a bilingual Turkish person living in the US for now almost two years and exploring my own linguistic and sociocultural experiences, this has been a self-reflexive process, adding another cross-cultural dimension to the workshop.

*This workshop was collaboratively developed with my former SIT classmate and teaching colleague, Jessmaya Morales, who generously  brainstormed with me, posed great questions and reflected with me on cross-cultural differences prior to the workshop, all of which inspired and contributed a great deal to the reflective planning process and to the design of this workshop. 

**The expressions are gathered from the list “Twenty-one French expressions that will make you laugh” by Jonathan Ducretot.  Available from

TPR and reflections from a learner’s perspective

Language teaching and learning has seen a variety of methods and techniques since the The Grammar-Translation Method. There are so many methodologies and innovations to language teaching and learning. In this post, I’d like to go back in time method-wise and focus a little on TPR (Total Physical Response developed in the 60’s and 70’s) and share a recent experience I had as a learner in a beginner Spanish language class.

Total physical response came about from the belief that a foreign language could best be learned by lots of exposure to the target language. The emphasis is on a great deal of listening in the beginning stages of learning the target language. The argument put forward for this was that if you observe the way babies learn their mother tongue, they actually spend a long time soaking in the sounds and words before they are ready and can begin to reproduce the sounds and words they hear around them. This stress free low anxiety listening/exposure period allows the learner enough time to internalize the foreign language without being pressured to speak it right away.

Much like Desuggestopedia there is a sense of importance placed on a reduced affective filter to boost learning. Both methods are similar in the idea that learning is made easier when students are relaxed and when attention is given to using the language without a focus on grammar, and that eventually and gradually students would naturally absorb the forms and linguistic rules of the target language.

I’ve never taken a formal Spanish language class before and upon hearing that a language course nearby would be offering a beginner demo lesson, I immediately was interested and decided to have the experience. My Spanish language learning experience up to that point has been very irregular. It is an ongoing venture, an on and off practice and an effort to learn it mostly on my own. I often take long breaks which can last for several months. This is just to give you an idea of my Spanish learning endeavor. I would say I’m at beginner-elementary stage.

The lesson was very interactive right from the beginning. Engagement of the learners was built in the lesson with an emphasis on learner presence, enjoyment and physical actions. Grammar was not the focus. The teacher used a great deal of realia, repetition, humor, and a kinaesthetic / TPR approach. The students participated with physical actions, laughter, exclamations, and with a lot of repetition of words, phrases and simple questions. The lesson ended with volunteer students enacting a teacher led fun skit as the other students described and talked about the actions and feelings in the story being enacted.

From a language learner perspective, I realized as a beginner Spanish language learner, especially in a language class where you are with a group of other learners, it is important to feel relaxed. When students were called for an answer to a question for instance, this was not anxiety producing at all due to the questions requiring simple answers in words or phrases and the comprehensible repetitive focus on the language at hand. Another helpful factor for me was the meeting of visuals with the physical actions. This seems to me to have aided the learning experience and made it memorable.

From a language learner viewpoint, would a TPR approach be just as exciting and helpful, if I were an intermediate level learner, for instance? From a teaching perspective, I do wonder whether it is really necessary to carry around and utilize so much realia to teach a language?

I’d like to end this post with the following photo (from April 2015) I took by the Gelidonia lighthouse on the Lycian Way in the South of Turkey.  Located between Adrasan and Kumluca, the lighthouse was built around 1934 and overlooks this amazing, breathtaking and peaceful Mediterranean seascape. I feel this photo quite represents one of the principles of the TPR approach that learning is enhanced when there is low anxiety, don’t you?



Larsen-Freeman, D. (2000) Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching. Second Edition. Oxford University Press.

Negative prefixes & Cuisenaire rods: a recent teaching demo

Recently, I was asked to do a thirty minute demo lesson for a language institution in the U.S. I didn’t know much about the students I was going to teach, but was told that there would probably be about 5 to 10 students ranging from A2 – B1 language level (according to CEFR*). Because the institution heard about my interest and research on utilizing Cuisenaire Rods** in language teaching, they requested I do a demo around the rods. I decided to revisit a lesson I did years ago which became the departure point for this demo with some revisions. On demo day,  representing probably more than three nationalities, a diverse group of six university students showed up.

This lesson focuses on the subtlety of using four negative prefixes (im-, in-, ir-, un-) to change the meaning of a word.

My main aim:  students will be able to use Cuisenaire rods to associate words with negative prefixes by talking about a personal experience using a few negative prefixes.

My sub aims: Students will be able to

  1. utilize Cuisenaire rods to form visual/color associations with four negative prefixes.
  2. differentiate between four negative prefixes when matching them with a set of 20-25 words.
  3. talk about a personal experience using at least 3 words with negative prefixes.
  4. correctly identify the negative prefixes for selected words from the lesson’s story.

The following is my lesson outline:

1. Teacher writes the following words on the board and checks their meanings with students:

convenient / necessary / pleasant / possible / sure / usual / visible / adequate / responsible

(Checking meaning could potentially take a while, but the key is to keep it short. Students could be asked to think of a synonym and the teacher could point to each word going around the class asking a different student each time to offer a guess for each word. These guesses could go up on the board. Another way to keep this stage short could be by having an equal number of synonyms on the board and asking students to match the synonyms to the words.)

2. Teacher tells/reads a story*** and asks students to listen very carefully to see if they can spot any of the words on the board, and asks how much of the story they remember later with questions like:

  • What were the feelings being expressed in the story? / What feelings does the story evoke?
  • Did I use all the words listed on the board? / Which of these words did I use?
  • Did you like/dislike anything about the story?

3. Teacher introduces a box of Cuisenaire rods and asks a student to have fellow classmates pick one of each of the following colors:

light green / red / yellow / blue

4. Teacher writes the following prefixes on the board and assigns each prefix a color:

im- / yellow

in- / light green

ir- / blue

un- / red

5. Teacher asks students to hold up the right color rod every time she calls out a prefix. E.g.:

  • For the prefix im- we’re going to use the ____ rod?
  • What color rod are we going to use for the prefix im-?

(More practice in prefix-rod-color association could be made by the teacher holding up random rods one at a time with increased speed and varying order and having students say the prefix associated with each color)

6. Practice (form): Teacher shows a bag/box full of paper slips**** (with a word written on each) and asks students to pass it around. Each student pulls out a paper slip and reads the word out loud. Everyone guesses the correct prefix by holding up and showing the rod/color associated with their guesses.

7. Practice (form & meaning): Teacher asks students to think of a negative experience they had and share this story with the person sitting next to them.

Teacher asks students to share that story

  • using at least 3 of these prefixes
  • in at least 5 sentences

(The teacher could provide a short example here)

8. Students (volunteers) share with the whole group the story they listened to from their friend.

9. Review/Test: Teacher hands out a text of the story she shared in the beginning of class. Students work in pairs and use rods to fill the gaps for the missing prefixes in the story.

10. Checking answers: One student reads the whole story but whenever s/he comes to a gap, s/he reads the word without the prefix. The other students listen and hold up the rod they think is associated with the word.

The students were eager and greatly enjoyed the lesson. Some were using the rods for the first time so it was really exciting for them. One student found using the rods in place of the prefixes really helpful and an eye-opener into a tool that really focused her to see the change in the meaning of a word.

*CEFR is the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages is a framework of reference for learning, teaching and assessment of languages.

**Cuisenaire rods are small pieces of blocks (usually made of wood) of varying lengths from 1 to 10 cm with a 1cm² cross-section. Each length is a different color. These rods are flexible and versatile tools utilized by the language learner. They can easily represent many different situations,which the students themselves produce or interpret models, prepared by other learners or the teacher. As Roslyn Young (1995), an educator and English teacher states, rods “allow the teacher to construct non-ambiguous situations which are directly perceptible by all.” Due to their generic representation they “are easy to manipulate and can be used symbolically…they lend themselves as well to the construction of model houses and furniture, towns and cities, stations….” (Young, D. The Rods section, para. 1, 2).  – This is taken as is from my MA thesis titled, Cuisenaire Rods: Pedagogical and Relational Instruments for Language Learning. You can read it online here:

***The story told/read:

An Unusual Rock

She reached out to get the _____ usual piece of rock on the edge of the sea. At first, the waves got in the way and she picked up another rock instead. She looked at it and threw it back in the sea. That was not the rock she wanted. How _____ necessary, she thought, for the waves to behave in such an _____ convenient way. The waves were making it hard to see. “This is so _____ pleasant, it is too windy,” she complained. The rock was suddenly _____ visible. As the waves drew back, she spotted the _____ usual rock again and quickly bent down to grab it. She looked at the green sparkly rock. It was beautiful. As soon as she held it up in the air, it disappeared. “What happened?” she wondered, “where is my rock? Where did it go?” she started asking herself. “Is it _____ possible? No, no, it’s _____ possible!” She started looking around. She looked at the sea. It was not there. “Did the waves blow it away?” She felt _____ happy and decided to walk by the sea. Not very far from where she was, she saw a bird playing with something. Could it be her rock? She was _____ sure and walked closer to the bird. Yes, it was her green sparkling _____ usual rock in the bird’s beak!

An Unusual Rock –with Answers

She reached out to get the _un_ usual piece of rock on the edge of the sea. At first, the waves got in the way and she picked up another rock instead. She looked at it and threw it back in the sea. That was not the rock she wanted. How __un_ necessary, she thought, for the waves to behave in such an ___in__ convenient way. The waves were making it hard to see. “This is so ___un_ pleasant, it is too windy,” she complained. The rock was suddenly ___in_ visible. As the waves drew back, she spotted the ___un_ usual rock again and quickly bent down to grab it. She looked at the green sparkly rock. It was beautiful. As soon as she held it up in the air, it disappeared. “What happened?” she wondered, “where is my rock? Where did it go?” she started asking herself. “Is it _____ possible? No, no, it’s __im__ possible!” She started looking around. She looked at the sea. It was not there. “Did the waves blow it away?” She felt ___un_ happy and decided to walk by the sea. Not very far from where she was, she saw a bird playing with something. Could it be her rock? She was __un__ sure and walked closer to the bird. Yes, it was her green sparkling __un__ usual rock in the bird’s beak!

****words listed on paper slips:

usual                                  necessary                            convenient                            pleasant

visible                                possible                               content                                   sure

complete                           considerate                         experienced                          edible

adequate                           polite                                    mature                                   perfect

practical                            patient                                 healthy                                   important

common                            comfortable                       dependable                            reliable

responsible                       reversible