Monday 19 October 2020

Interview with High School of Montreal Adult Education Centre teacher Anna Panunto by a Syrian journalist

Writer's note:  Anna Panunto is a teacher at the High School of Montreal Adult Education Centre of the EMSB. This  interview  with her will be translated in Arabic and published in the near future in an Arabic press. The purpose of this article is to shed light on newcomers - to help them understand a little bit about the North American mentality here and what to expect in a way, from their learning process. It  will prove to be useful information. In her passionate world filled with  talent and determination, she has brightened her star to illuminate others by teaching and writing. A mentor to many… Her life mission is to make the ordinary, extraordinary. To give meaning to those that are left ignored. To shed light on the misunderstood. To love the unloved…

By H’ala Aljaber  - freelance journalist from Syria


She is a woman who holds glory in her hands – in the written and spoken word. 

 She knows what she wants like the eye of a falcon. The falcon is her spirit animal. Her guide in the deep lonely forest of life.  A melancholic soul… hiding behind a bright smile and strong voice.

Anna Panunto, was born and raised in Montreal, Quebec Canada. Her parents immigrated to Canada in the late 1950s. She speaks three languages: Italian, French, and English. She has a Bachelor of English literature with a minor in Women's Studies and a Master’s degree in Educational Studies with a specialization in Administration and Policy Studies  both from McGill University. She has been teaching adults for 22 years.

We, at Al Etihad Press,  welcome her.

Anna Panunto  

Question 1: Anna, how do you identify yourself as a woman, teacher, and writer ?

A: First, I  consider myself to be a social feminist and humanist. I believe in  gender equality, ofcourse  but  even more importantly, I believe  that all human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning to their own lives in their own way. The ethical side of me is very strong. As a writer , I would say that I'm complex, outspoken,  and eccentric, I've been called that.  As a teacher, I can be strict and demanding but I  have called unconventional. I am not a typical teacherwith an apple on her desk. Ha ha!

I teach adults of varying age groups  - as young as 18 and as mature as 80.  As a whole, I teach mostly  newcomers – a  majority of them coming from the Middle East, Asia, and Latin/ Central America. 

I started my career in a private language school called,  Berlitz. Berlitz is internationally known.  I  then continued my teaching  at a local school board  called the, English Montreal school board.  A year later,  I started teaching at McGill University in the School of Continuing Studies.  Throughout the years, I have taught Academic English , Basic English, Business English,  Humanities, and some Creative Writing.

 I'm quite diverse in writing style.  I start writing poetry when I was 13 years old, so my first passion is indeed poetry,  but then , I branched out  to other genres such as  fiction and non-fiction short story writing,  short plays,  journal writing, content writing, etc…

 Question 2 : What inspires you to write? Furthermore, how are you inspired as a teacher? 

A: I work a lot with my muse. The inspiration comes to me  suddenly,  quite unexpectedly. Whenever this happens,  I  become inspired and am in a trance  like state This happens a lot with poetry writing. The  poem can be written  within minutes. It is a spiritual experience for me . Also, I almost always am writing when I am in pain – usually, a loss of some sort. I have had quite a few losses in my life.  I release the pain through my words. 

As a teacher, what gives me inspiration  is when my students feel comfortable, safe and confident as learners. I think that creating a safe, comfortable learning environment is the foundation for  positive  learning. I push my students and get them out of their comfort zone and force them to think critically even when their English is limited. I usually teach advanced levels in English, but I have also had Intermediate levels.  Students need to connect with their life knowledge and force themselves to think critically. Transcending the language barrier is very challenging to some students.  So, I'm the  kind of teacher that upon meeting me, you'll find me strict and  demanding and maybe too authoritative, but by the end of the session,  you'll end up appreciating  the learning process because most of the time, students will have connected with their  inner knowledge and transcended the language barrier. Fluency in a language does not take place in one class but it can take years or even decades  for some. That’s ok.  Students need to be patient with themselves first. Life gets in the way, sometimes. As adults, they have other priorities as well. Here in Quebec, students need to learn two languages – French which is the official language and then, English.

Language barriers are caused by fear and insecurity – the insecurity of making mistakes and the fear of being misunderstood. Once  this is overcome- the learning process will flow. The result -  freedom. Learning a language is an extension of one’s freedom.

 Question 3: What is the relationship between Anna as a teacher and Anna as a writer?

That's a very insightful question!  The relationship between Anna as a teacher and Anna as a writer is that in both situations, my goal is to provide freedom of expression.  I'm validating their  voices that come from different places and different experiences , so that's the correlation. So, teaching  English as a second or third language in a professional  context is teaching others to express themselves in varying contexts – formal and informal. In North America, we need to be direct but at the same time, polite. We need to be confident when we speak. Also, there are topics that should be avoided in professional contexts – there is much subtext. Students learn the North American way of communicating by understanding the culture and subculture behind the  language. 

 From an ethical point of view, we are here as  human beings, to co-exist and share our individual experiences. Language is the tool that provides us with this. As a Quebecois -Canadian  language teacher, I have introduced my students to the  culture – we are a distinct society in Canada. We are rich in culture – the arts play a big role in Quebec. So, learning a language goes beyond grammatical structure and pronunciation. Students learn the mentality behind the English spoken in their respective province which is Quebec and their country – Canada. 

My writing part is another world altogether. Now, we are entering the abstract world – one that is metaphorical, filled with imageries, heightened senses,  and symbolism stemming from my past experiences whereas my teaching is more practical, informative, resourceful etc.., 

Question 4: Is teaching adults an art or a science?

I would say that teaching is both - an art and a science. In the classroom, the science part is that you need to have relevant content and then know how to organize  the  content in the specific time frame that you have in the classroom, then  you need to schedule your time accordingly for various activities, and finally, always review materials learned. Students need to develop a discipline in their learning   and this can take  time for some students  – but,  with specific tools as to how to learn effectively with a template to follow, a step by step program,  and finally, with a justified  and clear evaluation; the learning process will be a great success! 

The art part is a debatable point. Must the teacher have the art of teaching, be a born master? Or must the teacher have an ethics of care? Students can feel it when a teacher is there in mind and heart. Teaching from the heart – does that make one a master? There are varying points of view here, especially when it comes to language teaching.

I incorporate art in another way in my classroom and I see it as an  integral  part to the learning process. We  share our art, writing, music,  intellectual knowledge, cultural history, fashion, jewelry, perfume, baking, cooking - we share the human part of ourselves that is creative. This makes us all happy and it enables students to connect in a different way. Is this what a Master teacher does? Perhaps, creating a microcosmic society within the classroom is what every Master teacher does . 

Question 5 -What is your perspective of the  socio-cultural scene between east verses west?

This is a big  question. I think that my perspective of the  socio-cultural scene between east verses west, comes from my humanist/ feminist perspective. I may not have the answer, but I can try based on my observations both on a professional and personal level.

 In the west,  most women   express themselves openly- in every way. Be it artistically, politically, socially, culturally, etc…  Genders are not exclusively male and female in the West. We embrace androgyny.  We see it in fashion wherein men and women look alike, right? If you look at fashion magazines, many men and women are androgynous, so there’s almost a  emerging or fusion of  gender identity.  What is  exclusively male and female here, anyway? Nothing. 

Depending of the level of my class,  specifically with  advanced level classes, I touch on advertising and gender issues.  I like to do that, I like  to show them  how we advertise here in the west  and then introduce the concept of androgyny, and show them examples online of how advertising promotes this – specifically with models. Then, we discuss gender roles in the workplace – here in Canada we have female police officers, judges, construction workers, etc… 

So this can be very interesting because it sheds light on  the  socio-cultural scene whether you're  male or female.  We also have many transsexuals that have entered the scene and express themselves openly with their own defined gender identity. The boundaries have been crossed and there are no  limitations to expression, specifically in the art scene. Multiculturalism has been embraced , specifically in  the last 20 years here in North America.  Yes, we  still have discrimination, of course, we still  have racism, and yes, the glass ceiling is still there.  But, our society as a whole has evolved. We have interracial/intercultural marriages or common law unions, we have people speaking more than one language so they can communicate with others, we have diversity in  the arts,culinary institutes, fashion, etc…  

However, in the east, from my humanist/ feminist perspective, we also  have many talented artists if not more than in the West,  with an even richer  socio-cultural scene, and yes, I see that the east does use social media as a platform for  self- expression and  finally, yes, there are communities that come together to fight for causes.  But, all these liberties come with a price in the east and for some, the price was / continues to be their life. So, we in the West take for granted our freedom of expression. It is assumed that freedom is a fundamental human right and that everyone has it but that is not the case on a global level.  So, this has a great impact on the east. I wish that one day soon, I can say more about the socio-cultural scene from the east. I know that I have much to learn.

Question 6: How important is your  socio- cultural identity as a Canadian of Italian origin?

As a Canadian-Italian  living in  Quebec, I am trilingual.  This  creates a very unique  socio-cultural identity. Furthermore, being bicultural can be challenging, especially during adolescence.

For instance, I  have cousins that are half French/ Italian. Unfortunately, I  have never really connected with these cousins  that are on my mother’s side of the family  due to   of our  cultural differences.  They find  me to be too English and I find them to be too French and not enough Italian. This point is interesting here in Quebec- among the children of immigrants whose parents have married outside their  respective culture.

As a young adult in the late 1980’s, I was asked many times :  Did you go to French school or English school? The cultural scene between the French and the English is/was vastly different. For example,  the type of music we listen to , the type of bars/cafes we frequent, our  sense of fashion, our artistic expressions ,  the films we watch,  it's all very different. 

Indeed,  I went to  an English school and I'm an Anglo Italian and my French cousins couldn’t  really connect  with me simply because our scenes  were and remain very different. So, I connected more with my friends and this put a rift in the closeness  with  my family unit. My friends became my family.  My chosen family.

So, my  socio-cultural identity is multilayered and complex. Yet, I would never change who I am – it cost me a lot to get here! Ha ha ha!

Quote from a poem 

"The I of my storm remains the eternal combustion of my  soul. Mourning what never was while surviving the now. Stolen  bursts of joy never truly quenching my thirst but appeasing my tired heart of yesterday"

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