September 2008, Volume 8, Number 1


Photo of Cynthia Schuemann in classroom


An English as a second language (ESL) and linguistics professor, Dr. Cynthia Schuemann enjoys a challenge. But even more than that, the newly appointed Citibank Endowed Teaching Chair revels in adventure.

So, in 1983, when she and her husband decided to go for a bike ride, it wasn’t just any ride. That summer they embarked on what would become a 19-year journey around the perimeter of the continental United States.

“When you’re on your bicycle … your senses are so alive, and everything becomes so rich and meaningful,” she said in an interview with The Miami Herald.

That ride took the Schuemann family – mother, father and 3-year-old daughter – on an adventure that would change the course of their lives.

It brought the group to South Florida, and specifically to Miami Dade College. Schuemann has taught here for more than two decades and her daughter is an alumna.

In her years with the College, Schuemann has taught at three different campuses and was the chair of the ESL and foreign language departments at both Wolfson and North campuses. In the end, however, she decided the classroom is where she needs to be. “It’s really fun teaching here,” she said. “I feel like I am a part of the community.”

The community likes her as well. After writing and editing contributions to a highly successful English for Academic Success book series for Houghton-Mifflin and, as she put it, “carefully wording her application,” she received her first Endowed Teaching Chair award.

“I am honored. I was always happy when my faculty won, so it is nice to be recognized among friends.”

Young and Restless

Even before she took off on the 20,000-mile ride around the U.S., Schuemann tended her adventuresome spirit by traveling. To celebrate the Bicentennial in 1976, she joined Bikecentennial, a group that rode across the country, from Oregon to Virginia. And following her high school graduation, she bought a round-trip ticket to Spain.

“I was not quite ready for college,” she said. “And I was definitely in need of more adventure.”

When she arrived in Madrid, she was flustered by simple tasks like using public transportation.

“Even though I had studied Spanish for four years, I had difficulty interacting and using the language,” she said.

Thanks to the kindness of strangers, she eventually figured out the autobus system, but the experience taught her a lesson that resonates in her classroom today: There is a big difference between learning language and effectively using it in the real world.

She stayed in Madrid for a year and paid her bills by working as an au pair and teaching English at a local language center. That was the start of her “real education,” she said.

“I was 19 and didn’t have any experience but at that time, if you spoke English, they thought you could teach it,” she said. “My students were mostly businessmen. It was how I got started.”

In the middle of the year, she enrolled as a freshman at St. Louis University through a study abroad program. Once back in the U.S., she transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. During the summer of her senior year, she interned in the American embassy’s cultural affairs office in the Dominican Republic.

Back in her hometown, Schuemann married, had a child, earned a degree in international relations and started the testing and application process for jobs in the U.S. Department of State.

In the meantime, thanks to her international experience and fluency in Spanish, she landed a job teaching ESL at a local nonprofit organization. “Even though I enjoyed teaching ESL, I always thought it was temporary,” she said.

Still, she “kept teaching and kept loving it,” she said. “I started seriously rethinking my career goals.”

She also had an adventuresome spirit to appease.

The Ride

It began with a book.

In 1983, Schuemann and her husband read Peter Jenkins’ A Walk Across America and started to plan.

The first leg of the trip took them from Wisconsin to Montana, where they spent the winter. The following spring they headed west to the coast and then south to Arizona. “We camped and worked temporary jobs to keep going,” she said.

Over the course of the next two years, they continued the trip, settling for a few months, working a spell, then packing up their daughter and biking to the next stop.

“We only had one rule, to follow the border as closely as possible.”

In August 1985, they arrived in Miami. As was their routine, Schuemann and her husband started looking for work. It was also time for their daughter to begin kindergarten.

He got a job as an executive chef, “so we decided to stay a little longer,” she said. “I started interviewing for more ‘serious’ jobs.”

On summer vacations, they continued their bike trip in smaller legs. Schuemann learned she got the full-time job at MDC while on a stop in Kill Devil Hills, N.C., to visit the Wright Brothers National Museum.

It was the start of a new life for the family. They put the rest of the trip on hold, bought a house and began to call Miami home.

For Schuemann, teaching languages had turned into a full-time profession, and what was once temporary quickly turned into a career she was passionate about.

She completed a master’s in teaching English to speakers of other languages and doctorate in higher education instruction.

A Modern Approach

Schuemann’s methodology is grounded in the pioneering research of Douglas Biber. She believes in a “top-down approach” with a focus on practicality.

The basic idea is that ESL students benefit from learning and using the vocabulary they will inevitably encounter in other classes. Their familiarity with these words enables them to be more successful in the future.

“It is most important that ESL students understand how to read and interact with the language crucial to other academic subjects,” she said.

She uses the Houghton-Mifflin book series to combine language learning with specific academic disciplines. For example, Schuemann’s Level 4 Speech class recently completed a chapter including the USDA food guide pyramid.

The lesson combined concepts from nutrition science and sociology, exposing how culture and socialization influence our food choices.

“As emphasized in this chapter – we base our curriculum on language expectations beyond the ESL classroom,” she said.

With several fellow professors, Schuemann also employs a learning community. This advanced curriculum design coordinates Reading, Writing, Psychology and Internet Research into a linked program of instruction.

“We collaborate our lesson planning to reinforce the connection between language learning and content instruction – the base of all other learning,” she explained.

The focus on high-frequency words comes from the computational methods of corpus linguistics, a discipline that is revolutionizing the study of language. Words and grammar structures that appear more often in the authentic samples, or corpora, are considered high frequency.

“Wherever possible, we use this research to expose ESL students to the words, expressions and grammar structures they will most often encounter,” she said.

In learning communities, certain projects cross lines between courses. For example, students use some of the same text in the Psychology and Reading classes. That familiarity aids them in absorbing the content.

“Working with the same text establishes a mental framework that students can figuratively hang the more specific information on later,” Schuemann said. “It is a very effective strategy.”

Schuemann still mixes some old and new teaching methodologies in her classroom. For example, in her speech classes, she uses repetition exercises to correct pronunciation while emphasizing high-frequency words.

Rafael Alfonso, a former student, said he learned how to create PowerPoint presentations in Schuemann’s Level 4 Speech class. The skill came in handy when he later enrolled in Speech and Communication after completing the English for Academic Purposes program.

“The most special thing about the class was the relationship between Dr. Schuemann and the students,” he said. “I think she encouraged me and my classmates to continue our education and break all the language’s barriers.”

On the Road Again

Almost 19 years after the start of their journey, the Schuemanns decided to complete their trip around the country in 2002.

“Actually it was my daughter’s idea,” she said. “Once she graduated from Smith College, she thought it was the right time to finish, and we all agreed.”

So they went up the east coast and then all the way back to their starting point.

But soon after reaching that milestone, it was time to start planning their next adventure.

This time they crossed oceans.

Schuemann’s daughter was teaching English in China with the Peace Corps – the perfect excuse to plan a trip. In the spring, she and her husband met their daughter in Thailand before traveling through China.

While traveling, she worked with a local university to set up ESL training sessions for educators.

“When I travel to foreign countries, I become the non-native speaker,” she said. “It helps me to appreciate and understand what my students go through. It is easy to forget how hard it is.”

Schuemann said her experiences only serve to extend her passion about learning and how culture affects language learning and appreciation.

“I admired how my daughter taught her students in China and look forward to incorporating some new techniques,” she said.

“I’m always learning.”

— Katherine Joss

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