Dr. Kelleen Toohey on Language Learning and Scribjab

December 15, 2019

Dr. Kelleen Toohey is a Professor Emerita at Simon Fraser University. Her research has focused on language learning, especially the learning of English as a second language by children. She is one of the originators for the app, Scribjab, a multilingual tool to create and share digital stories.

Can you tell me more about what you have been doing since retiring in 2016?

As soon as I retired, I was asked by my publisher to work on a 2nd edition of my book, Learning English at School: Identity, Social Relations and Classroom Practice, originally published in 2000.  The 2000 edition was a longitudinal study of 6 children from Kindergarten through the end of Grade 2 and their experiences in learning English at school.

In the original research, which was conducted from 1996 to 1999, I applied a  socio-cultural perspective to the ethnographic data I collected. In the 2018 edition, with a slightly different title, Learning English at School: Identity, Socio-material  Relations and Classroom Practice I added a new chapter on feminist new materialism, and throughout the book, I explored how these new perspectives, applied to the same data, were able to generate new insights

Retirement has given me the opportunity to do more writing.  Suzanne Smythe, Diane Dagenais, Magali Forte,and I recently edited a collection of articles for a book currently in press with Routledge, entitled Transforming language and literacy education: New materialism, posthumanism and ontoethics.

Since retirement, I’ve published articles alone and with colleagues. In 2018, I published a paper entitled The onto-epistemologies of new materialism: Implications for applied linguistics pedagogies and research in the journal Applied Linguistics.

I have also participated in a number of academic conferences since retirement. In 2018, I gave a symposium paper on my research, participated in a summer institute on qualitative research, and last spring, I served as a discussant of a symposium organized by Diane Dagenais and Geneviéve Brisson at the American Association of Applied Linguistics conference in Atlanta, Georgia.

My work as an academic hasn’t stopped despite retirement.  Retirement has just given me more freedom to pursue aspects of academic life I really enjoy, like reading and writing. I’ve continued to supervise my doctoral students who hadn’t finished when I retired, serve on thesis committees at SFU and outside, review papers for journals and book prospectuses for publishers, and participate in my field.

You were one of the originators for the app called Scribjab. Can you tell us more about the tool and how this developed?

This work began as I was working with a teacher of Punjabi Sikh students who were tasked with gathering stories from their grandparents about their childhoods.  Many of the stories that came back from the grandparents were about the partition between India and Pakistan.  These stories were later made into bilingual (English and Punjabi) books which the students wrote and illustrated. As the books the children wrote were so interesting and well done, I searched for a way to make them more widely available. With Ivana Filipovich and her team at SFU Creative Services (now SFU Creative Studio), and with financial support from the Faculty of Education, Canadian Heritage, and Decoda Literacy solutions, Diane Dagenais and I designed a free iPad app (one of the first apps developed at SFU), scribjab.com, which allows children to compose, illustrate, and record themselves reading their stories in two languages and, of course, it also makes available to others the stories in a multitude of languages. Diane and Geneviéve are continuing to do research on the use of Scribjab in various milieux.

Tell me more about your professional background?

I taught school in northern Alberta for 2 years in a small town near a First Nations Cree reserve.  I returned to university and did my Master’s degree on another northern Alberta Cree reserve.  After I decided that I wanted to pursue an academic career and I continued my research with Cree-speaking school students learning English in northern Ontario, completing a PhD in Curriculum and Applied Linguistics at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education (University of Toronto).  After this, I was hired at SFU and taught undergraduate and graduate courses in teaching English as a second language.

Who is the target audience and key stakeholders/partners for your research?

I’ve always seen my primary audience to be teachers in the field.  I think pedagogical theory and pedagogical practice should be mutually informing and I have been passionate about collaborating with teachers and ensuring my work is relevant to them.  At the same time, I continue to be interested in how my academic colleagues are interpreting our field and some of my work has been directed more at them than teachers.