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April 2024 - Year 26 - Issue 2

ISSN 1755-9715

Class Interview with Susana Ibáñez, an Argentinian ELT Teacher, Teacher Trainer, Journal Editor, Writer and Literary Workshop Instructor

Vanesa Polastri is an Argentinian ELT educator who teaches Written Discursive Practices II and Children’s Literature at a Teacher Training College, as well as English I and II at a Social Work College. With 16 years of experience, she has taught English in primary, secondary and tertiary levels and also worked as an academic secretary in higher education. E-mail:



This interview with Susana Ibáñez was elaborated in 2023 by my student-teachers from Prácticas Discursivas de la Comunicación Escrita II (Written Discursive Practices II), which corresponds to 2nd year in a four-year plan of studies. TTC 41, where this activity was carried out, is located in the southern cone of Buenos Aires. Our subject aims at the development of written authentic discursive practices. Cazac and Cazac (2016) define authentic tasks as those which “are focused on developing communicative skills and are considered authentic if 1) students are asked to construct their own responses (or questions, in this case -my comment) rather than to select from ones presented and 2) the task replicates challenges in the real world” (p. 20). Our lessons are face to face but we also have a learning management platform, through which the student-teachers built the questions in a shared forum section.

I have two second year groups (from now on, A and B). Each group has their own virtual space so I had to select some questions from all the contributions considering relevance and avoiding overlapping in terms of the content of what was being asked. In the writing process, feedback was given with respect to language appropriateness, being confusion between direct and reported question format mistakes those most often found. After the writing process, I sent Susana the written questions in a document which she then returned with her detailed answers. Why did we interview her? What was specially interesting about her that would enrich future ELT practitioners? The answer to these questions lies in her many varied roles which have language, or rather languages, at their core, broadening the scope of future study or job possibilities of current teacher trainees.

How was this writing task connected with what we had been discussing previously within the subject? We had addressed the topic Writing and Inclusion, reading about the life and works, or watching audio-visual materials, of amazing authors such as Maya Angelou, Raymond Antrobus, Louis Braille, Helen Keller, and Benjamin Zephaniah, who suffered from temporary mutism due to a traumatic situation, deafness, blindness after an accident, deafness and blindness before literacy development, and dyslexia respectively. We paid close attention to bullying at schools and institutional exclusion, as was the case of Zephaniah, who was expelled and later on imprisoned too. The fact that this poet, who recently passed away, came to Argentina and gave inspirational talks in prisons for inmates to rediscover worth in life was directly linked to Ibáñez literary workshops in a female prison in Santa Fe, but you will have to read the full interview to go deeper into it.



Celeste Acosta (Group A): Hello, Susana. Thank you for accepting being interviewed. Let’s begin! Your studies are so varied! Why did you decide to choose these career paths, which are different but complementary?

Susana Ibáñez: Sometimes we pick from what is available to us although we would like something else. English was not my first choice, but my family did not support my other interests, so when I completed secondary school, I chose to become a teacher of English because I loved the language and I thought I would find work quite easily, which turned out to be true. I always read a lot and I loved writing, but I still did not think of writing as a possible career and knew nothing about editing. I went back to writing when my children were very young, and could not keep it up due to how much I worked back then. When I organised my lessons differently (flipped classroom), I had more free time and went back to writing. Then came the workshops for writers and the possibility of editing. Going back to the question, I don’t know why I chose to be a teacher, a writer and an editor, but I do know that I love literature and that everything I did was because of that.

Nahuel González (A): Could you give us some advice for keeping studying as you have done?

S. I.: I was lucky, because as my children grew up and went to school, my mornings were quite free. I worked in the evenings. I am methodical and quite obsessive, so I studied every morning and I could complete several courses. It’s all a question of habit, I think. If you get organised, you will do everything you want. Just be patient and don’t give up. Sometimes the road gets rocky, I swear, but you just take a breather and keep going.

N. G.: Now, with regards to teaching, would you mind telling us about the best experience you have had when teaching English (at any level)? And what about the worst?

S. I.: I cannot single out experiences… They are sort of blurred together. I think the best aspect of my teaching career has been the relationship with my students. I taught at college most of my life, enjoyed every minute in the classroom and many students became my friends once they graduated. And the classroom was always some kind of haven to me. The worst aspect of the profession has been, no doubt, the way some colleagues chose to treat other colleagues. There is a lot of verbal and symbolic violence among teachers –as in most professions that mean sharing projects and physical space and competing for positions–, and we are not taught how to manage that.

Mariano Escudero Laffont (A): Do you make use of any technological devices or apps in teaching languages and literature? 

S. I.: I tried to keep updated as much as I could. I retired from formal education in March 2022, so during the pandemic I had to resort to technology, as all teachers did. My problem was that my connectivity was quite weak, so I had to keep it simple. What I learned is that it is better to keep things simple and to prioritise content. First the objectives, then the activities and the materials, and only after that the medium. Again, I worked at college, so maybe this is not valid for other levels.

Micaela Guzmán (Group B): What are some characteristics that you look for in a book to consider it good teaching material?

S. I.: Students need to like it but also to understand it. I have seen teachers pick books which are far too difficult for students, and the consequence is that they resort to private teachers or to the web to tackle them. I tried to organise my Literature lessons around students’ interests and their linguistic capabilities.

C.A.: How did you feel the first time a book of yours was published?

S. I.: I couldn’t believe it! I was really happy, but also a little embarrassed. I thought that first book would be the only one I would publish, and then others came after it. It takes a while to get over shyness and to learn that the stories or poems we write will not necessarily be rejected. Some people may like them!

Magalí Puyó (A): Could you tell us about your creative process and the themes or ideas that inspire your literary works?

S. I.: I write every day, either creating new material or editing. Once you get used to it, writing becomes a need and a solace, since it is a great emotional outlet. My topics are generally futility, madness, loneliness, despair, unrequited love, loss. As to ideas, the process is quite mysterious. I may have an idea while reading, or following some writing cues, or combining elements from experience. I am rarely autobiographical, so I need quite a number of fictional elements to put a story together.

Luciana Labudi (A): How often do you take risks in your writing? Can you share some experiences when a risk you took brought a favourable result? An unfavourable one?

S. I.: Very often. In creative writing it is essential to try to go beyond what you already know how to do. I always experiment, and even when I do not get the result I expected, the story I finally write gets to be better –I think– than previous stories. I remember a short story I wrote last summer: I wanted to combine the story of an infidelity with short essays on what one of the characters “thought” as events unfolded. The idea was to write half a page of fiction and then half a page with an idea that would take the form of a short essay. The result was really awful! So, I substituted the “little essays” with web searches the character made on the topics he worried about. I like the result. I think that we start to enjoy writing when we can get over frustration and failure and start to see everything as an opportunity to learn.

Tomás Donda (B): What aspects do you think we should have in mind in order to be good writers?

S. I.: To become a writer first you need to become a reader. It is not necessary to study Spanish, but I do recommend joining a writing workshop coordinated by a writer you admire. And consider that you need a lot of practice and patience to get results. A lot will depend on individual talent, but talent alone will not get you a book: perseverance is more likely to do the trick.

L. L.: Moving on to your editorial work, what made you want to become a journal editor?

S. I.: The proposal to become co-editor of AJAL came at a moment when I was doing graduate work, so I thought it would be a great opportunity to help others get their research published. Then, during the pandemic, I took a one-year course on editing because I thought I needed to learn more about the profession. And after that, a local publishing house asked me if I wanted to work for them, which I did. And then other publishing houses started to send me freelance work. Maybe I became an editor out of solidarity, but kept being an editor because I love working with authors in the improvement of their texts.

L. L.: Could you tell us about your experience as a journal editor?

S. I.: The job is very different from teaching, indeed. It is more related to research and to academic writing. The most difficult part of the job is to coordinate the demands of reviewers and the authors’ capabilities and conditions. A journal editor is like an orchestra conductor, I think: the rhythm and the spirit of the piece depends on the conductor although others play the instruments. And as an editor (academic and literary) I think it is best to remain as invisible as possible, since the protagonists will always be the authors.

Camila Burgos (A): We are also very interested in your experience leading a writing workshop for imprisoned women. What motivated you to hold this kind of workshop?

S. I.: I think that reading is a right and that writing can help us think and manage our emotions. I found out these women didn’t have a reading and writing space, so I volunteered to coordinate a four-month workshop to see if they liked it. It has been more than two years now and the inmates have just published their first anthology, Mujeres en espera: Textos producidos en el Penal IV por GS, GR, LG, AM y AG (Women on hold). My general motivation is, essentially, to promote reading and writing among as many people as possible.

N. G.: How does it feel when you are with imprisoned women? Do you feel safe? Have you ever been afraid of them?

S. I.: The women that joined my workshop are quite peaceful. They like reading and studying, and some of them even hold college degrees. I never felt afraid of them and they were never rude to me. On the contrary, they are really affectionate and respectful. I know there are other inmates who are violent, but they have not joined the workshop. The situation is quite strange, in fact, since I work with women convicted for murder and abuse but also with corrupt policewomen, and all of them share the same space. The workshop is the only physical space where they meet, as policewomen live apart from the general population for safety reasons.

Belén Couceiro (A): How do you choose the topics for the lessons?

Milagros Romero (A): I’d like to add, which strategies do you implement to get imprisoned women involved or interested in your classes?

S. I.: When I started working there, I designed lessons as I had been taught: picking the topic, the material, designing activities… Soon I learned that did not work there, since inmates may show no interest at all in what you give them or tell you they do not feel like doing this or that on that precise day. Their mood changes depending on what has been happening in jail. So, I became more flexible and took poetry books with me: we passed them around, we read pieces aloud in a relaxed way, and when they started talking about something specific, I tried to make them write about that topic. Responding to them –rather than making them respond to me– has proven to be more effective at the moment of proposing activities.

Iara, Feller (A): Do you see a difference in interests between school/college students and imprisoned women when it comes to literature?

S. I.: These women want comfort. They tend to read spirituality and self-help books. They do not read to learn or to enjoy the story/poem, but rather to pass the time and feel better. They are not interested in literary techniques, history or traditions, but will be attracted instinctively to what they can relate to emotionally.

Sofía Valiente (B): Have you ever used excerpts from your own books as teaching materials in class? If yes, what was the experience like? If not, why not?

S. I.: I haven’t, but one of the writers that accompanies me in the workshop has. I remember that the inmates did not say much after she read her story, but the following week they praised it. I am quite shy with my own material. I remember that one of the inmates read one of my short story books she found in the library and said “This is not what I like to read.” My stories are quite sad, and they don’t want to read anything that will make them sadder.

Damiana Palma (A): Does the prison count with material resources such as books or computers that you can make use of with your students? Are you allowed to bring in any objects or there are limitations?

S. I.: They have a very sparse library and two old computers where students who are taking university courses can attend lessons and write their papers. We cannot use those computers, so I just take copies with me. I might take a notebook with me, but I never thought it necessary. Regarding regulations, anything you take with you –cell phone, tablet, etc.-- needs to be shown on the way in and on the way out. Scissors and needles are counted on the way in and on the way out, too –we use them to assemble the anthologies. If you enter with three needles and leave with two, you will be in trouble!

L. L: What do you think are the most challenging aspects of teaching in prison?

S. I.: I don’t see my work as teaching, so I will tell you what I have noticed after working there for a while: though most inmates have not completed their education, very few attend primary and secondary school in prison, and even fewer attend university. Women who are in jail are mostly very poor and did not get a good education in their childhood, so they find it difficult to understand what they read. Not many of them can write full, grammatical sentences. In spite of this, some of them get their secondary school degree and enter university in jail, but then they find it very difficult to pass exams, since they literally cannot write a full paragraph. Teaching in prison must be similar to teaching in very poor neighbourhoods. Maybe motivation is missing here, maybe it is their environment, which does not promote learning. If they had received a better education, most probably they wouldn’t be there, right? It is a very complex issue.

Mayra Del Llano (B): How do you see the role of creative writing in their rehabilitation and reintegration into society?

S. I.: Communication is key to a good life. What they read may help them understand some aspects of life, but some of the women who attend the workshop are in fact desperate to speak about themselves because they feel lonely. Reading and writing will help, but I think that what they need is more than that: they need somebody from “the outside” to listen to them, somebody who is not a psychologist or a social worker but just a volunteer. I think they need affection, pure and simple. Sitting around a table to read and write, to share what they have written, to chat or assemble books may help them feel better and gain back their trust in society.

Gaia Céspedes (A): Could you give any advice for future teachers who are also considering teaching in contexts of confinement?

S. I.: You need to understand and accept that most of the people you will be working with have been convicted for a reason. They do come from vulnerable backgrounds, but very few are innocent, though most of them will say they are. If you are emotionally equipped to deal with sex offenders, drug dealers and killers, do specialise and apply to teach there. I wasn’t prepared for this context and went through quite a crisis when I learned what these women had done to be there. One of the women I work with has been convicted for setting her son ablaze, for example. It has taken some time for me to look past their offences.  

Lautaro González (B): Which early experiences showed you the power of language?

S. I.: They were far from early, in fact. I was not truly aware of the power of language until I was well into my thirties and somebody I loved lied to me. Till that moment I had never realised that language can be a means to do evil, to manipulate and hurt. I had always seen language as a bridge, as a tool, and then there was a new use for it: it can also be a weapon. When I had that experience, I finally understood what I had studied in linguistics and became more aware of the need to learn how to say things the best way possible to avoid hurting others, first because it is not good to hurt anybody, and second because when people are hurt, situations may escalate uncontrollably. Then I learned about the power of silence. Learning to shut up in time is as difficult as learning to say the right thing at the right moment. Of course, there is literature and its power to marvel us, which is there for us to grasp and enjoy. As an experience, literature is somehow out of the ordinary. What we do with language in our daily lives, on the other hand, is our full responsibility and speaks about how we regard those around us.  


Final comments

The interview above, only edited to gain cohesion as a single text for its publication, was the result of an authentic task. Student-teachers, who are all Spanish speakers -the same as their teacher trainer and the interviewee-, found themselves as real users of the English language in the written medium. Their interlocutor was a flesh-and-bone person other than the teacher and the language corrections were not capricious but intended the establishment of clear communication, not a mere grammatical exercise. The students’ voices were cherished.

Susana answered their every question with such wisdom and dedication that both groups were extremely thankful for all her pieces of knowledge and advice, which led to a subsequent authentic task: the collective writing of either a thank-you letter (chosen by Group A) or a thank-you card (done by Group B). Susana generously recorded a short video for the student-teachers to be able to get a sense of wholeness in the message she conveyed, to endow her written words with a body, accompanying facial expressions, a gaze and a melody, in a humanising practice.

With regard to the implications for the readership of this journal, I see two possibilities (though not necessarily limited to them): one that has teacher trainers as the article readers and another one that has teacher trainees as the readers as well. On the one hand, I believe the activity in itself can be replicated by other educators in other teacher training situations, either by having a referent in other fields interviewed by the students or by getting motivation to carry out other kinds of authentic tasks that stem naturally from their situated practices.

On the other hand, the article can be read by trainees in didactic subjects in different teacher training colleges to discuss what is being done at higher education level and the theoretical underpinnings reflected in the educator’s decisions, or simply to gain information from the interviewee’s rich and diverse linguistic experiences with reading, writing and teaching in formal and informal contexts.



Cazac, V. & Cazac, V. (2016). Authentic Task-based materials in Teaching EMP students. In Proceedings of the International scientific and practical conference: Problems and perspectives in European education development ISBN 978-1-365-53544-4, pp. 19-20. Prague Institute for Qualification Enhancement.


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