Two 30@30 Specialists Form Lasting Alliances in the East Asia Pacific Region
After a record 2020 year – that saw a 3000% increase in our virtual programming – the Specialist Program is celebrating our 30th anniversary throughout 2021. Since 1991, over 800 English Language Specialists – representing the best of America’s educators from all 50 States – have encouraged critical thought and erudition, celebrated their cultural diversity, and showcased their American values and civic engagement strategies to millions of educators and students in 130 countries.
In January we introduced our 30@30 –a group of 30 alumni who have had a profound impact on the Specialist Program as well as the field of English language education. In addition, upon returning to their home states, these leaders have added immense benefit to their local economies, communities, and institutions.
In our April story, Donna Brinton describes her long-standing work on the Lower Mekong Initiative, and Thomas Kral shares his extensive experiences supporting English Teachers in the Philippines.
Donna Brinton’s ties to the English Language Specialist Program extend back to its inception year, 1991, when Brinton, then a lecturer in UCLA’s Department of TESL and Applied Linguistics, received an invitation from the U.S. Information Agency, the Specialist program’s initial administrator, to conduct teacher trainings in Thailand. The assignment: train 150 secondary school teachers on the techniques of content-based instruction (CBI), one of Brinton’s primary areas of expertise. “It was a very exciting opportunity for me, but I could never have realized how much this decision would figure into my career,” says Brinton. A deep and lasting alliance had begun. Over the next 30 years, Brinton would complete more than 50 Specialist assignments in 35 countries. “My friends in the States say, ‘You know people all over the world,’ and I say, ‘Yes, I do, and the reason is the Specialist program,’” says Brinton.
Examples abound of enduring connections, as well as profound experiences. Among the most memorable, Brinton cites conducting teacher trainings in South Africa soon after the end of apartheid, delivering the plenary speech at the First Annual Central Asian Teachers of English Conference in Uzbekistan after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and presenting workshops to faculty on the campus of Kabul University and Kabul Education University as well as participating in English Access Microscholarship Program classes in orphanages in Afghanistan. While Brinton recalls each of her many assignments as valuable, she considers one long-term assignment – the Professional Communication Skills for Leaders (PCSL) and Community of Practice (CoP) projects for the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) – as particularly meaningful. Not only did this two-pronged undertaking bring her back to the site of her first Specialist posting, Thailand, but on this assignment she was able to dive deep, returning five times from 2014 through 2017 to take stock of progress, offer recommendations, and most importantly reconnect with the project leaders, which included Fellows from the five LMI countries – Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand, and Vietnam – the RELO team, and faculty from Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “As a Specialist, sometimes you go to a country and do a one-off presentation at a conference but don’t collaborate with anyone. You’ve imparted some knowledge but don’t know what’s going to happen with it,” she says. “I’m a collaborator at heart, and the LMI projects gave me the opportunity to work closely over the years with the RELO and RELO office staff, the Fellows, and university faculty. It was a dream team. We would sit and brainstorm for days about what we could do to make these projects more successful, more impactful.”
Brinton’s involvement with the LMI, an alliance formed in 2009 to enhance cooperation and build on the mutual interests of the Lower Mekong countries, came about unexpectedly. Brought in as a Specialist to give the keynote addresses at the 2014 TESOL conferences in Thailand and Laos, she heard repeatedly from Fellows in the Lower Mekong region about one of their most demanding assignments, the PCSL project. The goal of this five-year undertaking, started in 2012, was to develop English for Specific Purposes curricula for mid- to upper-level ministry officials who worked in areas directly related to the LMI’s main pillars: agriculture and food, connectivity, education, energy, environment and water, and health. The expectation was that improved professional English language skills would enhance professional development and encourage more active participation in regional meetings, conferences, and partnerships. Toward that end, Fellows in the Lower Mekong had developed a bounty of lesson plans during the project’s initial three years, all amassed on a central hard drive with no obvious organizational scheme. “There were files scattered all over the place. It was a gold mine of materials, but there was no uniformity, no template,” recalls Brinton. “They desperately needed to be organized and edited.” A decision was made by then RELO Joëlle Uzarski and LMI Budget Manager Stephen Hanchey to bring Brinton back to supervise this massive task.
Supervise, yes, but the collaborative nature of the undertaking remained solidly in place. “I never worked as closely with Fellows as I did on that project,” notes Brinton. “They were just amazing.” They were also concerned: when Brinton officially joined the project in 2015, they wondered what would ensure that their professional development efforts, including the PCSL materials, would have a lasting impact in the Lower Mekong. More brainstorming followed, and an idea was introduced to expand the scope of the project to incorporate a Community of Practice (CoP), a dedicated group of English language teachers from the Lower Mekong who, in collaboration with the Fellows, would take charge of future professional development in the region, championing colleagues, running workshops, presenting at regional conferences, and conducting action-oriented research projects. The idea turned into a well-received proposal, and the Lower Mekong CoP became reality.
Brinton credits the Fellows with this spark of inspiration, as well as with putting the CoP into motion. Since they were the ones in touch with educators in their countries, they selected initial CoP members – five to eight from each country – primarily seeking out English language teachers fresh out of graduate school or relatively new to the classroom. “We wanted dedicated teachers who were eager to learn, grow with the CoP, and eventually become mentors to newer members,” says Brinton. To help the fledgling CoP get started, collaboration again was key. Brinton and the Fellows mentored the newly minted members, assigning them the task of creating electronic poster sessions. For this project, they created multinational teams who initially presented at a simulated conference, then, with the encouragement of the CoP team, moved on to present at actual regional conferences such as CAMTESOL and Thailand TESOL.
This dynamic collaboration has paid off. When the LMI assignment was completed in 2017, the PCSL had close to 550 pages of lesson plans available for download, and CoP members had already conducted 41 independent workshops and reached an audience of more than 1,800 teachers and students. Today, the Lower Mekong CoP has an active membership of more than 1,650 on Facebook. “An incredible energy developed throughout this assignment and to see it sustained is so gratifying,” says Brinton. “I know where this journey started, and I see no limit as to how far it can go.”
Thomas Kral knows the Philippines well. His first long-term tenure there began in 1984, spending four years in Manila as Regional English Language Officer for the U.S. Information Service. He returned in 2001 for a posting as the U.S. Department of State’s Cultural Affairs Officer, and, following his retirement from the State Department in 2004, he remained an additional three years as Senior Education Advisor in the Philippines for the U.S. Agency for International Development. In all, Kral has lived and worked in the Philippines for 10 years, almost a third of his U.S. government career. “It was always a joy to be there,” he reflects. “Our two countries have such a strong relationship, and I made connections there – colleagues and friends – that I still maintain today.” No wonder that when asked to return to the Philippines as an English Language Specialist in 2010, Kral jumped at the opportunity.
The impetus for the assignment was the 50th anniversary conference of the Philippine Association for Language Teaching (PALT), an organization with which Kral had a long, productive relationship. Not surprisingly, PALT asked him to give the keynote address at the event, which became an unofficial reunion for Kral. He also presented a conference workshop on communicative language teaching (CLT) – an approach that Kral had long advocated for in the Philippines – as well as additional English language teacher trainings, one for high school and secondary teachers held at the University of Santo Tomas, and another for instructors at the Philippine Military Academy, the country’s equivalent to West Point. During these trainings. Kral was gratified to see that the Philippine Department of Education had maintained its concerted effort to upgrade English language teaching in public schools, particularly at the high school and secondary levels, where English plays an equal role to the national language, Filipino, in course instruction.
As much of a whirlwind as the first week was, the project’s second week proved even more intensive. Kral flew to the country’s southernmost island group, Mindanao, where he led a workshop for elementary and secondary school teachers in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), an independent zone consisting of five predominately Muslim provinces. Filipino Muslims comprise 24% of that island group’s population, and more than half of those reside in the ARMM, which in recent years has been the site of numerous extremist-led conflicts. Even though the training took place at Lake Sebu, a designated safe zone within the ARMM, it was outside the security parameters of the U.S. Embassy, so Kral had to be escorted to the region daily from a city about an hour and a half away, and then back again at day’s end. However, Kral never felt threatened during his time there – he trusted the safe zone guidelines would be respected, plus Filipino armed officers were always nearby. “I felt very secure. There was always an officer in the back of the room, and two outside on the grounds. In fact, one of the best compliments I received during the training was from one of the officers who said, ‘I really like your classes!’” says Kral.
No wonder the officer enjoyed them – Kral focused this CLT training on teaching interactive activities that use poetry and songs. “I wanted to show the teachers how to teach English not as a dry academic subject, but as a language their students could access immediately and enjoy learning.” He chose poems that reflected a more diverse America – the works of Maya Angelou, Sonia Sanchez, and Gwendolyn Brooks, for example. The Filipino teachers related to the themes, comparing them to the works of their country’s poets. And they welcomed the opportunity to bring singing – “so deeply embedded in Filipino culture,” notes Kral – into the classroom, from jazz chants to easily learnable American tunes.
Kral considers the ARMM, where security and resulting funding issues have caused English language education to falter, a perfect example of how the Specialist program can bring great benefits to an area “where the need is more pronounced.” He says, “Giving teachers the opportunity to connect with an American colleague, working with teachers who are training future generations, and broadening their acquaintance with the education profession and the world at large brings immeasurable value.”
His commitment to that purpose is so strong that Kral returned to the ARMM the following year to conduct a four-day training, this one focused on teaching English language skills for employment purposes. Because the site of that program was a location where he had to stay overnight – again, outside the Embassy’s security boundaries – Kral was sponsored independently by a Philippine-based non-government organization. “This is an illustration of how the Specialist program can act as a catalyst for local educational organizations to take on funding responsibilities themselves, utilizing Specialists they’ve been introduced to through the State Department.”