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30th Anniversary

30@30 Specialists Share Adventures in Education in Central And South America

Specialists Leslie Opp-Beckman and Mary Scholl

December 9, 2021

      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.

     Our final 30@30 story of the year features two Specialists – Leslie Opp-Beckman and Mary Scholl – who tell the stories behind their adventures as English language educators in Central and South America.

Leslie Opp-Beckman: Answering the “CALL” in Costa Rica and Brazil

     Dr. Leslie Opp-Beckman was prescient in recognizing the far-reaching potential of computer technology as an educational tool for English language teaching and learning. It was the mid-1990s, not long after the invention of the now ubiquitous World Wide Web, and Opp-Beckman, then an instructor at the University of Oregon’s American English Institute, was exploring ways to use this new communication tool to support language education while also developing frameworks for teachers to evaluate Web resources based on their specific classroom needs. As Opp-Beckman recalls, “Those early days of the internet were overwhelming. Rather than surfing the Web, educators often felt they were drowning in it.” Her early interest in and aptitude for computer-assisted language learning led to publications and presentations, and a growing reputation as a go-to educator on the topic. Not surprisingly, when the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs decided 25 years ago to establish an internet presence for materials that supported its English Language Programs (ELP), Opp-Beckman and her colleagues at the University of Oregon were chosen to help develop the site and put it into operation. “The common thread throughout my career has been technology, not as an end goal but as a means to our objective as English language educators: to enhance learning,” says Opp-Beckman.

Specialist Leslie Opp-Beckman with a student

     Indeed, that thread is tightly woven throughout her English Language Specialist career, from her first assignments, when computer-assisted language learning (CALL) was in its infancy, to today. In 2003, Opp-Beckman was assigned to lead teacher trainings in Costa Rica, where the Ministry of Education, recognizing the benefit that computers could bring to primary and secondary school teachers and students, particularly in rural areas and low-income urban neighborhoods, purchased desktop computers and built computer labs in schools that met government-mandated criteria. The goal was straightforward: provide teachers with the technology to help them do their jobs more effectively. “The government had amazing foresight to implement this program, upgrading school infrastructures by installing computer labs, facilitating teacher trainings, and engaging community members for ongoing support — the program truly pushed Costa Rica’s pedagogical envelope,” says Opp-Beckman, whose Specialist role was to train teachers to learn the technology, explore available resources, and subsequently become trainers in their own institutions and regions. “I considered my job to be similar to that of an orchestra leader, bringing all the pieces together into a harmonious whole and arriving at a point at which the local partners — administrators, teachers, and others involved — could move forward and build on what we’d done together.”

Leslie Opp-Beckman at a conference

     While her assignment was clear-cut, as a seasoned Specialist Opp-Beckman knew to expect the unexpected, as happened with her first Costa Rica training. When she entered that high school’s computer lab, ready to conduct her teacher training, she came upon a roomful of participants and unopened boxes of computers. Opp-Beckman handled the situation with ease. “My years as a Specialist had taught me that it’s not unusual to show up at a site and find the equipment is not ready,” she says. “We did what we had to do — got computers out of boxes and set them up so we could run the sessions. My attitude is, ‘We’ll make it work. We can change the schedule, adapt the goals — I’ve got a million back-up plans. Now, let’s all take a deep breath and have fun with this.’”  Once the computers were installed, that is exactly what they did. Opp-Beckman first addressed workshop expectations, asking participants what their goals were, so she could gear the training to meet their needs. “I never impose my goals but rather focus on meeting those of the constituents,” she notes. Toward that end, she spent a portion of each day going over computer resources that complemented their English language curriculum. She also held a session titled “Making the Most of What You’ve Got,” during which she addressed how teachers could incorporate technology into their classes on days when students were not in the computer lab. Given the number of classes vying for those computers, she knew lab time would be limited, but Opp-Beckman told participants that this did not mean CALL should be abandoned, particularly since each classroom in the school typically had one serviceable computer on hand. Toward that end, she discussed ways to incorporate project-based activities during which groups of students could be cycled through that single computer while other students worked on different tasks. That met another of Opp-Beckman’s objectives. “I wanted them to understand the importance of self-directed learning and how it benefits students,” she says. Again, she always asked teachers for their ideas and feedback. “Trainings are a two-way exchange of information. These participants were talented, creative, motivated educators, and I had a lot to learn from them.”

Specialist Leslie Opp-Beckman

     Jump forward six years, and Opp-Beckman, this time on a Specialist assignment in Brazil, was still advancing the benefits of CALL but in the short timespan since her trainings in Costa Rica, that field had experienced tremendous growth. One of the primary purposes of this assignment was to conduct workshops that incorporated lessons from English Language Programs’ recently created online teacher training course, Shaping the Way We Teach English, which Opp-Beckman was central in developing. “The internet had quickly matured,” says Opp-Beckman, and information on new Web-based English language teaching resources was in such demand that, when she arrived at one training, 300 educators — more than triple the number expected — were packed into the auditorium. “The focus may have been technology but here I was, figuring out on the fly how to conduct this workshop with such a large group, not enough materials, and a room filled with chairs bolted to the floor,” says Opp-Beckman. Rather than lead with technology, she went with her instincts and warmed up the standing-room-only crowd with the classic children’s clapping game “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt.” “It wasn’t high tech, but it was fun and rowdy,” she recollects. “What I always appreciated about assignments in that region was, not only would participants be willing to come to the table and collaborate, but the tenor of the room would always be warm and welcoming. And if asked, everyone would be on their feet joining in.”

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Mary Scholl: Teaching and Growth in Central and South America 

     Captivated for many years by the countries and cultures of Central and South America, longtime English Language Specialist Mary Scholl made Costa Rica her permanent home in 2001 and two years later founded Centro Espiral Mana, recently renamed the Institute for Collaborative Learning, which offers a broad spectrum of English language teacher training programs to educators from around the world, as well as workshops in leadership development, organizational planning, and more. Scholl not only runs the Institute, from which more than 2,000 teachers have graduated from the TESOL Certificate Course, but also works with Peace Corps volunteers, Access teachers, and community leaders and, as a Specialist, trains educators, both in-country and online. While Scholl has served globally as a Specialist, her assignments in Central and South America — Brazil, Costa Rica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, and Venezuela — resonate most strongly with her. “My wheelhouse is working with Latin American teachers,” she says. “I know their academic environments and deeply understand their needs and concerns as educators.”

Specialist Mary Scholl with program participants

     As a Specialist, Scholl has always put her creative approach to teaching into action in her trainings and classrooms, no matter the location. Before beginning any educational program, she always asks herself four questions: “What is happening inside the learners’ heads, hearts, and bodies? What is happening between the people involved? What is happening within the context of the class; that is, are there community or regional issues to be aware of? And finally, how does all of this affect learning? It’s important to view everyone in the room as a human being first, each with individual needs they want to get met,” she says. She found those questions to be particularly meaningful during her 2015 assignment in Venezuela, where she presented the plenary speech at the annual conference of Venezuela TESOL (VenTESOL) and gave workshops to teachers and students both during and after the conference. Because of the economic and political turmoil in that country, Scholl was well aware of the difficulties it took for VenTESOL’s leadership to organize the conference, from setting up the facilities to ensuring enough food was available for participants. “Venezuela had a huge impact on me,” recalls Scholl. “Despite living and working under extremely difficult conditions, there was a real sense of community, commitment, and openness to learning among all of the participants, as well as tremendous grit and resilience. I had never experienced such dedication and determination before.” 

Specialist Mary Scholl at a conference.

     A strong advocate for a prosocial approach to education, Scholl chose to focus her VenTESOL plenary speech on developing such skills as empathy and mindfulness in the classroom, the idea being that for a language learning classroom to be successful, what is happening inside and between the individuals in that room matter more than the materials used and the linguistic analyses applied. “Yes, these teachers are working in low- or no-resource classrooms and while it’s important to address that issue, it’s just a piece of the puzzle,” she notes. “There are shifting paradigms in education, and every teacher should have the opportunity to work through them.” Those paradigms include taking into account the function that emotions play in learning, the teacher’s role in responding to learners’ emotional reality, and recognizing that teachers and learners thrive more fully — and learn English more effectively — in an environment that measures success by the creation of supportive relationships and the development of autonomy, responsibility, and a strong sense of self. “The biggest resource that we have is ourselves,” says Scholl.

     Under that umbrella of developing prosocial skills, Scholl focused her workshops in Venezuela on a teaching framework that she and colleague Josh Kurzweil co-developed in 2004. Known as ECRIF — encounter, clarify, remember, internalize, fluently use — this approach emphasizes the learning process that students go through when working on a target skill rather than what the teacher is doing during the lesson. To illustrate, Scholl started off each training with a simple exercise in which participants stood in circles and learned one another’s names through an activity that took them through each stage of the ECRIF process, tossing a ball to one another and stating, reminding, recalling, and repeating names until teammates could easily identify each other. Scholl then moved on to demonstrate how to apply this model to specific language skills. Activities for learning new vocabulary, for example, might include having students answer questions using the target language to encounter, match meanings to words to clarify, quiz one another to remember, create dialogues to internalize, and role-play to fluently use. “ECRIF was developed to put us immediately into the learner’s experience. What is happening cognitively with the learner? What does the learner need? Maybe more clarifying or remembering? The teacher has to notice and respond to that need,” says Scholl. As for the response of the Venezuelan teachers in her workshops, most of whom had never experienced such an interactive approach to language teaching, “It was like they’d been walking through a desert for 10 days and someone gave them each a cool glass of water. They completely embraced it.”

Students from one of Mary Scholl's projects.

     Scholl also directly addressed a common issue in Venezuela’s schools: a lack of resources, a reality she encountered at more than one workshop. When taking participants through the name-learning activity, there were often no tossable objects such as balls or stuffed animals in the room, so Scholl had teachers use gestures instead. “We don’t need resources as cues — we can use our bodies,” she says. If dice are required for an activity but not available, Scholl recommended counting fingers or incorporating the well-known hand game, Rock Paper Scissors. “I always tell my teachers, ‘If I can’t teach with a stick in the mud, I probably won’t be able to teach with all the fancy high-tech gadgets in the world at my fingertips.’”
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