Two 30@30 Specialists Make an Impact in Tanzania and Togo
After a record 2020 year – that saw a 3000% increase in our virtual programing – 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.
We continue the celebration in February with this story about two 30@30 Specialists talking about their experiences in Africa.
Ann Snow shares her experience training teachers in content-based instruction for STEM in Tanzania, and David Bohlke describes the evolution of a teacher training series for newly hired high school teachers in Togo.
Dr. Ann Snow is a content-based instruction (CBI) guru. The author of numerous books and articles, as well as a frequent presenter at national and international conferences, she is prolific on the topic of CBI. So, when she received an English Language Specialist assignment in 2017 to conduct a CBI-focused training in Tanzania, not only for English language instructors but also for secondary school STEM teachers, she was thrilled. “This was a first for me, an opportunity to work abroad with both STEM teachers and English language teachers together in the same room,” said Snow. “A dream collaboration.”
Snow was particularly intrigued by the STEM focus. In Tanzania, as in most African nations, a major push toward improving STEM education, particularly in secondary schools, is in place. However, because all public secondary school instruction in Tanzania is in English – and not in the native Kiswahili used in primary and middle schools – students are suddenly thrust into science and math classes taught in a language they are still learning. To add to the difficulty, while the STEM teachers know their subject matter well, they have varying levels of English language proficiency themselves and many find it challenging to teach their course content in English.
The structure of Snow’s workshop tackled those issues directly. During the workshop’s first week, Snow instructed 24 teachers, all leaders in the Tanzanian English Language Teachers Association (TELTA), in the whys and hows of CBI, using what she called “the whole toolbox of the English language teacher’s trade,” from quick writes to group work. For the second week, around 24 STEM instructors from across the country, along with about 20 Peace Corps volunteers – also STEM teachers – joined the workshop. Snow then paired STEM teachers with their TELTA counterparts, from the same school as much as possible. “The beauty was, by integrating their skills and thinking about the demands of the content, the English language and STEM teachers acquired a common language,” said Snow. “They were able to marshal their collective expertise.”
Of course, there were challenges to overcome. Snow’s greatest hurdle that first week was helping the TELTA instructors to think about English in a new way. “They just loved grammar,” recalled Snow. “Get them talking about relative clauses, and their eyes lit up. I had to help them to look at language beyond those narrow parameters, to see how language is used in the discourse communities of the STEM disciplines and how to view content as a vehicle for language learning.” Toward that end, Snow and the teachers explored science textbooks used in Tanzania’s public secondary schools, examining how grammatical elements such as tense and voice, for example, were used in science texts. “That was my challenge, to take their deep background knowledge of English structure and show them how to apply it to the STEM material,” said Snow.
Both the TELTA and STEM teachers enjoyed numerous “aha” moments. In working to shift their approach to vocabulary, for example, Snow had workshop participants look at key vocabulary in pieces of text for specific content areas. In a typical Tanzanian classroom, students are required to memorize vocabulary, but Snow asked workshop participants to look beyond the terms – that is, content words such as cell or organism in biology, what Snow called “the bricks” – and see the role of the non-technical words surrounding them – “the mortar that held those bricks together.” “Using that approach illuminated not just the words, but the content itself,” said Snow.
Gratifyingly for Snow, the life of this assignment extended beyond the two-week project in Tanzania. Participating STEM teachers returned to their schools and became trainers themselves, leading after-school workshops in how to apply CBI strategies to STEM courses. In addition, Snow organized a panel for the 2019 TESOL International Convention in Atlanta and included several of the TELTA trainers among the presenters.
Snow notes another beneficiary of the teacher training: her students in the master’s degree program in TESOL at California State University in Los Angeles. Prior to the workshop in Tanzania, the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam provided Snow with a variety of science textbooks, as well as the scope and sequences of several STEM courses used in the country’s public secondary schools. Coincidentally, the fall semester just prior to the December training, Snow taught the course “Teaching English for Academic Purposes” at Cal State LA. Putting all the elements together, Snow assigned her students a unique project: go through the ministry’s documents and related STEM textbooks and identify an inventory of vocabulary, language functions, and discourse types that could be used in the training as a model of processes the teachers would undertake for their own STEM lesson planning. In addition, her students wrote an online needs assessment survey, which was sent to all workshop participants prior to the training. “In my final Specialist report for this assignment, I could actually say my students were able to collaborate with me in a meaningful and highly constructive way,” said Snow. “They were able to directly apply what they were learning in their MA class and create materials that were immediately put to use in the workshop and later in the STEM classroom.”
David Bohlke knows his way around a well-written English language textbook. After all, he has spent years as a textbook writer and editor for some of the top names in educational publishing, working on a variety of highly regarded English language series. For him, the key to a successful textbook is simple: transparency. “A teacher should be able to look at a textbook and have a distinct idea of what to do without needing to explore the teacher’s manual in depth,” he said. “Clear labeling, simple instruction lines, and a concise step-by-step approach tell teachers at a glance what they need to do and how much time it will take.” Each textbook, in his view, has been a collaboration between him and the imagined teachers who would adopt it for their courses.
Bohlke applied those same qualities of transparency and collaboration to his English Language Specialist assignments, starting with his first teacher training project in Saudi Arabia and extending to his numerous workshops throughout Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. While each provided him with new insights and ideas that he could apply to his career as both a textbook developer and teacher trainer, two Specialist stints in Togo – in 2009 and 2010 – particularly resonated with him for those very qualities that he values so much as a writer and trainer.
Each Togo assignment consisted of two one-week projects during which Bohlke instructed recently hired public high school teachers, many of whom had not participated in any formal teacher training since starting their careers. Because he only had one week with each group of 50 teachers, clarity was of the utmost importance. “Simply put, there’s only so much you can do in a week,” he noted. Yes – Bohlke introduced the techniques of communicative language teaching and cooperative learning, both radical approaches compared to Togo’s more teacher-centered methodology. And true to his background as a textbook writer, he provided the teachers with numerous written materials. But that wasn’t all. Bohlke had another goal in mind for these workshops: bolstering teacher confidence. Often these teachers were their school’s only English language instructor and had little opportunity to join forces or exchange ideas with others in their field, let alone speak English. As a result, the teacher training had the added benefits of expanding their network of colleagues and giving them an opportunity to use their knowledge of English intensively.
To further the sense of community, Bohlke ended each night of the training with an after-dinner movie, selected for its theme and English accessibility. One night he showed Dead Poets Society, the drama about an unconventional and inspirational teacher in a conservative boarding school; its scenes of teaching outside the box within an inflexible system and breaking through to reluctant students made a strong impression on his Togolese audience. On a lighter note, My Cousin Vinny, a comedy about two New Yorkers arrested in rural Alabama, tackled issues of justice and cultural differences in the United States. Despite the late hour of the movie viewings, the teachers, who started their training days at 7 a.m., were eager to watch and discuss the films. “The movies not only got them thinking about American culture but had the added benefit of modeling how to lead a discussion,” said Bohlke.
Most important for Bohlke was the cooperative nature of the trainings, each a collaboration between the U.S. Embassy in Lomé, Togo’s capital, and the national Ministry of Education. Several teacher trainers from the ministry’s Teacher Training Office – former English teachers themselves – participated in the week-long programs, giving and attending workshops, and interacting with participants on a daily basis. This was the only training Bohlke had done that included a team of co-presenters from the host country. “Their participation gave me a different insight into what the teachers face – their needs and challenges, the realities of their classrooms,” he said. In addition, their presence served as a kind of legitimizing factor for participants. “They were allies all of us could draw and learn from. Plus, they could answer the tough questions – lack of materials in the schools, pay issues, etc. – that I couldn’t.”
Indeed, for Bohlke, their presence was a game changer, influencing his subsequent trainings in a variety of ways. He understood better what questions to ask beforehand and could plan in a more targeted way. He hopes this will be a model for future trainings. “The involvement of the educators on the ground proved critical,” he concluded. “Working with these co-trainers certainly opened my eyes. We have so much to learn from each other.”