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30th Anniversary

Three 30@30 Specialists Forge Lasting Connections Through Innovative Training Programs


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 July 30@30 story, three Specialists – Natalie Kuhlman, Diane Larsen-Freeman, and Spencer Salas – describe how they shared their expertise in curriculum design and program development in projects around the world. 

Natalie Kuhlman

Dr. Natalie Kuhlman has devoted much of her career to ensuring that English as a second language (ESL) teacher standards are front and center in the field of education. Starting in the late 1980s, she served on the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing to establish TESOL and bilingual teaching standards for that state. In 1999, she joined the original committee set up by the TESOL International Association to establish the first Pre-K-12 Professional Teacher Standards to be used by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE, now the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation), remaining a member of that team for 12 years and sitting on the NCATE Board of Directors for six years. Most recently, she served on a TESOL committee that created standards for short-term certificate programs, another that developed English as a foreign language (EFL) teaching guidelines, and the TESOL Standards Professional Council. Added to that is her impressive roster of presentations and publications on the topic of standards. “When well done, standards provide guidance from professionals in the field as to what is important,” says Kuhlman. “They are merely goals — they don’t dictate how students get to the goals.” 

While most of her work has focused on developing standards for ESL teachers in the United States, Kuhlman credits her expertise in this area as being at the heart of some of her most compelling English Language Specialist assignments — working with educators in Albania, Ecuador, Indonesia, Panama, and Uruguay to adapt the Pre-K-12 Professional Teacher Standards to meet the needs of English language teaching programs in those countries. As would be expected, each of those locations presented its own challenges, with teachers and student needs often bumping up against institutional or individual sensitivities. However, one country, Ecuador, stands out for her. Kuhlman’s first Specialist assignment there took place in 2011, and four years and seven assignments in Ecuador later, more than half of that country’s 30 universities with English language teacher programs had officially adopted nationwide standards and a curriculum for preparing K12 English language teachers.    

The path to adoption was complex, initially involving only Ecuador’s Ministry of Education, which had asked the U.S. Embassy — a first — to aid in the creation of standards for their practicing teachers. Her first task was to introduce the Ministry team to a variety of teacher standards, including the TESOL Pre-K-12 Professional Teacher Standards, focusing on its five domains: language, culture, instruction, assessment, and professionalism. Next, she and the Ministry team met with English language teachers and students at a local high school to conduct a needs assessment with both groups to find out what worked in their curriculum and what did not. For Kuhlman, a significant takeaway from those meetings was that students wanted culture integrated into the curriculum while teachers contended that students would have no interest. “I pointed out that language without culture doesn’t go very far — they go hand in hand,” notes Kuhlman. “Much of our language is imbued with cultural orientation, and if you’re just learning language from a textbook, you’re only learning part of the picture.”  

Six months later, Kuhlman returned to Ecuador, only this time the Ministry took a backseat since it would not be involved in creating the curriculum for the university’s EFL teacher preparation programs. “The Ministry only worked on professional development with English language teachers once they were in K-12 classrooms,” she says. “It had no oversight as to how teachers were prepared to teach English.” She traveled to the north and south of Ecuador to meet with an array of educators from 30 higher education teacher programs that expressed interest in learning about a way to unify their programs. Involved were public, private, and military universities, which included their English language institutes that all university students had to attend, whether or not they planned to teach English. During this time, the government of Ecuador mandated that students should be able to transfer from one university to another without losing credits, so these programs felt an increased urgency for a unified curriculum across institutions, which they also considered long overdue. While introducing the standards and addressing the benefits of a common curriculum, Kuhlman emphasized that they had been refashioned by the Ministry to meet the specific needs of Ecuador’s English language teachers. “Standards do not negate local situations — that’s where the adaptation comes in,” says Kuhlman.Before the teachers bought into the idea of a common curriculum, I wanted them to know that their diverse cultures would always be respected and included.”       

During subsequent visits, Kuhlman met with the teachers, who had fully embraced the Ministry’s adapted standards, in various locations throughout Ecuador. Teams were assigned to specific domains to develop curricula, course syllabi, weekly lesson plans, and assessments. They shared and modified their work until all were in agreement on the final documents. Finally, in early 2015 a nine-semester standards-based English language teacher program was signed into reality by the dean of each participating university. “In the end, I felt that we had truly created a standards-based curriculum that would improve the preparation of English teachers in Ecuador and consequently the learning of English by its students.” concludes Kuhlman.

Diane Larsen-Freeman

Among Dr. Diane Larsen-Freeman’s most cherished English Language Specialist memories are what she calls “TESOL moments,” those unanticipated events that take place abroad as a result of being part of the worldwide TESOL community. Her numerous Specialist assignments notwithstanding — conferences attended, speeches presented, classes observed, trainings led, and more — Larsen-Freeman finds particular joy in those strong connections forged when least expected. In Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan, for example, while she waited in the frigid early morning hours for a long-delayed plane, Larsen-Freeman’s colleagues, concerned for their guest’s well-being, wrapped her in one blanket after another. In Argentina, her reluctant agreement to participate in an Embassy-arranged tango lesson turned into a delightful afternoon for Larsen-Freeman who, with her Argentinian dance partner, “did more laughing than dancing,” with a similar outcome in Honduras, dancing the punta with conference participants while trying to maintain her dignity. And in Nepal, when unable to make the final ascent to see the sun rise over the Himalayas during a pre-dawn group climb, a local boy approached her and wordlessly led her over a fence, through a field, and to a rocky ledge where the breathtaking view brought Larsen-Freeman to tears. “The opportunity to connect with so many people in so many places has been a gift,” she says, and these connections get renewed at annual TESOL Conventions, when she has joyful reunions with international visitors from places she has been. 

Indeed, a common thread runs from these varied incidents to the linguistic message Larsen-Freeman has spent her career promoting — connection. “I am a subscriber of relational thinking, both interpersonally and conceptually.  Language and culture, teaching and learning, grammar and communication — we need to find what connects these aspects of language,” she reflects. That last pairing, grammar and communication, and curricula that bridge the gap between the two, has long been a central teaching cause of Larsen-Freeman’s, culminating in her 2003 book Teaching Language: From Grammar to Grammaring. “Grammar had always been taught as a set of morphosyntactic rules,” she notes. “I said, no, grammar is much more than that. We’re leaving out an important dimension — when and why to use it.” The -ing attached to the word says it all: “I coined the term grammaring to show its dynamic, meaning-making, communicative potential.”

Fortuitously, the publication of that book coincided with a Specialist assignment in Argentina, where Larsen-Freeman taught workshops around the country on applying the concept of grammaring, introducing her trademark pie chart that divides grammar into three wedges: form/structure, meaning/semantics, and use/pragmatics. She wanted that graphic to help teachers expand upon their knowledge of grammar and allocate their teaching time wisely. “For any given structure, teachers can use the pie chart to first identify what their students’ learning challenge is — form, meaning, or use – then develop materials that fit the challenge and teach in a way that’s compatible with the challenge,” she says. Larsen-Freeman and her message were greeted warmly in Argentina. The Buenos Aires Herald interviewed her for a story, whose headline proclaimed “A Living System of Grammar.” “Teachers were primed for a new approach and once they made the connection, they had an awareness they hadn’t had before,” she says. “It didn’t mean they’d immediately transform their teaching methods or materials, but the seed had been planted.”

Larsen-Freeman incorporated another approach into her teaching methodology in the early 2000s: complex dynamic systems theory (CDST). Reading James Gleick’s book Chaos: Making a New Science, she came to an awareness herself, she recalls, based on one sentence in the book: “…the act of playing the game has a way of changing the rules.” While the author was not discussing language, Larsen-Freeman saw a direct link. “Using language changes the rules,” she says. “It’s not about imposing rules from the top down — it’s the bottom-up use of language that changes it. After all, using language is a social activity.” As a result, classroom resources and practice must be meaningful — “iterative, not repetitive,” she explains, with materials that constantly adapt to a language’s evolution and activities that revisit the same linguistic territory again and again in different ways. Of equal importance, Larsen-Freeman notes, teachers need to remember that there is no linguistic distinction between an error and linguistic innovation. “That idea usually gets some pushback because teachers understandably value accuracy,” she says, “But there is so much more to grammar than accuracy of form.” Even in Russia, with its strict linguistics traditions, when she presented CDST concepts at a 2008 conference in Vladivostok, her message was greeted warmly. “It’s treating language as a living organism, an extension of adding -ing to the word grammar.”

Spencer Salas 

Dr. Spencer Salas has strong ties to public education. From 1991 to 2001, he taught English as a Second Language in a public high school in Washington, D.C., and in his current position as professor at the University of North Carolina’s Cato College of Education in Charlotte, he prepares future K-12 teachers to take their place in the public education system and leads the doctoral program in curriculum and instruction. Salas credits both his former front-line tenure in D.C. schools and his present work at a large public college of education with shaping his awareness of the needs of public school educators both in the United States and abroad. “I understand the challenges and joys of being a public school teacher and share deep solidarity with them,” he says. Indeed, that commitment to the value of public education informs all his English Language Specialist assignments, no matter the project focus. Yet, one series of assignments in Tunisia stands out for him as a model of how public education can evolve and thrive. “It’s easy to become jaded as an educator, to develop education reform fatigue,” he says. “But with my work in Tunisia, the opposite happened — I left there with renewed energy for what is possible.”

In February 2019, Salas went to Tunisia where his tasks were to deliver a plenary speech at TESOL Tunisia and then, at the request of the Ministry of Education, meet for several days with the Ministry-appointed curriculum development team that was leading the reform to introduce English language instruction in the 4th grade. Prior to this, English language instruction began in secondary school. For Salas, presenting a speech at an overseas TESOL conference was always gratifying but not unusual. However, meeting with a country’s education ministry to develop a new national English language curriculum was a first. In addition, this curriculum was to be adopted within the year by every public elementary school in the country. While Tunisia — an Arab Spring success story — was “so proud of the democracy it had become,” says Salas, the maturing government also recognized that to become a global contender economically, it had to build a competitive workforce and toward that end, English had to enter the curriculum at an earlier age. “This was an important part of its long-term strategy for economic development,” Salas notes. 

To help with that process, Salas was prepared to deliver a clear-cut course of action to the Ministry. Instead, the assembled curriculum team wanted him simply to observe, listen to their proposed curricular framework, and provide guidance. “My role was to be an external set of ears and think aloud with this dynamic group of education leaders,” he recalls. Soon after those brainstorming sessions, Salas delivered a one-page needs analysis to the Ministry, making sure his recommendations built off the content already developed. “My goal was not to be too corrective,” says Salas. “The team had such enthusiasm knowing they were creating something for future generations — I wanted to make sure they maintained that sense of ownership.”      

Since most of the 4th grade teachers likely would not be trained in English language instruction, Salas surmised “they would need a lot of scaffolded support.” As a result, he recommended the development of a detailed teacher’s manual that would include loosely scripted lesson plans, activities, assessments, and more. In addition, he suggested both teacher manuals and student books be distributed electronically. “That way, the Ministry could revise and refine the program as it received feedback from various stakeholders,” he says. “A paperless format has a flexibility that a published textbook does not.”        

Impressed by his insights and thoughtful guidance, the Ministry asked Salas to return that summer to review the team’s progress and offer further counsel. When he arrived that July, he was excited to be met not only by the original team but by an additional group of 50 pedagogical advisors, all teachers selected by the Ministry from the country’s provinces to participate in the curriculum development and launch. “To be sustainable, educational reform needs to be a dialogue between policymakers and practitioners,” he says. “A top-down approach doesn’t work — there needs to be teacher buy-in.” For this assignment, Salas presented professional development workshops on the broader themes of literacy development and primary grades pedagogy, as well as on narrower topics such as student-centered activities. Despite the long workshop days and new content, the enthusiasm Salas had witnessed earlier that year was even more palpable with the new group of educators added to the mix. “They were so eager to be part of this creative process that would result in education reform,” he says. 

Salas returned to Tunisia in October for one final project collaboration — production of the curriculum materials. During that assignment, he and the pedagogical advisors constructed a tightly scripted curriculum. They also broke it down into units, finalized classroom activities, developed reproducibles, and recorded audio. “The 4th grade teachers would not have to plan anything — it would all be ready for them,” says Salas. Finally, the advisors were divided into teams that “taught” the modules to one another, modifying materials as needed. When Salas left Tunisia this time, in place was a finalized curriculum, which the Ministry had up and running two months later. “I’ve never seen something move that fast.” recalls Salas. “That’s what happens when a group of passionate, committed educators get together to change the future of education in a country.” 

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