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30th Anniversary

30@30 Specialists Share the Challenges and Breakthroughs of Teacher Training in Central Asia


October 15, 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 October 30@30 story features two Specialists – Mark Dorr and Kitty Purgason – who reflect on their experiences as teacher trainers in Central Asia.

Mark Dorr Exploring STEM English in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan

Mark Dorr understands how daunting the prospect of teaching English for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) can be for non-native English speakers. In his many years as an English Language Specialist, he has seen the anxiety that English-for-STEM trainings can create in participants, with language instructors worrying about their lack of science training, and STEM teachers fretting about their language pedagogy. As a result, when Dorr was assigned to conduct English-for-STEM trainings in Kazakhstan in 2017, and Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in 2018, he was well prepared to allay participants’ concerns, particularly in Kyrgyzstan, where his trainings would be that country’s introduction to the subject. “I wanted them to understand that teaching English for STEM isn’t scary,” he says. “The language is approachable, and the activities are not only manageable but also highly creative.” As it turns out, the participants’ apprehensions were quickly dispelled by Dorr’s inventive approach.

Since process is critical in STEM fields, Dorr wanted most importantly for participants in his trainings — all secondary school through university educators — to become comfortable with the language of process, focusing on such elements as verb tense and cause-and-effect words. And what better way to investigate how to apply process language than by analyzing the intricate machines depicted in the illustrations of Rube Goldberg, the cartoonist, inventor, and engineer famous for his elaborate contraptions that perform simple tasks in convoluted ways? After explaining who Rube Goldberg was — and why his name became an adjective — Dorr introduced participants to such Goldberg illustrations as “Self-Operating Napkin,” “Simple Alarm Clock,” and “Putting the Cat Out At Night.” Next, in groups he had them examine a Goldberg drawing — title removed — and describe what was happening. How did the machine work? What steps did it take? And finally, what was its purpose? “The teachers thought the devices were funny, but describing them — that was another matter,” he recalls. “It was a challenge. They had to work through the process, reasoning it out. After all, these were not the normal objects of everyday life.” Ultimately, the Goldberg illustrations were a hit. “Participants were amazed at how they could see the process and turn it into language,” he says.

Dorr also wanted to connect process language directly to the cultures of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Toward that end, he researched popular folk stories in those countries and incorporated them into his training sessions, a common practice for Dorr. “When these well-known tales are brought in, participants immediately feel less intimidated by the language and more comfortable playing with it,” he notes. In Kazakhstan, he had teachers consider a well-known Kazakh folk character, Aldar Kose, a wily and kind-hearted person who cheats the rich and helps the poor. In one popular tale, he cons a wealthy man out of his fur coat in exchange for Kose’s threadbare but “magic coat.” Dorr asked training participants, again using process language, to reframe the description of Kose’s coat, first, to more effectively handle the problem in the story and, second, to make it useful for themselves. In Kyrgyzstan, Dorr had participants work on a similar activity, applying the language of process to folk stories by Nasreddin, a 13th-century Sufi satirist and philosopher whose humorous tales are well-known throughout the country.      

While process language is a vital component of STEM, so is group work. “Few things happen individually in STEM,” says Dorr. “It’s all about collaboration. I wanted to change the mindset of participants, to get them thinking out of their literal classroom rows and columns and into groups.” One of Dorr’s training activities that artfully achieved that goal involved the popular television series “Friends.” Dorr had participants watch a segment from “Friends” involving all of the show’s six main characters. After viewing, he set up groups, assigning each group member to the role of one of the characters. They then rewatched the segment, with each participant focusing exclusively on their character’s portion of dialogue; groups then reconstructed the scene in character. Dorr also had participants change groups, recreating the scene with a different mix of “actors.” Participants found this “a very powerful communication activity,” he says. “They became aware of how to listen and interact in different ways.”  

While Dorr’s English-for-STEM activities — others included examining the “drip technique” of Jackson Pollock’s paintings and building simple catapults — were highly effective, he found that two aspects of STEM stymied participants: the possibility for multiple right answers and for failure. “Finding the language to explain why there might be more than one reason that a scientific process happens or how a hypothesis could lead to a dead end was hard for them,” he recalls. Dorr worked to help the educators become more comfortable with ambiguity and to reframe the concept of failure, not just for themselves but also for their students. “STEM is about exploring — again, that’s where process comes into play — and sometimes there are several possible answers and sometimes things go wrong. I wanted them to develop the confidence to use the language and help their students do the same, so they can use it to explore.”

Kitty Purgason English Teacher Mentor Training in Tajikistan

Dr. Katherine (Kitty) Purgason wasted no time as an English Language Specialist during her 2013 English Teacher Mentor Training (EMT) assignment in Tajikistan. During that two-week training, Purgason covered such concepts as scaffolding, classroom management, assessment, learning styles, and lesson planning, using such interactive approaches as information gaps, card playing, jigsaw readings, walk-and-talks, question cards, think-pair-share, running dictations, and jazz chants. All this took place while she also worked with participants on how to apply those techniques to lessons on reading, writing, listening, speaking, grammar, vocabulary, and culture. “Perhaps it was a firehose of activity for the participants — I always have 100 things I want to convey — but they quickly warmed to my approach,” says Purgason. “That’s why it was so gratifying to see their enthusiasm and progress throughout the training.”  

Although this was Purgason’s first EMT assignment, her background as an English language educator prepared her well for the project. She has worked abroad in 13 countries as a Specialist, Fulbright Scholar, and guest lecturer; published numerous papers on teaching methodology and practices; and developed curricula for overseas English language programs. In addition, in preparation for the EMT assignment, Purgason communicated with past Specialists who had conducted similar trainings, as well as with the English Language Fellow in Tajikistan who had worked earlier that spring with this latest cohort of EMT participants. Introduced in Tajikistan in 2009, the EMT is a 12-month program in which a group of English language teachers participate in teacher trainings throughout the year, eventually sharing what they have learned with educators in their institutions and regions. Each year, a new cohort of teachers is chosen, creating what Purgason calls “a cascade of new English language teaching practices.” Within Tajikistan’s mentor program, she viewed her role as “building on the Specialists and Fellows who had been there before me, adding my experience to their efforts.” 

Purgason also added her seemingly boundless enthusiasm and energy to the mix. During the intensive training — five hours per day, six days a week — she tackled the task of preparing participants for mentorship with a whirlwind of activity that began on the first day. Purgason focused that initial week on blending an assortment of practical topics with a variety of teaching techniques. Learning styles were covered in a jigsaw activity that divided participants into four separate groups, with each group reading and discussing a paragraph on a specific learning style. Groups were then reconfigured, so the four learning styles were represented in each group, and participants taught one another. “First, here’s some content related to second language acquisition, and second, here’s some pedagogy — jigsaw readings — to go with it,” says Purgason. Other examples of her layering approach to content and application included question card activities that covered grammar, conversation, and assessment, and role-playing activities that addressed classroom management. “I wanted them to keep applying these techniques in different ways,” notes Purgason. “Then, we’d come together, put our teacher hats back on, and explore what worked and didn’t work, as well as examine other ways these activities could be used in their classes.” 

The mentor training was not without its challenges, chief among them being the wide range in participants’ English language proficiency. “Some seemed to understand only about 10% of what I said while others were at the 90% level,” she recalls. “It seemed to annoy the higher proficiency participants, who were frustrated that these lower-level teachers had been chosen for the cohort, particularly since they were working in mixed-level groups.” That in turn created anxiety for the less proficient participants, who were often reluctant to participate because of their comparatively weaker English language skills. Purgason recalls that during the second week, when participants’ presentations and demonstrations were the focus, one teacher did not attend the session on the day of his demonstration, citing illness. When Purgason found him sitting in front of the building, he told her he was ashamed of his English. She worked with him individually, offering ideas for a simple demonstration. In the end, he presented, and while it was not exactly what Purgason had in mind, “it wasn’t about him demonstrating what he’d learned, but about him overcoming his fear of speaking English,” says Purgason. “I realized this was also an important reason why I was there — to help participants improve their English, not just learn ways to improve their students’ language skills.”

Higher proficiency participants presented a different challenge. Purgason notes that often the demonstrations of those more skilled in English indicated their misunderstanding of or discomfort with an activity. One participant who chose to present a group activity using picture cards, handed the cards out to group members, then called on each, one at a time, to stand up and recite what they saw on their card. “I’d demonstrated at least five creative ways to use these cards, none of which he decided to try,” recalls Purgason. “But I understood why. Tajikistan has a rigid teaching paradigm, so it was easy for participants to default to what was familiar. After a lifetime in an education system of ‘learn and repeat,’ it was difficult for them to switch gears to a teaching practice of ‘imagine and apply’.” Yet even when demonstrations revealed that participants had clearly missed the point of an activity, Purgason saw teaching opportunities. After demonstrations, when it came time to debrief with participants, she asked them to reflect on what they had observed. “I wanted them to come to their own conclusions about best teaching practices,” she says.

For Purgason, Specialist assignments such as the EMT program are always two-way streets. Her goal is to train participants to be better English language teachers, but she also considers it an opportunity to extend her expertise. Training this mixed proficiency group of English language educators, Purgason saw an opportunity to put into practice what she had studied over the years. “I’d ask myself, ‘How about if I try this?’ Then, ‘Aha, that worked. Now let’s try this.’ I was constantly learning, refining, and expanding my knowledge. I love that part of being a teacher — I knew something about this aspect of teaching, and now I know more.”

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