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Alumni Ambassador Christopher Stillwell’s Specialist Projects Enhance His Professional Development Output

Vibrant masks of silver, blue, fuschia, and gold gleamed in the arena’s spotlights. Rugged, masked performers darted around the ring, bounded off the ropes, and dove into a melee as they expertly whipped up the crowd of thousands into a frenzy of anticipation and joy. 

Yes, this was lucha libre in all its colorful glory, Mexico’s pro wrestling pop-culture phenomenon, recognized as Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) by UNESCO. On a recent Saturday night in Mexico City, Dr. Christopher Stillwell and his workshop participants took in the spectacle with an eye on the next day’s workshop activities. Indeed, the lucha libre experience epitomizes the kind of cross-cultural moments Stillwell loves weaving into workshops. 

The following day, Stillwell used the theme of his workshop ‘English, Ethics, and Environmental Awareness (E3)’ as the framing for a jigsaw activity, asking his participants: “How is teaching E3 similar to lucha libre?” One group pondered audience engagement in these two worlds. Another group explored ways that both professions require flexibility, while a third discussed parallels in communication and nonverbal expression. Then, the groups were redistributed so that participants could share what their prior groups had come up with. 

“Using our lucha libre experience in the classroom was a fun way to call attention to the jigsaw teaching strategy and the theme of our workshop,” Stillwell said, noting that he and his participants also enjoyed mimicking the wrestlers’ vibrant call-and-response with the audience at the event. “The wonderful thing about the lucha libre outing is that it gave us a great shared experience and inside jokes to refer to throughout our workshops,” Stillwell reflected.

As he hones his craft through Specialist projects overseas, Stillwell—a tenure-track Professor of ESL at Saddleback College—then implements his teaching takeaways into his work at home. Moreover, he continues to share his new strategies through webinars, presentations, and panel discussions.  “Working with teachers around the world informs my work when I return home, and my work here in the U.S. informs what I do when I am working on a Specialist project abroad,” Stillwell said. As a 2023-2024 English Language Programs Alumni Ambassador, Stillwell has further expanded his opportunities to both engage with and learn from a broader diversity of teachers at conferences and events around the U.S.

Stillwell on his Specialist project in Mexico

Stillwell’s work as a Specialist in Mexico was a multi-phase project. In the first phase in 2023, he teamed up with Specialist Dr. Asli Hassan to visit students, instructors, administrators, industry experts, and others in Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Merida, Mexico City, San Luis Rio Colorado, and Tijuana to learn about E3 course strengths and areas for enhancement. He returned to Mexico in 2024 to provide three days of workshops on Content-Based Instruction for ten instructors developing courses in E3 tailored to their technical universities’ Tourism, Automotive, and Information and Communications Technology (ICT) programs, with the objective of “increasing the sustainability of the courses and facilitating cascading to additional universities.” The strong bond of the group was evident in their shared meals and cultural outings, the spontaneous conga line they broke into in one session, and the participants’ engaging presentations. “Every demo lesson showed these teachers’ creativity, care, professionalism, and dynamism,” Stillwell said. “We all came away inspired to apply numerous ideas to enhancing our courses and instruction.”

Community-building has been a hallmark of Stillwell’s Specialist projects. On his first assignment in Egypt in 2017, he worked with fourteen teacher trainees in the Ain Shams University Certificate in English Teaching (ASUCET) program in Cairo, plus thirteen teachers participating in a parallel online certificate program via the University of California, Irvine. Pairing each Egyptian teacher with a teacher in the U.S., Stillwell worked to foster cooperative learning and professional growth, providing unique benefits to participants on both sides. “For the teachers in the ASUCET program, the virtual exchange allowed for a rare opportunity of communicative language practice with Americans,” Stillwell said. “For those in the U.C. Irvine program, the exchange brought course content to life, as participants shared assignments with their Egyptian counterparts and gained perspectives on how Egyptian students might respond to various teaching practices.” At the end of the voluntary exchange program, teachers on both sides “spoke glowingly of their authentic experience learning about teachers and students in different contexts,” Stillwell said.

I have always submitted proposals for conference presentations with participants from my Specialist projects, and on most occasions that has led to co-presentations that doubled as treasured reunions with former international colleagues.

As a Specialist in Brazil in 2020, Stillwell conducted a five-week online course for seventy-two professors throughout the Paraná region on the use of English as a Medium of Instruction (EMI). Workshop themes included ways of building community, lecturing effectively, leading discussions, and facilitating peer interaction. In his second phase of the project, Stillwell and his group focused on teacher observation and collaborative professional development in a highly interactive series of virtual exchanges. “The spirit of camaraderie, the enthusiasm of the participants, and our pursuit of educational excellence are what I most treasure about my experiences with the educators from Paraná,” Stillwell said. “We found many shared concerns regarding how to teach content effectively, and I learned many lessons that enhance my current work with EMI, online instruction, and educational exchange.”

Stillwell as a Specialist in Egypt in 2017

In addition to his teaching role at Saddleback College, Stillwell is currently a TESOL Certificate instructor and advisory board member at U.C. Irvine. His long and productive connection with the TESOL association includes being recognized on TESOL’s 50th anniversary list as one of ‘30 Up and Coming TESOL professionals representing the next generation in research, teaching, publishing, and leadership.’ He has edited two teacher’s resource books published through TESOL Press – Language Teaching Insights From Other Fields: Sports, Arts, Design, and More, which was shortlisted for an ELTon Award for Innovation in Teacher Resources, and Language Teaching Insights From Other Fields: Psychology, Business, Brain Science, and More.

Distilling his teaching takeaways for a global audience of TESOL educators, Stillwell has facilitated four American English (AE) Live Webinars to date, including:

“Working with the AE Live team is one of the best professional development experiences I’ve ever had. They always help me refine my content and get my webinar in the best possible shape for a broad audience of educators,” Stillwell said. “I highly recommend submitting a proposal for the AE Live Webinar series to any program alumni or teaching colleagues who may be interested.” The AE Webinar Series is part of the U.S. Department of State’s Office of English Language Programs.

An avid conference presenter, in 2024 alone Stillwell has given multiple presentations at CATESOL conferences in Alameda, Orange County, and San Diego; Arizona TESOL; the TESOL International Convention in Florida; and the 37th Annual APPI Conference in Portugal. His presentations were informed by his Specialist projects. “I have always submitted proposals for conference presentations with participants from my Specialist projects, and on most occasions that has led to co-presentations that doubled as treasured reunions with former international colleagues,” Stillwell said.

Stillwell at CATESOL 2024 in Alameda, California, discussing his program experiences before introducing the plenary speaker (left); interacting with prospective applicants at the booth (right)

Many of Stillwell’s recent presentations have explored the potential of generative AI as a support for instruction and learning. Seeing AI’s multitude of possibilities, he organized a panel discussion with professors at his community college. “It was really helpful to hear about AI from teaching peers in different departments,” Stillwell said. While his presentations have also addressed the risks posed by AI, Stillwell described his personal experience of using AI in teaching as “like having a genie come out of a bottle and say ‘how can I help you?’” For his upcoming Specialist project in Vietnam, Stillwell is looking forward to another AI deep dive, in which he’ll be creating a series of workshops, giving a featured speech, and delivering a conference presentation all focused on AI. This project will double as a needs assessment for a self-paced course to be created this fall.

As an Alumni Ambassador, Stillwell has enjoyed sharing new opportunities with teachers interested in working with educators from other countries. Regarding this mission for public diplomacy, Stillwell reflected, “What could be better than an opportunity to leverage one’s expertise and passion in a form of service that builds relationships, promotes peace, and leads to such powerful personal and professional development?”

Stay tuned for our next featured Alumni Ambassador story with Summer Peixoto.

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This is a program of the U.S. Department of State, administered by Georgetown University, Center for Intercultural Education and Development.

All decisions related to participant terms (including candidate review, selection, funding, suspension, revocation, and termination) and all criteria related thereto are made and established by the U.S. Department of State.