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Collaborating and “Re-Energizing” Through a Multi-Phase Project with Specialists Mary Wong and Dongping Zheng in Vietnam

The English Language Specialist Program is unique in that Specialist projects often take on multiple phases over multiple years. For this month’s featured article, we look at an example of a multi-phased project on translanguaging through the work of Specialists Mary Wong and Dongping Zheng.

“There is a wonderfully inclusive element to translanguaging in that it values our students’ many cultures and languages and seeks to acknowledge and include them in the classroom.”

For Dr. Mary Wong and Dr. Dongping Zheng, the arrival of emails about an English Language Specialist project in Vietnam could not have come at a better time. The topic of translanguaging was professionally compelling, of course. But there were also personal reasons. As Wong explained, “the opportunity served to re-energize me after the long, dark hibernation of COVID.” For Zheng, the project ignited memories of those she knew from Vietnam and nurtured her excitement to learn more about the country. “The first thing that came to mind were my students and friends who were born and raised in Vietnam and who had then immigrated to the U.S,” she says. “I told them the news first, but more so, I started to read more about Vietnam, its history, culture, philosophy, and education systems.” 

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A screenshot from the first virtual session offered by Specialists Mary Wong and Dongping Zheng.

Wong, a professor at Azusa University in California, brought a wealth of regional and professional experience to the project. “My recent research interests and publications focus on language education in Southeast Asia, with a focus on social justice, identity, and inclusion. I also teach Sociolinguistics and Intercultural Communication, which addresses these issues. The overlap of this project and my research, courses, and publication interests has made this project quite meaningful to me.”

Likewise, Zheng brought her unique background in instructional design to the forefront. A professor at University of Hawai’i in Manoa, she began identifying essential roles she could fill in the project before Phase I was even underway. “Upon receiving the assignment, I immediately outlined the project in my head using my instructional design and design-based research expertise, as well as research results I have conducted in translanguaging,” she says. “Then I proceeded with the project by looking at how we can help teachers to design their own translanguaging space to support students’ sense-making activities enabled by interactivity, materials, instructional dynamics, and social influences.”

September 2020-April 2021: Virtual Engagement

The two Specialists came together in September 2020 to tackle what would become the first phase of a multi-year project aimed at employing translanguaging to teach English language in schools. The project was initiated by the Ministry of Education and Training in Vietnam and the National Foreign Language Project, along with the Regional English Language Office (RELO). Wong adds that “we also worked with a team of Vietnamese experts on a weekly basis to: 1) design a research plan for a survey of current practices of using L1 in the L2 classrooms in Vietnam; 2) assist with analysis of research; and 3) advise the team on working on a guidebook for using the L1 in L2 K-12 Vietnamese classrooms.”  The final outcome of this first 4-month phase was a workshop on translanguaging in the Vietnamese English classroom conducted in December 2020, in which both Specialists had the opportunity to virtually survey, interact with, and support Vietnamese teachers in the use of translanguaging practices.

A second virtual phase came shortly after, in early 2021. With support from the RELO office, the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, the U.S. Department of State, the National Foreign Languages Project, and the Ministry of Education and Training (MOET) of Vietnam, three Vietnamese experts and the two English Language Specialists collaborated to complete a set of guidebooks which are now under review by MOET. This phase culminated in a presentation delivered at  VietTESOL called “Exploring Translanguaging practices in Primary and Secondary Schools in Vietnam,” with the Vietnamese counterparts presenting in person and Zheng and Wong joining in virtually.

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Wong (Left) and Zheng (Right).

Both Specialists agree that the success of those critical first two phases led to further gains in the in-person phase to come. “The virtual part was smooth,” Zheng says. “I teach and conduct research on the affordances of a wide range of technologies for teaching and learning, so it was natural for me to get to know our colleagues and learn from them via Zoom meetings, and on google doc co-planning and co-writing.” 

Crediting the RELO and local counterparts for their careful envisioning of a “large-scale blended learning project” beforehand, Zheng adds that their virtual training prior to an in-person phase meant that their first in-person meeting with local counterparts “felt like a reunion of old friends.” “Even though we had to work virtually for the first two phases, we took advantage of the affordances of technologies to co-write the booklet and co-organized the virtual workshops,” she says.

Throughout the project, Zheng focused primarily on the theoretical underpinnings and implementation of translanguaging pedagogy, as well as the designing of translanguaging spaces with material artifacts such as board games. Meanwhile, Wong worked on the action research agenda and how to conduct action research in these translanguaging contexts. Their differing emphases allowed the two Specialists to “complement each other well in terms of the content of our workshops,” says Wong. 

2022: On the Ground in Vietnam

Zheng (Center) filming translanguaging video lectures during the in-person component of her multi-phase project with Wong.

That partnership only deepened as a third, in-person phase of the project commenced in 2022. For this phase of the project, the Specialists recorded translanguaging video lectures and conducted workshops to English language teachers and teacher trainers throughout Vietnam.  “I thrive on collaboration, and traveling with another Specialist made the experience much more eventful and fun,” Wong says. “We had a close bond as she is Chinese with an American-born husband, and I am American with a Chinese husband, so our many meals together were filled with stories, both personal and professional.” Zheng adds that “It was nice to work alongside another Specialist because we have very different perspectives on things, which really adds diversity and liveliness to the project.”

Wong (Center) with participants during a workshop in Vietnam.

Rather than being obstacles for the two Specialists, some of the differences Wong and Zheng presented proved to be their greatest strengths throughout this phase of the project. “Professor Wong’s native speaker profile is in sharp contrast with mine,” Zheng says. “I was born and raised in China and became a naturalized citizen of the U.S. Both of us represented the U.S. very well in terms of diversity and the strength of the English Language Specialist program. As a non-native English-Chinese bilingual speaker, it was amazing to have responses from teachers and our counterparts that they enjoyed my presence, teaching, and interaction enormously because I became a model for whom they could become.”

It was nice to work alongside another Specialist because we have very different perspectives on things, which really adds diversity and liveliness to the project.

Strategies for Success

Wong and Zheng relied on a core set of best practices to maximize their impact in Vietnam. For Wong, action research workshops became laboratories for experimentation, interaction and exchange. “I had the students get in groups to plan and share potential action research projects to explore how they could best use translanguaging in the classroom,” she says. “We also brought and used a lot of games, asking groups of teachers to engage in the task of figuring them out, and playing them, and then afterwards, reflecting on the ways in which they used languages and languaging in the process, making the learning experiential and real.” Zheng concurs, adding that “games have their own grammar and rules, and games purchased in the U.S. are culturally oriented to the United States, thus creating a space for additional authentic language learning opportunities and sense-making for individuals during a group activity.”

For Zheng, the best approach came down to treating participants as peers, and using what they already knew as the basis for building what they were about to learn. This is fitting as it is at the core of translanguaging principles. “My teaching philosophy and design of contextualizing lectures to reflect local needs and goals, my program-level design, and my own expertise in translanguaging were beneficial to the program participants,” she says.

Zheng (Center) in a Vietnamese Ao Dai with students.

Cultural respect and connectivity were also crucial to the success both Specialists met while in-country.  “While it seemed at first to me that it would be more comfortable to wear slacks and a loose top in such hot weather, we chose to teach in Vietnamese Ao Dai  [traditional dress],” Wong recalls. “Actually, I found Ao Dai quite comfortable, and the warm reception we got each morning was as if we were royalty or movie stars, with all the “Oo’s and Ah’s” from the students. They appreciated that we honored their culture.”

Looking Back and Thinking Ahead

This project demonstrates how mutual respect and benefits are brought forth by the English Language Specialist program.

Assessing the three phases of this project in their entirety, both Wong and Zheng have a sense of satisfaction not only in their own work but also in the contributions that local educators, the RELO and host institutions made. “We met the program goals to provide mutual understanding and awareness of American language, society, and values in several ways,” Wong says. “We provided student centered learning tasks such as game play and group presentations, typical in U.S. classrooms. We look forward to working with two of our Vietnamese teacher educator colleagues to analyze and publish the findings in the near future.”

Zheng, considering her own background as an educator, agrees that the goals of the project were met and exceeded. “Living and working in Honolulu as a bilingual and bicultural language educator and researcher, I am deeply aware of the disposition, attitudes, and behavior one can have on the image of the United States of America. Therefore, during our in-country activities, I intentionally made everything I did an experience of learning cultural practices and program needs. This aligns with the U.S. Department of State’s goals, which are to bring not only the cutting-edge research that I am an expert in but also the spirit of the U.S. in its generosity and diversity. This project demonstrates how mutual respect and benefits are brought forth by the English Language Specialist program.”

Wong (Left) and Zheng (Right) at dinner in Vietnam.

While future phases of the Vietnam project have yet to be determined, these Specialists are enthusiastic about the potential for another opportunity to engage their audiences. “If there is a Phase IV,  I highly recommend conducting design-based research which would naturally extend and expand upon the booklets and the online course modules created in previous phases,” Zheng says.

As for Wong, her desire to reconnect with her Vietnamese counterparts has led her to keep pathways open even now that she is back in the United States. “The connections formed with my Vietnamese colleagues and the interactions with teachers we met are fresh in my mind and heart. My colleague here in Los Angeles was just asked to go to Vietnam as a Specialist, and I have given her gifts to take to them for me!” 

Referenced works:

  • Translanguaging as a Pedagogical Practice in English Language Classrooms: A Practical Guide
    for Primary Vietnamese Schools by Le Van Canh, Vu Thi Thanh Nha, Tran Kieu Hanh, and Mary Shepard Wong. 
  • Translanguaging as a Pedagogical Practice in English Language Classrooms: A Practical Guide for Lower Secondary Schools, by Le Van Canh, Dongping Zheng, and Mary Shepard Wong. 
  • Translanguaging as a Pedagogical Practice in English Language Classrooms: A Practical Guide for Upper Secondary Schools, by Le Van Canh, Dongping Zheng, and Mary Shepard Wong. 

Dr. Dongping Zheng is originally from Changchun, historically Manchuria in China. She first became passionate about creating an East-West relevant model of teaching and learning languages when she found an English language school. She has been fulfilling her passion in various contexts of teaching, in multitudes of design-based research projects, and serving local and international communities. She studied English Language Education as an undergraduate at Northeast Normal University, China. She holds an M.A. in Applied Linguistics and Translation from Jilin University, China, and a second M.A. in Language Arts in Teaching at the University of Providence, Montana. She holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from the University of Connecticut. She embraces ecological perspectives in her applied work and is a board member of
The International Society for the Study of Interactivity, Language, and Cognition. She is currently an associate professor in the Department of Second Language Studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.

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Dr. Mary Shepard Wong is a three-time Fulbright Scholar (The Chinese University of Hong Kong 2012-2013; Yangon University 2015-2016; Taiwan 2022) and English Language Specialist to Vietnam. She has conducted 150 presentations and numerous publications including four edited volumes and a textbook with Cambridge University Press. Her most recent book is Teaching for Peace and Social Justice in Myanmar (2022, Bloomsbury). Her teaching and research focus on critical intercultural studies, social justice and peacebuilding in Myanmar, and the role of religious faith in English language teacher identity and development. She holds a doctorate in International & Intercultural Education (University of Southern California), master degrees in East Asian Languages and Cultures (University of California at Los Angeles) and TESOL (Azusa Pacific University). She is Professor / Director of TESOL Field-based Program at Azusa Pacific University in southern California. She has been an educator for over 40 years in the U.S., China, Thailand, and Myanmar.

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