From 2020-2021, Erin Vanacore facilitated online conversation clubs for pre-service teachers and university instructors at the Normal School of the Huastecas, a regionally recognized teacher-training college, in Huejutla, Mexico. In addition to club activities, her virtual project included direct language instruction and speaking practice for all groups with the intended outcomes of improving conversational skills, promoting fluency and accuracy, and increasing vocabulary. During these weekly sessions, she modeled instructional methods for pre-service teachers, who were preparing to teach grades K-6 or physical education. With a new national mandate in place requiring all teachers to pass an English certification exam, these educators had quite the challenge to conquer, but Vanacore was prepared to assist them in their journey. “I tried to incorporate resources, techniques and activities that bolstered a sense of community and encouraged participation in a low-affect environment,” she explains.
Solving the Language Learning Puzzle
Having previously spent time in the western states of Mexico, Vanacore was excited to receive her virtual project placement in Mexico and to get to know a region that she was not as familiar with. However, when she was informed that some teachers may not be particularly excited about participating in conversation clubs, she admits to having been a little taken aback. As she began preparing for her course, Vanacore recognized the importance of creating an inclusive classroom and allowing teachers the space to practice and speak English in a non-judgmental environment. To further facilitate this, she collaborated with Maureen Rooney, another virtual educator working with learners in Mexico, throughout the project. “I have learned a lot from Maureen and our collaboration: sharing resources, brainstorming ideas, and supporting each other as we navigate teaching virtually,” Vanacore states.
Teaching Techniques and Tech Tools
With the focus of her teaching assignment on speaking and conversation, it was important for Vanacore to find the appropriate techniques to support her students’ progress. Recognizing that language learning can be a puzzle that requires fresh ideas to solve, she enjoys experimenting with new and different techniques. She takes pride in piecing together and sequencing a good slideshow so that background knowledge, vocabulary, and skills build upon one another. After a series of lessons, she often asks students to both reflect and then provide feedback, which she uses to inform her instructional practice and guide her lesson planning. “Curriculum design, utilizing creative pedagogy, and differentiation are some of the areas that I particularly enjoy about TESOL,” she explains.
Vanacore has found success in online teaching using structured dialogues in a round-robin format with beginner students. This structure gives beginner language learners ample time to practice reading, listening, and saying the dialogue with the target grammar and vocabulary objectives. While the dialogue format is prescriptive, learners call on whomever they like, and differentiation is provided for a variety of levels. On the tech tool side, Vanacore uses digital jigsaw puzzles to activate learner schema on lesson topics and asks students to submit voice recordings. She also shares StoryCorps vignettes as a way to open discussion on the diversity of American life. “My intention is to show that we have access to creative apps that are free and easy-to-use while serving a genuine purpose in the EFL context,” she states.
Memorable Moments and Leaving a Mark
During her project, Vanacore realized she was hitting the right notes when she was selected to give a presentation and share her strategies with the broader community of English Language Programs virtual project teachers and trainers. She realized she was not alone in needing accessible, cooperative activities to use in the virtual classroom. At a later meeting, several colleagues shared that they had also found success beginning lessons with a digital jigsaw puzzle. Vanacore highlights that for her “the power of collaboration and learning from one another has been essential during this past year.”
Professional Growth and Career Trajectory
When in-person programming was put on pause, Vanacore didn’t hesitate to say yes to a virtual project and eagerly sought additional professional opportunities. She enrolled in the Training of Trainers course offered by English Language Programs, became involved with the Transatlantic Educators Dialogue through the University of Illinois, and joined an Afro-Latinx Book Box through The Ohio State University. Then, she was able to host a Fulbright Scholar as a virtual guest at the public school where she teaches. Moving forward, she continues to seek out local, global, and virtual opportunities that support her professional growth, and would particularly like to broaden her skill set in teacher training, curriculum development, and public speaking. Reflecting on her experience as an English Language Programs participant, Vanacore remarks that “being a part of this community of talented, creative, and passionate educators has helped maintain my enthusiasm as a teacher.”
Erin Vanacore believes that “language is power.” She teaches English as a New Language at a public middle school in Westchester County, N.Y., where she is originally from, and was a Virtual English Language Fellow in Huejutla, Mexico. She received a B.A. in International Affairs and Spanish Language and Literature from Lafayette College. After completing an M.A. in TESOL from the University of Southern California, she began teaching adults and has since taught English Language Learners at every K-12 grade level, including at a gifted and talented school. Her approach to curriculum is driven by her students’ interests and readiness levels while always viewing content through the lens of language acquisition. Most recently, Vanacore has been involved with the Transatlantic Educators Dialogue through University of Illinois, an Afro-Latinx Book Box with The Ohio State University, and her school’s Building Equity Team. One day soon, she hopes to be able to travel again.