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30@30 Specialist Linda New Levine Reflects on Strength Through Cultural Differences in K-12 Education

“The K-12 teachers were diligent, wanted to learn, were really happy we were there–it was just a great, fun experience.”

Before Dr. Linda New Levine became an English Language Specialist, her extensive experiences abroad as an educator and teacher trainer through the Peace Corps, the Fulbright program, and other international exchanges had uniquely prepared her for the opportunities and challenges inherent in the Specialist program. For example, she had already worked on several assignments in China when she visited Guizhou province on a Specialist assignment in 2014, but a natural disaster ensured that this experience was unlike any she’d had before. “I remember traveling there on a bus with a colleague of mine, and that bus took seven hours to get there. The roads were horrific,” she recalls. The adventure only intensified when she reached her hotel. “Every morning, at 6 o’clock, I would do a Skype session with my husband. I remember one morning my husband said to me ‘What’s happening?’ and what he was seeing behind me was that the entire hotel was swaying. We were having an aftershock from an earthquake!”

Specialist Linda New Levine with participants in Malaysia

In spite of these potentially calamitous circumstances, this trip was particularly rewarding for Levine due to its uniqueness and the enthusiasm of the students and teachers she encountered. “That was actually one of my favorite trips of all because it was so different from what I had learned about China since first teaching there in 1981,” she says. “The K-12 teachers were diligent, wanted to learn, were really happy we were there–it was just a great, fun experience.” Such “emotionally compelling” experiences, in her view, make for some of the best memories and the most intimate views into other cultures.

That same adventurous attitude typifies Levine’s work as an English Language Specialist; every assignment, in her view, is worthy of the same degree of pragmatism, positive thinking, and resourcefulness. A prime example comes from her 2019 assignment to Malaysia, which featured a three-hour public speaking workshop for 40 English Access Microscholarship Program students. The Access program is designed for students aged 13-20 from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and while Levine had worked with Access teachers before, this was her first experience with Access students. What she found were students and teachers who were eager to interact and learn, but there was a catch. “I had asked their teachers prior to this workshop if it was alright if boys talked to girls and they agreed,” she says. “But when I actually lined them up and they saw that some boys were facing girls, they decided that wasn’t very fine after all. So, we had to do some maneuvering and get those girls to move around a bit. Ultimately, because of the nature of the activity, they were constantly moving and they did spend about one minute talking to a girl, and then a boy, so we did manage to mix it up.”

Thinking on her feet, Levine had quickly figured out a way to work within the cultural norms of her environment to make the lesson a success. “When I realized that pairing students in that way might be a problem, then I devised other strategies where students could select their own partners. In that case, the girls all chose girls, and the boys all chose boys, and that was perfectly fine. It didn’t alter the nature of the instruction one bit, and everyone was a lot more relaxed in that situation.” More to the point, she was satisfied that the activity had engaged students of all backgrounds in the Access room, in which boys had sat in the front, and girls had quietly sat in the back when she entered. “I was happy to see that some boys volunteered to speak, and some girls did as well,” she says of the event. And in the process, she had also modeled this critical classroom management principle with the teachers she was working with.

This eagerness to embrace cultural differences while at the same time introducing equitable learning opportunities for all students is central to Levine’s teaching philosophy. She says that one key to enacting change in unfamiliar environments is embracing your own status as an outsider. “As I traveled around Malaysia, I was in various communities that were very non-traditional while others were much more traditional. So, I was constantly having to re-assess the values of that particular culture to see which ones were more traditional and which ones were not.”

“It’s kind of nice to be in a culture where nobody wants to create any negative vibrations among each other.”

Communication is one area which is particularly impacted by cultural differences in Levine’s view, but such differences are better celebrated than maligned. In Malaysia, “the communicative style was difficult to read because people would often say whatever they thought would make the listener happy.” Getting clear confirmation from school leadership can be a challenge in these circumstances, one which requires frequent clarification questions and discussion. Still, there’s a silver lining. “It’s kind of nice to be in a culture where nobody wants to create any negative vibrations among each other,” Levine says.

Despite facing the challenges of being booked almost nonstop every day as a Specialist, and of needing to be “on” all the time, Levine maintains that the most memorable and successful experiences in her career have often been borne out of obstacles. She describes one trip to a rural Malaysian boarding school as an illustration of this. Teachers immediately brought her to the nicest room the school had to offer, but the seats were fixed in place, which limited classroom activities. After an impromptu student parade, complete with elaborate costuming, the power cut out in the room. However, she saw opportunity where others may only have seen hardship. “What was decided was that we would go up to a room on the second floor which was actually an open-air room that had lots of tables, lots of chairs, a nice big screen and working electricity. As it turned out, that ended up being a fantastic venue for the kind of work I’d be doing with the teachers that day, so it worked out beautifully. They got to show me the nice room, they got to feed me, they got to put on the parade and showcase the students, and then in the end I actually got to do my workshop as well. It turned out very well!”

Specialist Linda New Levine

Linda New Levine is an ESL/EFL consultant to teachers of second language learning children and for programs for teaching English as a Foreign Language in both primary and secondary classrooms. She has been a teacher of English as a Second Language K-12 and a Staff Development Facilitator for the Bedford Central school district, New York. She was an adjunct assistant professor of ESL Methods and Materials for school-age children at Teachers College, Columbia University. She has consulted with school districts in the USA and faculties of Education around the world. She has written and contributed to multiple professional developments texts. Dr. Levine holds a Masters in TESOL and a Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics from New York University.

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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.