TESOL 2017 Highlights: The Take Away from the Top

As usual, the convention has been one exciting whirlwind. I attended some very useful talks and took plenty of notes, so it will take a number of posts to share my highlights with you. Let’s start at the top…meaning the keynote speakers.

Dudley Reynolds, our 2016-2017 TESOL President, spoke on Professional English Language Teachers in a 2.0 World. He prompted us to reflect on our professional identity. What does it mean to be a professional English teacher? Do you have a 30-second elevator pitch? Does your definition take into consideration the globalized world we live in and the problems of today? Do we merely profess a profession, or do we profess a set of values?

It’s taken me some time and practice to state who I am and what I do with brevity and confidence. I went through a professional transformation when I chose to move online, and thankfully I emerged from my own identity crisis with a firm belief in what I’m meant to do in this 2.0 world. You can read my post on Being an Online Teacher.

Even though I’ve already given a good deal of thought to my own professional identity, it was healthy to reconsider the matter in a new light. Some key ideas that stuck in my mind after hearing the Presidential Keynote include:

  • a professional teacher’s commitment to lifelong learning
  • the need to respect diversity
  • technology as an effective tool in the hands of a skillful teacher
  • the importance and power of an ELT professional association

The James E. Alatis Plenary this year was presented by Guadalupe Valdes from Stanford University. She has done much work on English-Spanish bilingualism in the U.S. Her presentation Ruminations of an Old Language Teacher resonated with teachers from different  backgrounds. What I liked most was the idea that language teaching has many “flavors.” This feels very inclusive. It also connects to Dudley Reynold’s  talk about professional identity. Our values and our qualifications overlap, for sure, but our identities as professionals aren’t all uniform, nor are our teaching experiences. At least, that’s partly how I interpreted this idea of “many flavors.” I understood that it also refers to all the ways language teaching and learning can vary. Professor Valdes said that teaching isn’t a neutral activity.

I learned about a new distinction during this talk. We all know how foreign language instruction is different from second language instruction. I wasn’t familiar with the term heritage language instruction, although my own children engage in this kind of study every week when I drive them to a Russian tutorial. They know not to complain about these lessons because I’ve explained that learning Russian is part of their heritage.

I also appreciated how Professor Valdes clarified that analytical and experiential approaches to language learning are certainly different, but they are not mutually exclusive. That’s reassuring to a teacher like me who believes in communication and interaction in meaningful contexts, but I also believe in the value of some direct instruction of grammar.

Additional thoughts I took away from the plenary include:

  • the importance of learner expectations about what it means to learn a language
  • how a learner’s language repertoire grows and changes as it’s used
  • the need to reject the view of multilinguals as failed native speakers
  • the need to question what aspects of a language are really teachable

The Friday morning keynote address was given by Yong Zhao of the Universities of Kansas and Oregon. This was by far one of the most engaging keynote speeches I’ve ever heard at a TESOL convention. Hats off to this amazing presenter and humorously insightful teacher.

Professor Zhao spoke on Perils or Promises: Education in the Age of Smart Machines. He began with some thought-provoking questions, such as whether we need to learn or not. Can we identify the purpose and outcome of education? Further, he asked us why we teach a language. Is it only for linguistic competency? His answers and insights were laced with personal anecdotes that greatly enriched his arguments.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll limit the take away to these points:

  • the idea of multiple intelligences, or in other words, the different talents we each are born with
  • the fact that no one is talented in everything
  • the need for an environment to support a learner so that a talent can be nurtured
  • a combination for success: talent, opportunity, and effort
  • the role of technology in redefining the value of certain talents in today’s world
  • the need for education to help learners become great in some way

I highly encourage other teachers to visit Yong Zhao’s website and gain familiarity with his work, insights, and publications. My brief summary doesn’t do justice to the power of his own words.

More TESOL 2017 highlights to come!

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