“Essentially,” Cohen said, “I will be going around the country, from region to region, working with high school English teachers, focusing on a combination of English as a Foreign Language pedagogy and cultural sensitivity issues.”
Cohen hopes to make these educators “more culturally responsive in their teaching strategies and teaching approaches.”
“I want to provide a venue in which they can understand the hierarchical nature of these systems of injustice that exist in every country, including theirs,” he said. “I also want to provide a venue in which they are aware of their perspectives of the students – in other words, are they viewing their students from a deficit model or from a strength model? We are learning that the research is very, very clear on this.”
His reason is equally clear.
“No child should be treated as ‘the other,’ and I’ve seen it many times where teachers and school systems treat kids as ‘the other.’ It’s unethical, it’s immoral and it’s wrong, and a lot of times, teachers aren’t always aware that they’re doing this. It’s all about raising awareness,” said Cohen, who joined NIU in 2010.
“My experience here in the United States is that when teachers gain the awareness of how they’re interacting with their students, and how they’re viewing their students, it’s a win-win for everybody,” he added.
“The teachers are no longer frustrated with their students; the students are no longer upset about going to class; and the students end up working harder for the teacher because the teacher is respecting them. I’m passionate about this because I know it makes a difference in kids’ lives.”
Before Cohen and his family embark for South America, he plans frequent and extensive conversations with Rodriguez to discuss the specifics of the implementation of the proposed project.
In preparation for this time in Uruguay, Cohen is taking an advanced-level Spanish course this semester during his sabbatical because he does not know what level of English proficiency the teachers will have. He also hopes that, by spending three months in Uruguay, he and his daughter will continue to improve their Spanish.
Established in 1946 under legislation introduced by then-Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, the Fulbright Program is administered by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State.
Fulbright awards approximately 8,000 grants each year to roughly 1,600 U.S. students, 4,000 foreign students, 1,200 U.S. scholars and 900 visiting scholars, in addition to several hundred teachers and professionals.
Cohen’s first application for a Fulbright grant, one he submitted four years ago in hopes of visiting Paraguay, the country located directly north of Uruguay, received “alternate status” and never came to fruition.
However, this year’s attempt seemed predestined to succeed.
During a recent academic conference, while he awaited word on his proposal, Cohen bumped into a close friend who teaches at Western Illinois University. She unexpectedly mentioned that she had applied for – and had received – a Fulbright grant.
The good news was enough to excite Cohen, but the “rest of the story” sent him over the top: His friend was going to Uruguay. “I’m like, ‘This is awesome!’ ” he said. “She’s there now. She just went down there in January, and she’ll be there for the whole semester. I didn’t even know that she was applying.”
Cohen got his good news while in Washington, D.C. for the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Institute, sponsored by the American Association of Colleges and Universities and held from Jan. 19 through Jan. 23.
“I was listening to a presentation and then, all of a sudden, I get this email, and it says, ‘Congratulations! You have won!’ ” he said. “Needless to say, I have no idea what that presenter said. From that moment on, I was no longer listening.”
After 14 hours in the air, there was obviously no need to tell Marcus Lewis that he wasn’t in DeKalb anymore.
Yet his first steps off the plane into a nearly empty airport in China, with none of the crowded hustle and bustle of O’Hare, did the job anyway.
His important realizations would come later, however, as the third-year Elementary Education major spent six weeks from early July through mid-August teaching English to teenagers at the Beijing Royal School.
Language barriers toppled – and learning took place – in Beijing and also in Taiwan at NIU’s other partner: the Miaoli County Government Education Bureau schools.
English lessons came through an exploration of fairy tales, movies, TV shows, comic books and superheroes. Through morning exercise. Through telling stories of life in America. Through touching U.S. currency. Through synonyms and antonyms. Through celebrating the Fourth of July. Through song and dance. Through imaginations sparked with “a bunch of glue and a bunch of sticks.” Through hugs and tears.
Marcus Lewis (center) and Alexis Moaton teach in China.
“Students and kids are kids wherever you go,” says Lewis, one of 37 NIU College of Education students who participated in the summer’s maiden voyage of Educate Global, which provided round-trip airfare, room and board and cultural tours at no cost to the students or the college.
“Things can be culturally different, but people – regardless of wherever you go – are people. If they want to acquire some knowledge, they’re going to do so, and they’re going to do so in a way that’s rewarding to you as their teacher.”
Part of the college’s experiential Educate and Engage Program, Educate Global was designed exactly for outcomes like that one in China and Taiwan.
Doing so, she adds, enhanced their preparation and resiliency for rapidly changing classrooms in the United States. “We are seeing an increasing diversity in the K-12 population,” Elish-Piper says.
“Our graduates are going to encounter students who speak different languages, who come from different cultures, who have different experiences,” she adds. “They are now more aware. They will approach teaching from a more global understanding. They appreciate the diversity and differences our students bring to the classroom.”
Madison Geraghty (left)
NIU’s globetrotters, who were urged to replace judgement with curiosity, also returned with greater confidence and flexibility.
“Each student who participated has been transformed in different ways. They’ve experienced the life of being a teacher in a very unfamiliar setting,” she says. “Educate Global was an eye-opening opportunity to be in a part of the world where the culture, the language and the educational setting are so different.”
David Walker, associate dean for Academic Affairs, witnessed that with his own eyes.
“I saw our students really grow. I saw them be really self-reflective about how they need to change and develop,” Walker says, adding that “the life-altering set of experiences” enabled students to learn about themselves, what they do well and where they need to improve.
“Even now, I’ve had a number of them come up to me – in Gabel Hall, in Graham Hall, on the sidewalk – and tell me how Educate Global has changed their lives. It’s changed the trajectory of what they want to do with teaching,” he adds. “These are comments initiated by the students, which reveals to me what a powerful experience this was.”
Borg knows why the Huskie travelers feel that way.
“When we place them internationally, they become the minority. They, in many cases, find out for the first time what it’s like to actually be in a situation where they’re not in control or can’t navigate,” he says.
“For somebody to survive in that situation, and to excel and to thrive in that situation, means that that teacher-candidate is adaptable, is flexible, can make something out of nothing,” he adds. “It allows our students to become better citizens of the world. It requires our students to look at the world differently. It allows them to really reflect, and also to really reach out to students that perhaps don’t come from the same place that they come from.”
Case in point: Students in China and Taiwan “do not behave like American students,” Borg says.
“These students do not ask questions. That’s not how their educational system is set up,” he says. “Our students had to begin to ask more questions. Our students had to become far more observant in terms of the interactions that the Taiwanese or the Chinese students had.”
Quickly, however, “our students began to realize that the way they would behave around American students must be different in terms of how they would behave around Chinese and Taiwanese students, in particular in terms of how to build rapport.”
“Many times, an Educate Global student would have to break down that wall in order for that student to begin to share and to become more open,” Borg says.
“The effective educator really needs to be prepared to meet students where they’re at and move them to the next level,” he adds. “This is what NIU’s College of Education is all about. We want to be sure that our students have a whole toolkit to pull out at any moment.”
Amor Taylor, a junior Middle Level Teaching and Learning major, used fun activities to flatten language barriers.
Taylor and her co-teacher played games with students at the Beijing Royal School, who ranged in age from 11 to 15, asking them to demonstrate comprehension by completing unfinished sentences or drawing pictures of words spoken in English.
Nonetheless, “some of the students got frustrated. They were really hard on themselves. They are more disciplined, and when they do things wrong, they are really angry at themselves, and some of them would cry,” Taylor says.
“We would tell them, ‘It’s OK.’ We tried to show them that we’ve been here for five weeks, and we still don’t know as much Chinese as you know English,” she adds.
“I felt like that I was actually helping them, so it was very rewarding. I felt like we were making a difference. They were happy they were learning, and we were happy we were teaching them in a way they could learn.”
Nicole Morales (right) enjoys a meal with her Chinese students.
When Taylor returns eventually to her native Chicago to teach in “a school that’s impoverished,” she will bring the experiences of China with her.
“You have to slow down and take your time, because it’s not always that the students don’t understand. It’s that sometimes you’re going a little too fast for them to be able to let you know that they understand,” Taylor says.
“Sometimes we look only at the majority, and there a few stragglers behind. They’re still not grasping the material as quickly. We have to make sure that everybody knows it before we continue on because, when we go on to another subject, then they don’t know the first one – so they’re not going to be able to grasp that one either.”
Her confidence has risen to meet such challenges.
“There are people that we feel like might not ever ‘get it,’ and we have to strive to help those students, because it’s our job to make sure they get it. We have to figure out a way to help them so they can move on, so they can continue in life and continue in their education,” she says.
“I was able to just get a glimpse of what happens when you slow down you help them,” she adds, “helping their confidence to grow so they can feel comfortable learning the material even if they make mistakes. That made me feel good as a teacher.”
Lewis realized similar progression in his abilities.
Building affinity with Chinese students, despite “my zero knowledge of Mandarin, (their) limited knowledge of English,” he says, is good preparation for working to relate to students of different backgrounds.
“Just because something makes sense to me one way doesn’t mean it’s going to make sense to that student if I try and present that information to them that way,” Lewis says.
Meanwhile, he appreciated the challenge to plan, execute, reflect on and modify lessons. He enjoyed the teamwork with his co-teacher. He remains committed to flexibility while staying focused on his goals.
“If I can get different experiences, I’m open to those experiences. I’m open to doing things different ways if that is what’s going to foster this knowledge or inspire that student,” he adds. “I may not have as much experience now as more-seasoned teachers, but I want to collaborate. I want to work with them. I want their ideas – because I want to be a better teacher.”
Jodi Lampi, David Walker and Terry Borg
NIU is assisting him in that mission, he adds.
“People want you to succeed here,” Lewis says, “and they’re trying to provide you with as many experiences as possible so that you are successful, so that you are prepared.”
Educate Global travelers can differentiate themselves in the job market as well, partially through an incredible and affordable international opportunity that many could not manage on their own.
Students also can apply for the university’s EngagePLUS Academic Transcript Notation, which documents such skills as critical thinking, organization and teamwork to employers and graduate program.
“Our students who participated in Educate Global are highly motivated,” Elish-Piper says. “They are mature and serious. They are excited about taking a chance – of going out of their comfort zone, learning about others and, more importantly, learning about themselves.”
“The experiences they explain to principals and school districts are phenomenal,” Walker adds.
“I don’t know of many schools in our area that offer this kind of program. It’s the chance of a lifetime, and will be a hallmark of their lives.”
James Cohen, an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, just provided a professional reference for one of those students.
James Cohen (center)
Cohen was one of four NIU faculty who traveled to China and Taiwan to supervise and mentor the students; colleagues Jodi Lampi, John Evar Strid and Samina Hadi-Tabassum did the same.
“What I saw in our students was that they stepped up to the plate,” Cohen says.
“I saw games. I heard songs. I saw projects. I saw physical activities that got the students out of their chairs. I saw one teacher taking students outside, in the heat, to run while working on their English,” he adds. “I saw very little direct instruction. Most of it was student-centered, engaging activities.”
For someone like Cohen, who’s passionate about educational equity, those weeks in Taiwan proved that his philosophy – the College of Education’s philosophy – is getting through.
“I was very impressed with how hard they worked, and how serious they took their charge to be teachers to Taiwanese children,” he says. “They really, really, really wanted to make a difference. They wanted to be the best teachers they could be. They were open to constructive criticism. They were open to learning about the culture and the differences in lifestyles. They were open to experiencing a different world, and it was beautiful. It was very heartening.”
Educate Global, for its part, “opened their minds to the idea that not everybody is the same. It built empathy for the English Language Learners in their future classrooms,” he adds. “It will shape them for the rest of their lives, without question.”
“We have more than 120,000 Italian citizens living in Uruguay. We have British people. We have Spanish people,” Rodriguez adds. “We have German, Swiss and Portuguese cities settled by immigrants from those countries.”
People living near the country’s border with Brazil are generally also fluent in Portuguese, which is considered a regional language.
And everyone is expected to know English, which the country regards an international language. Students begin learning English in fourth-grade.
The man in charge of advancing the government’s language ambitions is none other than Aldo Rodriguez, the recently appointed national director of Second Language Policy for the Uruguay National Board of Education.
“By 2030, we want a multilingual country,” he says. “For more than 40 years, our secondary school students have learned French, Italian and English. Authorities believe in the neurological benefits of learning multiple languages.”
Schools in this country should share that ambition, he adds.
“I think U.S. schools will benefit by adopting these types of policies, first and foremost for the multicultural heritage the country has,” Rodriguez says. “It’s outstanding how diverse and culturally rich the United States is. Learning multiple languages will make people understand more about other cultures and people. When you learn a language, you learn its culture.”
Rodriguez, who is living and working in Uruguay while he completes his NIU dissertation, is responsible for crafting policy for all levels of education from first-grade through college.
His professional background fuels his passion for the job. He earned a bachelor’s degree in teaching English as a Second Language, a career he began in 1998. He’s also mentored dozens of teachers, designed educational materials, delivered workshops and seminars and served as the director of an institute for second languages.
Teaching also drives his Educational Psychology dissertation, which focuses on persistence in adult secondary school contexts.
“I started working at the adult schools. The population of this school is very unique since 100 percent of the students went through a negative experience with education, and they had to drop out of traditional education,” he says.
“Dropping out is something really common in this context. Sometimes you start with a class of 50 students, and only six or seven finish the school year,” he adds. “My questions were, ‘Who is successful? Who finished school? Why?’ ”
“When I read the profiles of the professors I was going to have, and the expertise they had on adult education, I just loved it,” Rodriguez says. “I had Dr. Jorge Jeria as my first mentor, and I think I couldn’t have made it to the end of the master’s course without his support.”
Staying at NIU for his Ph.D. brought the mentorship of Stephen Tonks, for whom Rodriguez became a three-year research assistant. Before returning home in 2015, he also worked as a TA and participated in a search committee.
“My experience at the LEPF department was one of the best in my life,” he says. “All the people who work there are just great, and they made me feel at home.”