Monday, November 28, 2011

Study Abroad as Dropout Prevention?

By Marta Bechtol

Due to her father’s transient profession, Mary attended eight different schools in six states before she reached high school.  She developed an impressive social awareness and adeptness at integrating herself into new environments and local cultures. She learned to work with teachers and navigate school curriculum, maintaining honor student status everywhere she went.  By the time she reached 8th grade, she’d had exposure to French, Spanish, German, and Japanese classes and had discovered that she possesses a natural ear for languages.

Mary began 8th grade as a new student in a middle school serving grades 6-8. She wished to continue her French studies but was informed by the counselor that because she had not attended that school for grades 6 and 7, she would not be admitted into the middle school language program. The district politely informed her that she could begin language instruction at Level 1 when she reached high school. There was no mechanism for language proficiency assessment other than completion of the district’s prescribed curriculum.

Realizing that she would be starting over (again), Mary scrutinized the high school language programs and settled on German because she’d learned that the teacher was a native speaker of the language. Mary excelled in the class and also enjoyed AP offerings in World and European History.  However, the lock-step of the school’s general graduation requirements along with her perceived intrusion on the permanent and tightly knit student body left her feeling out of touch with the world she knew beyond Wisconsin.  Although she’d never been a slacker, Mary found herself disengaged during the school day and ended up making some of what are politely described as “poor choices.”

After several trips to the guidance counselor, Mary went home and announced that she was through with school. How could this be? She had always been such a brilliant student and under such extraordinary circumstances year after year! What could be done?  Mary determined that she would only stay in school if she could move. Her father had recently retired though; that easy window had closed. She went to see her counselor again regarding study abroad programs. Unfortunately, the counselor was a new educator with limited knowledge of these opportunities.  She was unaware of anything outside of Rotary International, an option that was out of range of the family budget.

Mary learned about the Department of Public Instruction’s Hessen exchange through a parental connection; no student from her high school had participated in the program before.  She connected deeply with new German friends and continued to explore additional study abroad options on her own. While waiting to board the plane for Frankfurt, Mary completed an online application for the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y). She was on a plane to Shanghai the week following her return from Germany.

Mary completed her basic graduation requirements and left high school at age 16. She is currently a junior in college majoring in both Mandarin and International Studies with a minor in German. She is enrolled this academic year at Peking University in Beijing, China. Had she not been able to identify study abroad programs that her family could afford, Mary would have simply wrapped up her secondary education as a drop-out statistic.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Make International Education Week Matter

Tom Lehrer’s 1967 song National Brotherhood Week was a skillful satire of the many days and weeks in honor of worthy causes. “It’s only for a week, so have no fear. Be grateful that it doesn’t last all year,” sings Lehrer.

It is up to us, to everyone in the classrooms, in school board rooms and in local, state, and federal administration, to make International Education Week matter. Let us not just pay lip service to the value of educating globally competent students, let us actually do something about it.

It is in this spirit that we join both Secretary Arne Duncan of the Department of Education and Secretary Hillary Clinton of the Department of State in celebrating International Education Week this year, November 14 – 18.

“[And] with the world’s economies and societies becoming more and more interdependent, it is almost impossible to distinguish between domestic and international issues,” says Duncan. “Therefore, we must work together to give all of our students an outstanding education, which includes learning about our global partners – their cultures, histories, languages, values, and viewpoints. We must focus on integrating international perspectives into our classrooms. It is through education and exchange that we become better collaborators, competitors and compassionate neighbors in this global society.”

Gilles Bousquet, Dean of International Studies and Vice Provost for Globalization at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, emphasizes that “we must recognize international education not as an “extra” in our schools, but as a critical component throughout K-16 education. For the future of our young people, our employers, our state and nation, the stakes have never been higher.”

Global Wisconsin demonstrates that educating for global competence is not lip service in many of our schools. From the youngest of elementary students to college graduates, these documentaries make a convincing case that international education is both essential to students and easily integrated with what they are learning every day.  The task at hand is to bring these wonderful local school programs to scale in all 425 Wisconsin school districts. School budgets are tighter than ever, and at this point we cannot be certain that global education and world language education programs will receive minimally adequate funding in the next federal budget.

Teachers are ready to meet the challenge of educating globally competent students as described by Arnie Duncan, Hillary Clinton, and Gilles Bousquet. The question is whether or not the spirit of International Education Week will generate sustainable efforts.

“We need students who are knowledgeable about the world and who have an understanding of how other cultures work and how other people think,” concludes Wisconsin’s State Superintendent Tony Evers.

Let’s make sure that International Education Week is “not only for a week.” Together, we will make it last all year every year.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

World Language Teachers Gather at Fall Conference

The annual fall conference of the Wisconsin Association for Language Teachers (WAFLT) is a vibrant gathering of some of the most dedicated teachers in the state. They meet for workshops and sessions on the first November weekend every year. About 1000 participants are expected at the Paper Valley Hotel in Appleton for WAFLT 2011. This is arguably the strongest teacher professional development conference in Wisconsin. The inspiring enthusiasm of attendees brings back new and seasoned teachers every year for meetings even on Friday evening and all day Saturday.

This is a true Wisconsin conference. Very few presenters come from other parts of the country, yet presentations are top notch and are often repeated at the regional and national levels. Wisconsin’s world language teachers take pride in sharing their teaching strategies and projects with others. This creates community, and it creates a solid foundation of professionalism.

World language teachers are often isolated in their school districts. Many schools are too small to employ several teachers for different languages which makes professional interaction and sharing difficult. They need the companionship and friendship of their peers.

This is a time to celebrate the success of Wisconsin world language teachers. Enrollment numbers are high at 54% of the student population. Teachers work hard at motivating and encouraging all students to study world languages and to study them for as long as possible. They know that a sequence of only two years of a world language cannot really achieve the proficiency levels that we associate with fluency in another language. Wisconsin’s world language teachers know that speaking another language is the key to understanding other cultures, that citizenship and employment opportunities are increasingly linked go global competence and proficiency in languages other than English. World language teachers go well beyond the call of duty to give their students opportunities of a lifetime: They take them abroad on student exchange programs, and they host students from other countries to bring the world to their often isolated school districts. They do this on weekends and evenings without additional pay or time off. And they do this during summer break: Not only do they give several weeks of their time, in most cases not only without pay but often even without the security of district liability insurance. If this sounds incredible to you, well, it is. It is incredible that Wisconsin’s world language teachers are that committed to the ultimate goal of educating globally competent students: to make this world a better place. It is also incredible that support for their dedicated work is not as strong as it should be.

Therefore, this week’s post on the Global Wisconsin blog is a big thank-you to all world language teachers in Wisconsin. You know where you can find them this weekend.