Michigan State University & National Geographic Learning: Inspiration for TESOL Instructors

MSU Collage(Clockwise from top left: Dr. Neil J. Anderson, Tim Samaras, Trevor Frost, Jim Desler, Collin Blair, and Matthew Rynbrandt. Photos courtesy of H. A. Rehm.)

H. A. Rehm

On Saturday, April 13th, educators attended a workshop on integrating content-based instruction in an ESL curriculum. This one-day event was coordinated by National Geographic Learning and the English Language Center at Michigan State University.

National Geographic Learning has worked with several of their Explorers to develop interesting and informative ESL materials. In their presentations, Explorers Tim Samaras and Trevor Frost shared photos, videos, and stories from the field. Samaras, a severe storms researcher, is fascinated with lightning and tornados, and spends his time tracking, documenting, and sometimes fleeing from storms.  An awed hush fell over the room as the image of each tornado spun its destructive yet beautiful path toward the camera. Photographer and filmmaker Frost has traveled far and wide, mapping the largest system of caves in Gabon and shooting video footage of pristine Canadian wilderness.  Frost hopes to educate and empower park rangers to better protect the land.  These videos and photos got our attention, but what kept us engaged was the content and the Explorers’ obvious passion for it.  ESL classes can be exciting too, if the content is engaging. To that end, National Geographic Learning has incorporated the Explorers’ experiences into several series of ESL textbooks. (See ngl.cengage.com or contact Angela Shields angela.shields@cengage.com for more information.)

Jim Desler (MSU faculty) brought engaging content into the ESL classroom by designing a course in which students acted as cultural anthropologists to learn about American culture. Desler’s interest in cultural anthropology inspired the course, but he also provided an outline for developing a content course on any subject.  He stressed the importance of having both content and language goals to ensure that developing academic language isn’t neglected. Collin Blair and Matthew Rynbrandt (MSU faculty) presented a content-driven hybrid course, with online components and classroom lessons.  Each course has modules on various topics, which include video and audio recordings, games to check comprehension, and exercises to guide students as they develop their note-taking skills. The “Civil Rights and Rock” module, developed by Blair and Austin Kaufmann (MSU faculty), is one example of how they are pushing students beyond the ‘ordering in a restaurant’ and ‘culture shock’ basics of ESL content. Students in these hybrid courses and Desler’s cultural anthropology courses made great improvements in their English proficiency and presentation skills.

Dr. Neil J. Anderson discussed the importance of incorporating reading fluency into the ESL curriculum. He presented several classroom exercises that can help teachers and students assess both reading rate (in words per minute) and comprehension. In his classes, students chart their own progress as they move from being developing readers (low speed, limited comprehension) to fluent readers (increasing speed, greater comprehension). Anderson closed with a small homework assignment: to read one of several recommended articles, apply the teaching ideas in our own classes, and reflect on the experience.

The organizers demonstrated tremendous dedication in putting together a high-quality conference on a topic of great interest to new and veteran teachers. Samaras’s narrow escapes and Frost’s breathtaking video stirred our hearts. Desler, Blair, Rynbrandt, and others gave examples of innovative course models and logical evidence of their effectiveness.  Anderson put several tools in our teaching hands to put ideas into action. It was exciting and inspiring to see not only the teaching techniques presented, but also the collaboration among the university, the Explorers, and the publishers. Conference coordinator Austin Kaufmann speculated that this experimental one-time workshop may turn into an annual event.

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