As with every other facet in life, COVID-19 abruptly changed education systems around the world, forcing teachers to quickly adapt their curriculums to virtual learning. Latin America was no exception to this breakneck transition. Many teachers, especially public-school teachers, continue to struggle to teach online and engage their students virtually. As a result, more students could be left behind academically for years to come.
This challenge to the attention of Fulbright alumni Mathew Holloway and Leland Lazarus. Both served in Panama as Fulbright English Teaching Assistants (ETA) (Leland in 2013, Mathew in 2018), and continued to keep in touch with their former students there. “Towards the end of 2020 we had a virtual conversation with them, most of whom are now English teachers in their own right,” Mathew explained. “And they all expressed the desire to learn the latest best practices in teaching English as a Second Language virtually. That was the ‘a-ha’ moment for us.”
In the coming months, Mathew and Leland developed a 6-week workshop series entitled “COVID-19 & Education: Teaching ESL in the Virtual Classroom.” They recruited college, public school, and private teachers from Panama and Guatemala, and brought on board four other Fulbright Latin America ETA alumni who currently work as language teachers in the U.S. to serve as workshop facilitators: Maya Jain (ETA Peru 2018), Gwen Hoenke (ETA Peru 2018), Lara Gil (ETA Peru 2018), and Nicholas Valentini (ETA Guatemala 2018). Each week one of the alumni facilitated a discussion about online learning, activities, and teaching methods that have shown effectiveness in a virtual setting. Topics included using interactive games, education technology tools like Nearpod, “information gap” activities, and reading comprehension methods. The educators also shared their own best practices with their peers, making the workshop a truly holistic learning experience. Towards the end of the workshop, Colombian Fulbright scholar and Ph.D student at Purdue University Carolina Cuesta shared the latest research on the future and promise of online learning.
Mathew, the founder and executive director of a training and consulting firm Conversations by Courage, LLC, also taught sessions related to instructional design and provided resources like a textbook, lesson plan templates, and a mental health resource guide for teachers and students. He commented, “the goal was simple: we wanted to leverage the collective wisdom of all the teachers to design new or existing lesson plans that could be implemented right away in their respective classrooms.”
Following the sessions, participants received instructional feedback from the facilitators on their lesson plans and presented them in the final session to gather more insights from the group at large. “This workshop was very useful for me because I learned new and interesting techniques to apply with my students,” said one Panamanian teacher. To spread the knowledge, the participants will share those lesson plans with other teachers in their respective schools.
“The entire project reminds us that the most powerful asset we have in such unprecedented times is each other,” Mathew stated. “From the Fulbright alums who facilitated to the English teachers who learned with us, this is a testament to the power of community.”
“This course changed my life,” expressed another educator, an English teacher in Panama City. “At first, I did not know how to adapt to COVID…In this workshop, I learned to make lesson plan according to ages and groups, and I improved my methodology. I learned to use tools to teach English and be a better teacher.” Other educators taking part in the workshop agreed that the experience was similarly valuable.
“This workshop really highlighted the diverse needs of both English learners and English language teachers in this new pandemic reality,” said Lara Gil, who taught the reading comprehension module. “Some of the educators teach in the rural area where internet access is limited and unreliable; others teach in international bilingual schools. The workshop was very successful in building bridges across the geographical and cultural spaces that separate us to create a space where educators came together to work toward a common goal.”
For co-organizer Leland Lazarus, who served as a U.S. diplomat in China and the Caribbean, and now works for the Department of Defense, the workshop was a great way to keep collaborating with fellow Fulbrighters for a common purpose, even in the midst of COVID. “It’s my hope that this can serve as a template for other Fulbright ETA alumni to continue to connect with their communities around the world,” Leland said.
“If you’re a Fulbright ETA alum looking to reconnect with your former host country, we challenge you to take this model and create an opportunity for connection with ESL teachers there,” said Mathew. “We are more than happy to help.”