The full interview was broadcasted on Facebook Live and can be watched here.
Alissa Berdahl: I work with BridgeTEFL, and am here with Leah Donelson, BridgeEnglish’s Academic Manager. Leah, can you tell us a little bit about your background?Leah Donelson: I’ve been at Bridge for about 3 and a half years. I actually did my teacher training here at Bridge. I was a teacher for a while, then I moved into student services – housing, advising, things like that. Now, I’m the academic manager, and I do curriculum, teacher supervision, classes… I’m kind of seeing BridgeEnglish from a different viewpoint.
Leah and other Bridge Staff in Denver.
AB: So what kind of students have you worked with here at Bridge?LD: We generally have three different groups of students. We have a pretty big population of academic students, who come here with the goal of going to a US university. We also have business executives from different companies around the world, and their companies will send them here to improve their business English. Then, we have our general students. They can be tourists, or here visiting family, or living in the US for a while because they want to learn English. So those three are our main base of students.
AB: So let’s talk a little about this conference you attended. What is the TESOL conference for those who may not know?LD: TESOL is basically a professional development organization. It’s a community of English teachers around the world, and it’s a great community network that’s been around for a long time. So the conference is a great opportunity for these teachers to come together and meet new people, network, and learn about trends within the industry. It’s a really unique experience.
AB: So why did you as the academic manager here at BridgeEnglish attend this conference?LD: I went with a couple different ideas in mind. As the academic manager, I am always looking for new ideas to implement in our classrooms at Bridge. But also, I am a TEFL trainer here at Bridge. So I am always looking for the chances to meet new people and make connections, as well as learning about new ways to train teachers here so that we can keep everything current.
Leah and Bridge colleagues in downtown Chicago.
AB: What current trend that you learned about at the conference are you most looking forward to implementing in your classrooms?LD: I think technology was a really big thing this year. We have so many different methods in which we can use technology, and a lot of times we don’t. We get kind of stuck in using our book, playing audio, and that’s how we’ve done it for years. But today, every student has their phone with them every day. There are so many ways to utilize that, both inside and outside the classroom.
AB: Can you tell us a few ways that teachers can utilize this technology?LD: I went to several sessions specifically on this. For example, there’s a website called Kahoot, and it’s basically an online, interactive quiz game. You can write the quiz, and then students can log in individually on their own phones to answer the questions. You can set a time limit and decide a winner, so it’s a way to incorporate the phones that they already have.
There are other things for outside of class. One of the publishers of our curriculum has an application that goes with Ted Talks. Students are always asking, “teacher, how can we practice our listening?” I always suggest Ted Talks. But this company has come out with a great application in which students can actually go through vocabulary practice, do comprehension questions – it personalizes the experience and helps the student think beyond the talk. You can use it in the class, but also it’s totally accessible for students to use outside the class as well.
Inside the convention hall at the 2018 TESOL International Conference.
AB: What is the most exciting thing that you heard or you learned there?LD: One thing that stuck out was the theme of a “global English.” For years, we have had this standard in the industry of students learning English in native-speaking countries from native-speaking teachers. But that’s just not reality anymore. There are people learning and teaching all over the world. They aren’t just coming here to learn in Denver from Americans. They’re learning in their own countries and they’re learning from native teachers to their country. So it was a cool focus on not requiring this American accent, or this British accent. Communication is what’s important, and in the globalized society in which we live, that is crucial.
AB: Can you share your favorite session and what about it was interesting to you?LD: I had a lot of favorites, but one topic that I’ve been interested in for a while and seems to be amping up recently, is experiential learning. This is basically learning through experience, as it sounds. Another term that is used is service learning. They’re slightly different: experiential learning is basically connecting content of language learning through engagement; from doing something usually outside of the classroom, and being able to experience it and reflect on that, all the while thinking about this language that is supposed to be central to this. Service learning, quite similarly, has to do with helping people. There is a huge need in communities everywhere, so getting students to relate what they’re learning with real-world experience. Maybe that could mean volunteering at a homeless shelter, and then doing a presentation on their experience afterward. So it’s a way to incorporate all of that.
AB: How might this be used to engage students in the classroom?LD: It’s so important nowadays that we focus on community. It’s a great big world and we’re all in it together. I think it’s a matter of connecting reality outside those classroom walls with what you are learning. Culture is an extremely important part of language learning, in any country. Helping the people that live there can be really rewarding. And it’s also nice for the students to get out of the classroom sometimes. It’s nice to do something active, engaging, and different from the norm.
Leah teaching a class at Bridge's Denver campus.
AB: What are some of the best practices teachers can use to engage students in a 21st-century classroom?LD: It goes back to what I talked about with the idea of the “global English,” and considering the ways in which you conduct yourself on a daily basis. Also considering, especially in this globalized world, English is crucial - but it goes beyond language. For a business student, when they’re learning to negotiate, it’s not just about the words that come out. It’s important to deal cross-culturally. Nowadays no one is doing business only in their country. So students need to know not just the common language, but they need to learn how to deal culturally – not just with American culture or British culture, but all of these other cultures, because business is done everywhere in this way.
As far as technology goes, I know it can be tough to get out of our old mindsets. We all rely a lot on worksheets, and they do have their place. But we have to accept and embrace new ideas.
The last thing I would say about that is to vary the learning experience – not just the service or experiential learning I talked about, but other things in the classroom like task-based and project learning which are much more student-centered. They don’t always appear in the course books, so it’s something you need to plan more. But when you set it up like that, the learning becomes student-driven, and you’re there as a coach essentially. They’re discovering their own learning, basically. So that’s some of what sticks out to me as things we can implement.