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PEOPLE HELPING PEOPLE: UGA Gwinnett preparing teachers for multicultural classroom

By Jen Schumann and the instructor Dr. Sarah Shope

Culture and art was in the air last month at the University of Georgia Gwinnett campus, as the Global TESOL Certificate Program kicked off its Cultural Presentation Series with popular speakers and interesting music. The program, which is offered through the University of Georgia Center for Continuing Education, is designed to prepare individuals to Teach English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) in communities, outside of the public school setting.

The program kicked off its exciting series on March 1, with visits from Atlanta radio and television personality, Jennifer Keitt, and a talented musical duo, Sarah and Mac, from the Dalton State College Gilmer Center in Ellijay. You might wonder what these presentations have to do with teaching English, but it is exactly this type of cultural exchange that has such a powerful impact on the students in the program.

To start off the morning, the students heard from Jennifer Keitt, the host of Kiss FM 104’s Jennifer Keitt Show. Keitt is a frequent contributor to Headline News TV, and has appeared on Dr. Drew's On Call and Raising America with Kyra Phillips. As she spoke to program’s 50 students, Keitt focused on the six stages of cultural identity construction, and explored how an individual’s cultural and ethnic identity affects his or her views of self, of others, and of the world in general. Understanding this process helps teachers of English to better understand not only their students, but also their own personal journey of identity.

“Jennifer Keitt is a powerful and captivating speaker,” said Jeanne Le, one of the students in the course. “It made me think about my own identity formation. Do I see myself as others would see me? How did I get this way? Why did I become this way? She certainly provides plenty of food for thought.”

The first guests of the afternoon were Sarah Elizabeth Bryan and William Mac Lacey, who perform a mixture of Appalachian and Americana music, complete with Mac’s “Cajon” percussion and Sarah’s original lyrics and incredible voice and guitar. They served as an inspiration to the TESOL students, who were being asked to put some creativity into the cultural presentations they would be giving in the upcoming weeks. Those presentations covered cultural aspects from interesting locations all over the world, including Turkey, Germany, China, Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, France, Belize and Costa Rica. In the late afternoon, visitors from the Islamic Speakers Bureau gave a presentation, designed to increase the students’ understanding of Muslims in the United States and abroad.

One of the greatest benefits of the program is the TESOL students’ opportunity to interact with others from a diverse range of cultures, languages, ages, and backgrounds. They are able to hold productive conversations about culture and diversity because their instructors and guest speakers are accustomed to fielding sensitive questions and helping the future teachers learn how to handle issues of prejudice, stereotyping, and racism. The founder and instructor of the program, Dr. Sarah Anne Shope, says “One of the main goals of the course is to develop multicultural educators who can help their students better move through the stages of cultural identity construction, and avoid the ‘us and them’ cautions of culture.”

Shope credits a great deal of the program’s success to the guest speakers from the community and the former students who return to share their teaching experiences at home and abroad.

“The program appeals to such a wide variety of students, from au pairs and college students to business professionals and retirees. We have career changers, ministry volunteers and military spouses,” said Shope. “We have so many different kinds of students, and they all go out and do amazing things. The world really opens up for them. It makes us feel incredibly lucky that they want to return to our class to share their experiences and adventures.”

For the past four years, the program has been running successfully at the UGA Gwinnett campus, and currently trains approximately 100 students per year to teach English in local areas and throughout the world. The students, many of whom live in Gwinnett County, take four separate courses that prepare them to develop and instruct the English courses they will teach. All of the courses contain outside activities, designed to get prospective teachers involved in teaching environments and cross-cultural activities.

Throughout the program, the students gain a better understanding of linguistics and language acquisition, and discover teaching strategies and techniques that truly motivate students and foster an interactive classroom. In addition, the students are exposed to the information and resources available to professionals in their new field, as well as local and overseas job opportunities.

After such a successful few years, it’s no wonder the program is expanding. Shope recently partnered with a former student, Amine Issa, to start a new “Teaching Accent Reduction” course, which TESOL program graduates can take to further their TESOL education. Issa, who has a master’s degree in International Affairs from George Washington University and speaks six languages, is thrilled to be returning to the Global TESOL Certificate program as a teacher.

Said Issa, “I have always been intrigued by languages and how people acquire them. I became involved in a volunteer program to teach ESL and was instantly gratified by the thrill of a student’s “aha” moment upon learning English… I earned my Global TESOL Certificate in 2013 and today I continue to run both a volunteer ESL program and teach ESL related topics to international students and professionals. The classes and formalizing my credentials were well worth it!“

People Helping People is a publication of the Gwinnett Coalition for Health & Human Services.

For more information contact Ellen Gerstein - ellen@gwinnettcoalition.org or at 770-995-3339.