Language teachers get outfitted for America

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People strolling College Walk on the evening of July 31 were treated to an unusual sight: A crowd of men and women, dressed in traditional costumes from dozens of countries, had gathered around Alma Mater on the steps of Low Library to have their picture taken, looking for all the world like members of an Olympic pageant on opening night.

In fact, these 50 young language teachers, most in the U.S. for the first time, are participants in the Fulbright Language Teaching Assistant (FLTA) program. They were celebrating the end of a five-day orientation hosted by Columbia’s Language Resource Center (LRC) before shipping out to teach their native languages in the American hinterland — Russian in Kansas, Swahili in West Virginia.

According to LRC director Stephane Charitos, the orientation is meant to acclimate teachers to American academic culture and norms, such as how to create a syllabus and how to grade students. Columbia piloted the orientation four years ago, and now it’s in eight programs across the country. This year, some 450 people will teach 39 languages in 48 states. After a year, during which they can also take noncredit classes, they will go home, though some, Charitos says, may return to America for PhDs.

“We shouldn’t forget them,” says Charitos, who is working on ways to utilize the teachers’ experience. One idea is a peer-to-peer mentoring scheme — using the teaching assistants to train or mentor other FLTA participants in the U.S. “They’ve been here, they’ve been exposed, they know what the norms of teaching in America are,” Charitos says. He adds, “I’m hoping to be able to grow this.”

Visit http://www.lrc.columbia.edu/iie/.

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