BRATTLEBORO — Last Thursday morning I was seated at a table, blindfolded. Vincent Liu, a candidate in the Marlboro College MA in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) program and the presenter of this workshop, addressed us — a group of blindfolded participants. He asked us to try and feel the place setting in front of us. My fingers fumbled against a plate, fork, and spoon. Hands deposited three courses on our plates. Before each course Vincent asked us to call out what we tasted, and what we felt. The first two courses were surprising but easily identifiable: a Kitkat with a slice of strawberry on top, then a cracker with hummus and a slice of cheese, but the last one had us perplexed. "It tastes like a doughnut," someone called out "but is that cucumber in there?"
At the end of the "meal" we all took off our blindfolds and Vincent gave us strips of paper printed with one ingredient. He asked us to group the words together by course. Vincent's presentation sought to explore the boundaries of creativity to engage students in such a way that they almost forget that they are in a class. The whole experience was so new and whimsical, it was easy to overlook that what had seemed like a dinner party was also a method for introducing and reinforcing vocabulary.
Every summer for the last four years Marlboro's MATESOL second-year students organize a conference about English Language Education called the Bridges Conference. This year's cohort of presenters hailed from China, Morocco, Egypt, Argentina, Chile, Maine, Massachusetts, and New York. The topics of their presentations ranged from the role of identity and its implications for language teaching, applying TESOL pedagogy to teaching Chinese, designing games to motivate learning, critical literacy, practical teaching applications from neuroscience research, and using emotion to inspire students.
"It's not a project that they've been working on the whole year," Beverley Burkett (the program's chair) told me "but it does give them an opportunity to look back at their time in the program and select an aspect (of) their learning that they want to delve into or work with in some way and present that to peers."
The Bridges Conference is situated within a much larger landscape of regional, national, and international conferences in which English language educators come together to synthesize their practice and the latest research in the field. I asked Beverley about how her small community of learners fits into this world.
"The quality is actually incredibly good considering this is a student program." she told me. "Maybe beyond that, the relevance of this experience in particular is that it gives them the confidence to go out and do it in the world."
For example, she told me about a student who graduated last year who had been terribly nervous prior to the presentation but afterwards came up to Beverley and told her, "I've become me. I feel like I am someone in my own right now." The student went back to Saudi Arabia and actually presented with her husband at TESOL Arabia. "Doing the Bridges Conference actually gave her the confidence to do that," said Beverley.
"Other students have taken what they did in the conference here and built on it, and done it out in the world." she continued "I'm thinking of Leo Sloss, who did service learning for the Bridges Conference in 2013. He built on that presentation, adapted it for his context and did it in the Middle East (TESOL Arabia), and Jamie Polzin who did a presentation at the regional TESOL convention in Ohio."
Several alumni wrote to this year's cohort to share words of wisdom, having been through the conference themselves. Rebecca Lee, who is currently working as a Fulbright English Language Fellow in Vietnam and is expected to plan and participate in many conferences, wrote, "It's great to have had that trial run among peers. I hope it's a great day for all involved."
In addition to presenting, second year students are responsible for all of the "nuts-and-bolts" of organizing the conference. With such a full load of courses, it takes the entire learning community to successfully pull the event off, and even still it challenges them. This year was no exception, but I saw how clearly they valued each other and how each one had been shaped by working alongside their colleagues.
At the close of the conference we all stood around a giant poster dotted with the names of each presenter. We went around the circle and physically tied threads between presenters and named the links we saw between their work. Slowly we formed what looked like the spokes of a wheel or a spider web.
Kara Hamilton is the admissions counselor for education programs at Marlboro College Graduate and Professional Studies. She is also a Marlboro College undergraduate alum. She has lived and worked in Brattleboro for the last five years.